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Stephen Foster was the first nationally recognized songwriter from the United States and is referred to as the “father of American music” and “the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century.” He popularized black minstrel and parlor music, writing more than 200 songs over the course of his career. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs, including “Oh! Susanna”, “Beautiful Dreamer”, and “My Old Kentucky Home,” feature in children’s music curriculum to this day.

Early Life and Education

Stephen Collins Foster was born on July 4, 1826, at the family cottage near the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, a city east of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. His parent’s William B. Foster and Eliza Tomlinson bore ten children in total, but he became the youngest when his one younger sibling died. He received private tutoring from a young age and then entered into other private schools in Pennsylvania.

Foster expressed an interest in music from a young age.[1] He taught himself how to play the violin, guitar, piano, clarinet, and flute. He learned from a music dealer from Germany, but now located in Pittsburg named Henry Kleber. Kleber sold instruments along with being a conductor, accompanist, and songwriter. [2]

Foster attended Jefferson College, now Washington and Jefferson College, in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Although he did not pay for tuition out of pocket, he had very little money to spend. He went on a trip to Pittsburg with fellow student and never returned to university. [3]

Influences and Musical Career

The parlor ballads of William Dempster and Henry Russell and songs from blackface minstrel performances experienced by Stephen Foster in his youth greatly influenced his later music.

Stephen Foster’s musical talent emerged at a young age.

At the age of 14, he composed the “Tioga Waltz.” His published his first musical work in 1844, “Open thy lattice love,” a French-style folk song using a poem by George Pope Morris.

Foster first worked in Cincinnati, Ohio for Dunning, his brother’s steamship company as a bookkeeper from 1846-1849. His parents and older siblings preferred Foster to enter into a normal life within an established industry, but he continued his musical interests and wrote his instant hit, “Susanna” (now known as “Oh! Susanna). The California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1849 turned this song into their anthem. He soon signed a contract with Firth, Pond, & Co., a group of publishers from New York, in 1849. He returned to Pittsburg the following year and married Jane Denny McDowell. Despite his family’s disapproval, Foster began writing songs professionally and continued to do so until his death.[4]

By this time, Foster personally composed 12 songs. He and Jane produced a daughter named Marion Foster and they took a month-long, late honeymoon on a steamship to New Orleans. He moved to New York in 1853 to work more closely with his publishers. Jane relocated to Hoboken, New Jersey about a year later before they both returned to Pittsburg near the end of 1854. The family lived with Foster’s parents at first, but moved through several boarding homes after his parent’s died in 1855. [5]

Songs of Stephen Foster

In January 1854, Stephen Foster collected and produced 73 of melodies written by himself and other composers into an instrumental arrangement of solos, duets, trios, and quartets for dancing in social settings. He focused more on parlor ballads the same year and wrote “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” for his wife and “Hard Times Come Again No More” in 1854, “Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming” and his one song about temperance “Comrades Fill No Glass for Me” in 1855, and “Gentle Annie” in 1856. “Beautiful Dreamer” was one of his most famous songs, other than “Oh! Susanna.” Although written in 1862, it was not published until after he died.

Many of Foster’s songs appropriated black minstrel music. His 1848 song, “Nelly was a Lady,” was the first occasion of a white author depicting a black couple as loving and faithful and emphasized referring to the wife as “lady.” He wrote many of his early minstrel songs with a dialect and other vernacular specificities, but stopped by the early 1850s. He instead took on a more parlor ballad style and published “My Old Kentucky Home, Good-night!” and “Old Dog Tray” in 1853.

Later he wrote more jovial tunes that combined instrumentals with folk songs, including, Nelly Bly”, “Angelina Baker”, and “Camptown Races” in 1850 and “Ring, Ring de Banjo! in 1851. Other minstrel songs include “Old Folks at Home” and “Oh! Boys, carry me ‘long” in 1851, and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” in 1852.

Success and Death

Stephen Foster’s parents did not need to worry about Foster being successful. He managed to not only succeed, but achieve national fame in a nonexistent music industry. Especially considering it would be another 13 years after his death before the invention of sound recording and another 66 years for the radio.

Stephen Foster’s relatable and memorable songs continue to endure almost 200 years after first being written.

He never received a “performing rights” fee and could not sell his songs with the help of agents or publishers since that system did not exist. The only money he earned came from royalties on sheet music and they only paid 5-10%. As a musician today, his profits would be in the millions.[6]

Foster contracted a fever while in the Bowery Hotel on January 10, 1864. In his weakened state, he fell and severed his neck. George Cooper discovered him naked in a pool of his own blood. Foster whispered, “I’m done for,” and then asked Cooper for a drink. He died on January 13, 1864, in Bellevue Hospital with only 38 cents in a leather purse and a note in his pocket that read, “dear friends and gentle hearts.”[7] Foster is buried next to his parents in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.[8]


References

Bibliography


Center for American Music. (2014). Biography of Stephen Foster. Retrieved September 22, 2016, from The Center for American Music, http://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/Fosterbiography.htm

Emerson, K. (1998). Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. New York: Da Capo Press.

Emerson, K., & MacLowry, R. (1999). American Experience: Stephen Foster. PBS.org.

Miller Haines, K. (2012, May ). Foster Hall Collection. University of Pittsburgh’s Digital Research Library.

Footnotes

  1. Center for American Music, 2014
  2. Miller Haines, 2012
  3. Emerson, 1998
  4. Miller Haines, 2012
  5. Center for American Music, 2014
  6. Center for American Music, 2014
  7. Emerson & MacLowry, 1999
  8. Find A Grave. (2001, January 1). Stephen Foster (1826 - 1864). Find A Grave Memorial.

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