Stephen Foster

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Stephen Foster
Stephen Foster.jpg
Born (1826-07-04)July 4, 1826
Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died January 13, 1864(1864-01-13) (aged 37)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Songwriter
Years active 1844 – 1864
Notable work(s) "Angelina Baker", "Beautiful Dreamer", "Camptown Races", "Gentle Annie", "The Glendy Burk", "Hard Times Come Again No More", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Oh! Susanna", "Old Black Joe", "Old Folks at Home"

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music", was an American songwriter primarily known for his parlor and minstrel music. Foster wrote over 200 songs; among his best-known are "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races," "Old Folks at Home," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," "Old Black Joe," and "Beautiful Dreamer." Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them.

Early life and education[edit]

Foster attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens and Towanda, Pennsylvania. He received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin and Greek, and mathematics. In 1839, his elder brother William was serving his apprenticeship as an engineer at nearby Towanda and thought Stephen would benefit from being under his supervision. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens, and 15 miles from Towanda. Stephen attended Athens Academy from 1839 to 1841. He wrote his first composition, Tioga Waltz, while attending Athens Academy, and performed it during the 1841 commencement exercises; he was 14. It was not published during the composer's lifetime, but it is included in the collection of published works by Morrison Foster. In 1842, Athens Academy was destroyed in a fire.

His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (now Washington & Jefferson College).[1][nb 1] His tuition was paid, but Foster had little spending money.[1] Sources conflict on whether he left willingly or was dismissed;[3] but, either way, he left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and didn't return.[1]

During his teenage years, Foster was influenced greatly by two men. Henry Kleber (1816–1897), one of Stephen’s few formal music instructors, was a classically trained musician who emigrated from Darmstadt, Germany, to Pittsburgh and opened a music store. Dan Rice was an entertainer, a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. 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 learned to blend the two genres to write some of his best-known work.

Career[edit]

In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful songs—among them "Oh! Susanna," which became an anthem of the California Gold Rush—in 1848–1849. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels. A plaque marks the site of Foster's residence in Cincinnati, where the Guilford School building is now located.

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" (known also as Swanee River, 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), and "Jeanie 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." Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once in 1852 by river-boat voyage on his honeymoon on his brother Dunning's steam boat the Millinger, which took him down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little of the profits his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, paying Foster nothing. He received $100 ($2,653 in 2012 dollars) for Oh, Susanna. Although he barely made anything for his award-worthy songs, in today's industry he would have made a million dollars a year.

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 decreased, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. Early in 1863, he began working with George Cooper, whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War created a flurry of newly written music with patriotic war themes, but this did not benefit Foster. During this time he composed a series of Sunday School hymns, including "Give Us This Day" (1863).[4]

Later life and death[edit]

Foster had become impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. He was reportedly confined to his 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 Bellevue Hospital. In an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance, aged 37.[5]

His worn leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, "Dear friends and gentle hearts," along with 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies. Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. One of his most beloved works, "Beautiful Dreamer," was published shortly after his death.[6]

Legacy[edit]

Music[edit]

Stephen Foster's "Oh! Susanna" performed by the United States Navy Concert Band

"Old Folks at Home" performed by Ernestine Schumann-Heink (1918)

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Foster is acknowledged as "father of American music."[7] He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and he was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

"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. Because of the racial lyrics, it was modified with approval from the Stephen Foster Memorial. After a lengthy debate, the modified song was kept as the official state song, while Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky) was added as the state anthem.

Foster's minstrel song "Camptown Races" was a hit when it was published and is well-known to this day. It is used in several ways, such as football chants and even in Looney Tunes.

American baritone Nelson Eddy recorded 35 Foster songs over three recording sessions in July, August and September 1947 on Columbia Records, in 78 format, 2 songs per record. Columbia issued these recordings in 1948 as "Nelson Eddy in Songs of Stephen Foster (Volume 1: A-745 and Volume 2: A-795)". In 2005 Jasmine Records compiled all 35 Foster songs in one CD, "Nelson Eddy Sings The Stephen Foster Songbook", JASCD 421. "In these performances, arranger/conducter Robert Armbruster made every attempt to frame Nelson Eddy's voice with a simple, yet colorful, orchestral and choral background - the norm of Stephen Foster's time." (Liner notes by Robert Nickora July 2005).

American classical composer Charles Ives freely quoted a wide variety of Foster's songs in many of his own works.

Douglas Jimerson, a tenor from Baltimore who has released CDs of music from the Civil War era, released Stephen Foster's America in 1998. Just before his death in 2004, singer-songwriter Randy Vanwarmer completed an entire album of Stephen Foster songs. It was released posthumously as Sings Stephen Foster.

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

Singer/songwriter Syd Straw covered "Hard Times Come Again No More" on her 1989 album "Surprise." The same song (as "Hard Times") appears on Bob Dylan's 1992 album Good as I Been to You.

