“A melodic genius with tender, sympathetic lyrics and infectious rhythm, Stephen Foster is often credited as "America's First Composer" and widely regarded as one of the first who made professional songwriting profitable. Fosters' songs were the first genuinely American in theme, characterizing love of home, American temperament, river life and work, politics, battlefields, slavery and plantation life.” – Song Writer’s Hall of Fame
"Stephen Foster is one of the most enduring figures in 19th century American music -- a status borne out by the fact that he and his music are still being discussed in the 21st century. ...Stephen Foster still looms astonishingly large over American popular music and popular culture. His songs, including "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home" (better known as "Swanee River," "Camptown Races," and "Beautiful Dreamer," remain among the best-known standards in American music, 150 years after they were written.” – Bruce Eder All Music Guide
Birth in Lawrenceville
Stephen Collins Foster was born on July 4th 1826 in a white cottage on a hill above the Allegheny River on his family’s 171 acre estate in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Pa. The ninth child of William Barclay and Eliza T. Foster's ten children, little Stephen became the baby of the family after his youngest brother died as an infant. The Fosters were a socially and politically prominent Pittsburgh family. Stephen’s grandfather James Foster, who came to Pittsburgh in 1796 when it was a small frontier settlement with 1,300 residents, was a prosperous land owner and a founder of Washington-Jefferson College. His father William Barcley Foster held several government posts including three terms in the Pennsylvania State Legislature and two terms as the Mayor of Allegheny City. After a series of financial set backs the Fosters lost their Lawrenceville property and to moved to Alleghany City on Pittsburgh’s north side in 1832.
Stephen showed his musical ability at the age of two picking out melodies on his sister Ann Eliza’s guitar. After quickly learning the flageolet at age six Stephen advanced to the flute. Stephen was tutored in music by his older sisters who had studied piano and voice with composer W.C. Peters. Henry Kleber, a German trained composer and Pittsburgh music store owner, became Stephen’s musical mentor teaching him classical and religious music, parlor ballads, and dance tunes. At the age of nine Stephen joined a neighborhood thespian society that put on shows for family and friends in a carriage house. Stephen was the star of the show singing popular minstrel songs such as “Jim Crow” and Coal Black Rose”. With the proceeds from the shows Stephen and his thespian friends bought tickets to the Pittsburgh Theatre to hear T.D. Rice and other early minstrel performers.
Influenced by the Minstrel Music of T.D. Rice
In addition to Henry Kleber, who taught young Stephen melodious romantic parlor music, the other musician who influenced Foster was the minstrel singer-dancer T.D. Rice. Sometime around 1830 Rice developed the black faced character “Jim Crow” and wrote the popular song “Jump Jim Crow”. Some histories report that the Jim Crow character was originated by Rice when he was performing in Pittsburgh. Other accounts claim that Rice originated Jim Crow in Louisville, Kentucky. W.C. Peters wrote the piano accompaniment and published the first sheet music for “Jump Jim Crow”. Rice, who became popular in the America and Europe, is credited by music historians as the "Father of American Minstrelsy." Rice performed frequently at the Pittsburgh Theater on Third Street and became friends with Stephen Foster in the early 1840s.
Using Rice’s ideas several popular minstrel groups were formed and the format of the minstrel show was created. Minstrel shows featured white performers in black face performing what they called “Negro songs” or “Ethiopian music”. In the hey day of slavery racist white men disgracefully parodied black Americans as less than human singing and dancing fools. Rowdy, raunchy and raw minstrel music was the rock and roll of its day. The most popular groups of the era, the Christy Minstrels and the Sable Harmonists appeared frequently in Pittsburgh.
Growing up before the establishment of public schools, Stephen Foster was educated in several private boarding academies around Western Pennsylvania including the Athens Academy in Athens, Pa. In 1841 at age 15 Foster performed his first composition "The Tioga Waltz" on flute at the Athens Academy commencement ceremonies. After dropping out of Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pa, Stephen studied privately while living with his parents in Pittsburgh from 1841 to 1846. He was not interested in academic studies. Music was his passion.
