Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

[faw-ster, fos-ter]

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music," was the pre-eminent songwriter in the United States of the 19th century. His songs, such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") remain popular over 150 years after their composition.


Early life

Stephen Foster lived in Lawrenceville, now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up as the ninth of ten children in a middle-class family that would eventually become near destitute after his father's fall into alcoholism. Foster's education included one month at college (Washington & Jefferson College) but little formal music training. Despite this, he published several songs before the age of twenty. His first piece appeared when he was 18.

Foster was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber (1816-1897) and Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who immigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, and who was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. The latter was an entertainer –- a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. These two very different musical worlds created a tension for the teenage Foster. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best work.


In 1846 Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati Foster penned his first hit songs, among them "Oh! Susanna". It would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848–1849. In 1849 he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the hit song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels.

Then he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.

Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.

Although many of his songs held Southern themes, Foster never lived there and visited the Deep South only once, on a river-boat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1852 on his honeymoon.

Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered a pioneer in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Consequently, due in part to the poor provisions for music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster saw very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, paying Foster nothing. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes would decline, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. He began working with George Cooper early in 1863 whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War helped ruin the commercial market for newly written music.


Stephen Foster died at the age of thirty-eight. He had been impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. He had thirty-eight cents at the time of his passing. He died at Bellevue Hospital in New York three days after his admittance. His brother Henry described the accident in the New York theater-district hotel that led to his death: confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Foster tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital, and in that era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days. In his worn leather wallet when he died, there was a scrap of paper that simply said "Dear friends and gentle hearts". Foster is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. One of his best loved works, "Beautiful Dreamer", which adorned many music boxes, was published shortly after his death.


Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburgh campus with the Stephen Foster Memorial, a landmark building that houses the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center for American Music, as well as two theatres: the Charity Randall Theatre and Henry Heymann Theatre, both performance spaces for Pitt's Department of Theater Arts. It is the largest repository for original Stephen Foster compositions, recordings, and other memorabilia.

A public sculpture by Giuseppe Moretti honoring Stephen Foster and commemorating his song "Uncle Ned" sits in close proximity to the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh.

In My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky, a musical, called Stephen Foster-The Musical has been performed since 1958. There is also a statue of him next to the Federal Hill mansion, where he visited relatives and is the inspiration for My Old Kentucky Home.

Georgia named Stephen C. Foster State Park in his honor.

The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida is a Florida State Park named in his honor.

Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Park in Pennsylvania is named in his honor as well.

In Alms Park in Cincinnati, overlooking the Ohio River, there is a seated statue of Stephen Foster.

Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.

Eighteen of Foster's compositions were recorded and released on the "Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster" collection. Among the artists that are featured on the album are John Prine, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples and Suzy Bogguss. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.

The Lawrenceville Historical Society, together with the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, hosts the annual Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival (Doo Dah Days!). Held the first weekend of July, Doo Dah Days! celebrates the life and music of one the most influential songwriters in America's history.

Douglas Jimerson the Tenor from Baltimore who has released CD's of music from the Civil War era, released "Stephen Foster's America" in 1998.

References in popular culture

Stephen Foster's memory has been preserved in the following works, media and events:



  • Emerson, Ken (1998). Doo Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80852-8.
  • Charles Hamm (1979). Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (Chapter 10, "Old Folks at Home, or, the Songs of Stephen Foster"). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-01257-3.

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