In 2012, performer and educator Jonathan Guyot Smith, who taught a college course devoted exclusively to the study of Foster's music, released a CD of Foster songs, Stephen Foster Melodies and Serenades for the American Parlor, which contains several seldom-heard Foster songs. The performances are in the style of a 19th-century parlor performance rather than in the manner of a formal concert.

A Squirrel Nut Zippers song titled "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" features references to his most famous works, including "Camptown Races".

Other honors[edit]

  • 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 theaters: 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 his songs have inspired world-wide.
Stephen Foster by Giuseppe Moretti (1900)
  • A public sculpture by Giuseppe Moretti honoring Stephen Foster and commemorating his song "Uncle Ned" sits in close proximity to the Stephen Foster Memorial.
  • The Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, overlooking the Harlem River, has a bronze bust of him by artist Walter Hancock. Added in 1940, he is among only 98 honorees from 15 classes of distinguished men and women.
  • The Lawrenceville (Pittsburgh) 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. His home in the Lawrenceville Section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania still remains on Penn Avenue nearby the Stephen Foster Community Center.

Movies[edit]

Three Hollywood movies have been made of Foster's life: Harmony Lane (1935) with Douglass Montgomery, Swanee River (1939) with Don Ameche, and I Dream of Jeanie (1952), with Bill Shirley. The 1939 production was one of Twentieth Century Fox's more ambitious efforts, filmed in Technicolor; the other two were low-budget affairs made by B-movie studios.

In popular culture[edit]

  • Professor of Folklore and Musician John Minton wrote a song titled Stephen C. Foster's Blues
  • Journalist Nellie Bly took her pseudonym from the title character of Foster's song Nelly Bly.
  • "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 dirt race for older horses at 9 furlongs.
  • Two television shows about the life of Stephen Foster and his childhood friend (and later wife) Jeanie MacDowell were produced in Japan, the first in 1979 with 13 episodes, and the second from 1992 to 1993 with 52 episodes, and both were called Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair after the song of the same name.
  • In the Honeymooners episode, The $99,000 Answer, Ed Norton warms up on the piano by playing the opening to Swanee River. Later, when Ralph returns to the game show, the first question asked is, "Who is the composer of "Swanee River?" Ralph nervously responds with "Ed Norton," and loses the game.
  • In the film Tombstone, Billy Clanton (played by Thomas Haden Church) tries to bait Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer), who is playing a Chopin nocturne on the piano, by saying "Is that 'Old Dog Tray?' That sounds like 'Old Dog Tray' to me." When the goad fails, Clanton asks whether Doc knows any other songs, like "'Camptown Races?' 'Oh Susanna?' "You know, Stephen stinkin' Foster?!?"
  • Erika M Anderson of the band EMA says in reference to Foster's Camptown Races, "I bet my money on the bobtail nag/somebody bet on the bay" in the song California from her 2011 release Past Life Martyred Saints.[8]
  • David Berman of the Silver Jews sings the lyric "Her doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster" in the song Tennessee, which appeared on the 2001 album Bright Flight.[9]
  • In a Fractured Fairy Tales segment of The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show Aladdin finds a lamp with a female Genie with Light Brown Hair who immediately asks "Are you Stephen Foster?"
  • The Firesign Theatre makes many references to the compositions of Stephen Foster in their CD "Boom Dot Bust" (1999, Rhino Records)
  • Larry Kirwan of Black 47 mixes the music of Stephen Foster with his own in the musical Hard Times, which deservedly earned a NY Times accolade in its original run: "a knockout entertainment". Kirwan gives a contemporary interpretation of Foster's troubled later years and sets it in the tumultuous time of the New York draft riots and the Irish-Negro relations of the period. A revival ran at the Cell Theater in New York in early 2014.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

One of Stephen Foster's best-known songs, "Camptown Races," is actually titled "Gwine to Run All Night," though "Camptown Races" is the name that gained popularity.

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Emerson, Ken (1998). Doo-dah! Steven Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. Da Capo Press. p. 79. ISBN 978-0-306-80852-4. 
  2. ^ Vincent Milligan, Harold (1920). Stephen Collins Foster: a biography of America's folk-song composer. G. Schirmer. pp. 3–4. 
  3. ^ "Did You Know?". washjeff.edu. Washington & Jefferson College. 
  4. ^ "Civil War Songs and Hymns". Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  5. ^ "spacer above content More about the film Stephen Foster". PBS.com. PBS Online. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  6. ^ W. Tomaschewski. "The Last Chapter". Stephen Collins Foster. W. Tomaschewski. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  7. ^ "The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster". NPR. Retrieved 29 June 2010. 
  8. ^ "E.M.A. - California Lyrics". SongLyrics.com. SongLyrics. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  9. ^ "Silver Jews - Tennessee Lyrics". Lyrics.is. Lyrics.is. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 

Sources[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Emerson, Ken, ed. (2010). Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of the First Great American Songwriters. New York: The Library of America. ISBN 1-59853-070-4. OCLC 426803667. 

External links[edit]


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