Singing with the Knights and First Published Song
As a teen Stephen and his friend Charles Shiras formed an all-male singing society called the Knights of the Square Table. The five member club met secretly and referred to themselves as the “Five Nice Young Men”. They met at Fosters home twice a week to sing parlor ballads and minstrel songs. They sang T.D. Rice’s “Jump Jim Crowe” and other early popular minstrel tunes. Stephen wrote his earliest songs for the club. The Knights of the S.T. performed a family concert at the Foster House singing for the first time Foster’s original songs "Lousiana Belle", "Old Uncle Ned", "Oh! Susanna" and “Open Thy Lattice Love". The parlor ballad “Open Thy Lattice Love" was written to the lyrics of a poem by George P. Morris. Printed by a Philadelphia music publisher in 1844 it was the 18 year old Foster’s first published song, but it gained little recognition. Stephen’s parents called his musical ability and his interest in song writing a “strange talent.”
Book Keeping in Cincinnati
In 1846 Foster’s parents decided it was time for the twenty year old Stephen to get a job. They arranged for Stephen to take a booking keeping job with a merchant firm in Cincinnati owned by his older brother Dunning. Stephen moved to Cincinnati where he became a competent book keeper. In his spare time Stephen made friends with the minstrel groups who performed in Cincinnati and gave them copies of his songs.
New Eagle Saloon Premieres Oh! Susanna
Back in Pittsburgh Morrison Foster was busy promoting his little brother Stephen’s music. The Eagle Ice Cream Saloon was a popular spot for music in downtown Pittsburgh. The Kneass Opera Troupe appeared regularly at the saloon. Morrison submitted Stephen’s song “Away Down Souf” to Nelson Kneass for a song contest at the Eagle Saloon held on September 8th in 1847. The song didn’t win but Morrison submitted another song to Kneass. “Oh! Susanna” was performed for the first time publicly on September 11, 1847 by the Kneass Opera Troupe at the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon. Kneass added several of Foster’s songs to his Opera Troupe repertoire and performed them regularly. “Oh! Susanna” became a national hit after performances by the Christy Minstrels in New York and by the pianist Henri Hetz at Manhattan’s Tabernacle Theatre in 1948. The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets. People all over country were singing it. Within a year it was being sung by 49ers in the mining camps of California gold rush. W.C. Peters published the sheet music for “Oh! Susanna”. Paying Foster $100 for the publishing rights Peters earned $10,000 in sales. Two-dozen other publishing firms printed pirated copies. Foster made little money on “Oh Susanna” but he was now a song writing super star.
Return to Pittsburgh to Compose
In 1849 Foster quit his book keeping job in Cincinnati to return to Pittsburgh to pursue his song writing career. He moved back to his parent’s house in Alleghany where he spent the next six years writing songs in his study. Foster married Jane Denny MacDowell in 1850 and their daughter Marion was born in 1851. Taking a delayed honeymoon in 1852, Foster and his wife made their only trip to the South taking a stream boat to New Orleans.
At age 23 with several published compositions under his belt Foster signed a contract with the music New York publishing firm Firth, Pond, & Co. giving him a royalty of two cents per copy of sheet music sold. Working in his study at his parent’s house he wrote his ideas for melodies and song lyrics in a thick sketchbook. Laboring for hours over the smallest details he carefully composed and polished the words, melody, and accompaniment for his songs. He worked intensely and passionately. Isolated in his study he flew into a rage at any noise or interruption from his family. Foster created a new unique sound by blending lyrical parlor song melodies with minstrel era staccato syncopated banjo rhythms. With sing-able melodies and sentimental lyrics home and love Foster’s music spread in popularity.
