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.
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:
- The American classical composer Charles Ives freely quoted a wide variety of Foster's songs in many of his own works.
- Three Hollywood movie biographies have been made of Foster - Harmony Lane (1935) with Douglass Montgomery, Swanee River (1939 film) (1939) with Don Ameche, and I Dream of Jeanie (1952), with Bill Shirley (who years later was Jeremy Brett's singing voice in My Fair Lady). The first and third of those screen biographies were low budget affairs made by B film studios, although the '52 version was in color, but the 1939 film was one of Twentieth Century Fox's more ambitious efforts, also in Technicolor.
- Journalist Nellie Bly took her pseudonym from the title character of Foster's song Nelly Bly.
- The alt-country song Tennessee, written by Virginia poet David Berman and performed with his band the Silver Jews, includes the line: "Her doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster; her sister never left and look what it cost her."
- Foster is referenced in a memorable exchange between Doc Holiday (val Kilmer) and Billy Clanton (Thomas Hayden Church) in the film Tombstone.
- The Squirrel Nut Zippers' track Ghost of Stephen Foster refers to many of his songs by name.
- De La Salle University-Manila, a university in the Philippines uses his song Beautiful Dreamer as the tune of the school bell during regular days.
- My Old Kentucky Home is the official state song of Kentucky, adopted by the General Assembly on March 19, 1928.
- Old Folks at Home is the official state song of Florida, designated in 1935.
- "Stephen Foster Super Saturday" is a day of thoroughbred racing during the Spring/Summer meet at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. During the call to the post, selections of Stephen Foster songs are played by the track bugler, Steve Buttleman. The day is headlined by the Stephen Foster Handicap a Grade I turf race for older horses.
- Jackie Gleason, playing Ralph Kramden on the television series The Honeymooners, incorrectly answers "Ed Norton" as the writer of Swanee River on the game show The $99,000 Answer.
- In the song Everybody Knows, Leonard Cohen references the Foster song Old Black Joe : "Everybody knows that the deal is rotten/Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton/for your ribbons and bows/and everybody knows."
- In Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, the plot of the episode "Coon Tunes" centres on the Stephen Foster song Uncle Ned.
- In An American Tail, Warren T. Rat plays "Beautiful Dreamer" on a violin, accompanied by player piano.
- In the Cohen brothers' film, Barton Fink, the character W.P. "Bill" Mayhew sings Stephen Foster's Old Black Joe while intoxicated.
- In the movie Georgia (1995), Mare Winningham sings Stephen Foster's 1854 song Hard Times Come Again No More.
- Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his version of Old Black Joe in 1960, as well as Beautiful Dreamer in the 1980s.
- There is a scene in the movie Blazing Saddles that highlights Camptown Races; with a nod to the origins of the song, the minstrel-show style of the white singers is derided by the black men listening
- In the Looney Tunes cartoons, Foghorn Leghorn often "sings" Camptown Races, humming most of the song and only singing the chorus "doo dah, doo dah".
- In 2004 Angry Yodelling Banjoist Curtis Eller recorded an homage entitled "Stephen Foster" on the album "Taking Up Serpents Again" by Curtis Eller's American Circus.
- Squirrel Nut Zippers immortalised Stephen Foster in their song " The ghost of Stephen Foster "
- 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.