Foster’s goal was to write simple lyrics and melodious music that could be understood by people of all groups. In the 1850s minstrel music was the most popular and most powerful force in American music, but it was racist in its stereotypic portrayal of African Americans. Turning against the demeaning lyrics of “Jim Crow” minstrel songs that mocked slaves as comic characters, Foster set out to reform minstrel music. He may have been influenced to reform minstrel music by his boyhood friend Charles Shiras, a leader in the Pittsburgh abolitionist movement. In his early minstrel songs like “Away Down Souf” Foster followed the T.D. Rice style writing lyrics in a southern dialect with offensive words. In the 1850s Foster humanized the characters in his songs asking the listeners to sympathize with their tragic plights. Many of his songs portrayed the yearnings for home, family, and love common to all people regardless of class or ethnicity. Writing about sympathetic characters and themes Foster referred to his minstrel music as “plantation songs". Dropping the southern dialect altogether from his lyrics he later referred to his songs as "American melodies." .
Christy Minstrels Promote Foster's Music
To promote his music Foster made an arrangement with E.P. Christy. Foster gave the Christy Minstrels, who were the most popular minstrel show in the 1850’s, the exclusive right to premiere his songs for a small fee. In return for these premiere performances the Christy Minstrels received credit on cover of the sheet music with the title “As sung by the Christy Minstrels". Writing instructions to E.P. Christy Foster asked that his songs be performed to evoke compassion for the characters. One of Foster’s most prolific years was 1850 when he published 15 songs. During his time in Pittsburgh in the 1850s Foster write most of his best-known songs for the Christy Minstrels including: “Nelly Was a Lady” (1849), "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River", 1851), "Farewell, My Lilly Dear" (1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854). At the height of his career at age 27 his New York publisher promoted Foster as "THE SONGWRITER OF AMERICA."
The song “Nelly Was a Lady” published in 1849 was a turning point in Foster’s music. Referring to an African American woman as a "lady” Foster showed his more humanistic side. Commenting on the ballad "Old Uncle Ned" abolitionist Frederick Douglass lauded the song for its ability to "awaken sympathies for the slave. The song “Angelina Baker" laments about a slave who has unjustly been sent away by the "old Massa". Foster’s most popular song "Old Folks at Home/Swanee River" expressed the universal yearning for home, family, and happiness.
Jane separated from Stephen in 1853 taking their daughter away. His family said the Jane did not care for music and wanted Stephen to give up songwriting. Stephen was also drinking heavily. Jane moved in with her mother. Longing for his wife Stephen wrote the song "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair". Alone Foster moved to New York City in 1854. He was a celebrity in New York and was sought out by the newspapers. Later that year he reunited with Jane and Marion and moved to Hoboken, New Jersey. While in Hoboken Firth, Pond, & Co published collection of instrumental parlor arrangements titled the “Social Orchestra”. It contained 73 arrangements of classical pieces by Donizetti, Jullien, Abt, Mozart, Schubert, and Foster for flute, violin, piano, and other instruments. Foster published the “Social Orchestra” seeking respectability away from minstrel music, but he earned only $150. After a few months in Hoboken, Stephen returned to his parent’s Pittsburgh home and was joined later by his wife and daughter.
Hard times hit Stephen Foster when he returned to Pittsburgh in 1855. With the recession of of 1850s unemployment was high. Stephen’s parents took in borders to make ends meet. Within a few months his mother, father, and brother Dunning died. Hit by economic and family problems Foster wrote the song "Hard Times Come Again No More”. It was the first song ever written about economic crisis. It became a lasting anthem for hard times recorded by Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Nancy Griffith, and Emmylou Harris, and others.
The hard times continued for Foster, when he went into a creative slump. He wrote less, drank more, and earning very little. Foster wrote only four new songs in 1855. He wrote only two songs in 1856, the James Buchanan campaign songs "The White House Chair" and "The Abolition Show". To survive he went into debt drawing advances from his publishers. Unable to supply new songs and still struggling for cash in 1857 Foster sold the future royalty rights for his songs to Firth, Pond & Co for $1,872.28. Paying back the $1,396.64 in advances that he owed the publisher, he netted $203.36. Foster no longer commanded respect as he had not written a hit song in seven years. He returned to writing minstrel music to cash in on its popularity. In 1860 he wrote one of his most memorable and infamous songs "Old Black Joe" in 1860.
Move to New York City
Trying to restart his career Foster moved to New York City with his wife and daughter in 1860. But his financial problems and drinking put a strain on his marriage. A year later his wife left him returning to Pittsburgh to take a job as a telegrapher on the Pennsylvania Railroad. She never lived with Stephen again. Foster spent the rest of his life living alone in boarding houses in the Bowery and hanging out in shabby bar rooms. He was a forgotten improvised alcoholic song writer. With the economic uncertainty of the Civil War years music publishers refused to pay royalties on sheet music sales. They purchased songs for a one time fee. In need of cash Foster no longer spent intense hours working on the minute details of each song. He quickly dashed out tunes selling them for a few dollars. Foster wrote prolifically from 1861 and 1863 publishing seventy-six songs. But given their mediocre quality his new songs sold poorly.
During this period he wrote three civil war songs "I'll Be a Soldier," "Was My Brother in the Battle?" and "We Are Coming, Father Abraam." In 1862 Foster took on a writing partner lyricist George Cooper. They sold their first song for $25 and wrote almost two dozen others. The duo wrote several humorous songs for musical theater audiences. But Foster drank constantly and subsisted on apples and turnips. When drunk he would entertain his fellow drinkers in the bar singing his theme song “Hard Times”.
In the final disparate days, Foster wrote his last great song, a song of hope, “Beautiful Dreamer". After suffering alone for days with a fever Foster collapsed. Shattering a wash basin he cut his neck. George Cooper found him lying in a pool of blood begging for a drink. Three days later on January 13, 1864 Stephen Foster died at Bellevue Hospital, just two weeks after writing “Beautiful Dreamer”. Only 37 years old he died with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper that read, "Dear friends and gentle hearts”. “Beautiful Dreamer” was published after his death.
Foster was a pioneering music industry innovator who created lasting music, but who failed financially. He created an American popular music sound blending melodious parlor music with the rhythms of minstrel music. The popularity of his songs boosted the sheet music publishing industry. Prior to the publication of Foster’s music the best selling sheet music sold 5,000 copies. "Oh! Susanna" sold an estimated hundred thousand copies. But not being a performer his income was limited royalties from the sale of sheet music and outright sales of songs to publishers for one time fees. Foster earned a two cent royalty on every twenty-five cent copy of sheet music sold. When Foster signed his publishing agreements there were no legal precedents for music contracts or entertainment lawyers. Due lax copyright enforcement and weak copyright laws Foster received little of the profits that publishers earned with this music. He earned nothing from the unauthorized illegal copies of his sheet music. The copyright laws did not grant him rights to sales of printed lyrics and for printed arrangements of his songs by other musician. In the early history of American as there no "performing rights" fees Foster earned nothing from the performance of his music. During his career he earned $15,091.08 in royalties, giving him a yearly average earnings of $1,371 for his 11 most productive years. Jane and Marion earned $4,199 in royalties after his death. The total recorded royalties for Foster’s music was $19,290. Given today’s copyright laws, performance rights, and radio airplay fees he would have earned millions. Ripped off by unscrupulous publishers, the Father of American Music died penniless. He pioneered the fate that many future musicians suffered when they signed away their publishing rights in return for record contracts.
Stephen Foster has been remembered with many honors. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970 and the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.
"My Old Kentucky Home" became the official state song of Kentucky and "Old Folks at Home" became the state song of Florida.
The University of Pittsburgh erected the Stephen Foster Memorial, a performing arts center, museum and archive. The state of Florida operates the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park on the banks of the legendary Swannee River.
Three movies were made about Stephen Foster: Harmony Lane (1935) with Douglass Montgomery, Swanee River (1939) with Don Ameche, and I Dream of Jeanie (1952), with Bill Shirley.
Foster’s music is still being performed and recorded today. The songs of Stephen Foster are featured on the CD “Beautiful Dreamer" that won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005. Performing on the CD are Alison Krauss, Mavis Staples, Raul Malu, John Prine, Ron Sexsmith, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, and Suzy Bogguss.