Stephen Foster

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Stephen C. Foster
Stephen Foster.jpg
Born Stephen Collins Foster
(1826-07-04)July 4, 1826
Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania
United States
Died January 13, 1864(1864-01-13) (aged 37)
New York City
Cause of death Accidental fall and fever
Resting place Allegheny Cemetery
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
United States
Monuments Stephen Foster Memorial
Cincinnati, Ohio
Occupation Composer, lyricist
Years active 1844 – 1864
Agent Various sheet music publishers
Known for America's first fully professional songwriter.[1][2]
Notable work "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"
Style Period music, minstrel
Home town Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
United States
Spouse(s) Jane Denny McDowell Wiley (1829 - 1903)
Children Marion Foster Welch (1851 - 1935)
Parent(s) William Barclay Foster (1779 - 1855), Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster (1788 - 1855)
Relatives Evelyn Foster Morneweck (niece), James Foster (grandfather)
Siblings:Charlotte Susanna Foster (1809 - 1829), Anne Eliza Foster Buchanan (1812 - 1891), Henry Baldwin Foster (1816 - 1870), Henrietta Angelica Foster Thornton (1819 - 1879), Dunning McNair Foster (1821 - 1856), Morrison Foster (1823 - 1904)*

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. His compositions are thought to be autobiographical. He has been identified as "the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century", and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries. His compositions are sometimes referred to as "childhood songs" because they are included in the music curriculum of early education. Most of his hand written music manuscripts are lost but copies printed by publishers of his day can be found in various collections.[3]


Eliza Tomlinson Foster and William Barclay Foster.

Various biographers have published works on the life of Stephen Collins Foster, but details can differ widely. In addition, Foster wrote very little biographical information himself. His brother Morrison Foster destroyed much of the information about Stephen that he judged to reflect negatively upon the family.[4]

Early years[edit]

Stephen Foster was born on July 4, 1826.[5] His parents were William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson. He was the youngest in his large family. His parents also had his three sisters and five brothers. Though they lived in a northern city, his family did not support the abolition of slavery.[5] His older brother Morrison was a notable influence throughout Stephen's life.[4] Foster attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens, and Towanda, Pennsylvania. He received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin, Greek, and mathematics.[citation needed]

Foster was able to teach himself to play the clarinet, violin, guitar, flute and piano. He did not have formal instruction in composition but he was helped by Henry Kleber (1816–97), a German-born music dealer in Pittsburgh. Kleber was a songwriter, impresario, accompanist, songwriter, and conductor.[6]

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.[citation needed]

Foster's education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, (now Washington & Jefferson College).[7][nb 1] His tuition was paid, but he had little spending money.[7] He left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and did not return.[7]

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.


In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While he was 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 riverboat voyage on his honeymoon on his brother Dunning's steamboat the Millinger, which took him down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

Foster's last four years were spent in New York City. Biographical information during this period of his life has not been located or remains lost, though correspondence to, from, and between other family members has been preserved.[3]

He became ill and was confined to his bed for days with a fever. He died three days after his admittance, at age 37.[9]


Telegram that communicated Stephen Foster's death addressed to his brother Morrison Foster

Stephen Foster did not die from complications of alcoholism but from a fever and a fall.[3] When he died, his 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. The note is said to have inspired Bob Hilliard's lyric for "Dear Hearts and Gentle People" (1949). Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. After his death, Morrison Foster became his "literary executor". As such, he answered requests for copies of manuscripts, autographs, and biographical information.[3] One of the best loved of his works, "Beautiful Dreamer", was published shortly after his death.[10]


He usually sent his hand-written scores directly to his publishers. The publishers kept the sheet music and did not give them to libraries nor returned them to his heirs. Some of his original, hand-written scores were bought and put into private collections and the Library of Congress.[3]


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

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

Problems playing these files? See media help.

Growing up in a section of the city where many European immigrants had settled, he was accustomed to hearing the music and musical styles of the Italian, Scots-Irish, and German residents in the neighborhood. He composed his first song when he was 14 and entitled it the "Tioga Waltz". The first song he had published was "Open thy Lattice Love" (1844).[6] In addition to his well-known and familiar songs which are still widely performed, Foster wrote drinking and songs in support of temperance. These are entitled "My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman," "Mr. and Mrs. Brown" and "When the Bowl Goes Round". The two songs written in support of temperance are: "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me" and "The Wife".[5]

Foster also authored many hymns. The inclusion of his hymns in hymnals ended by 1910. Some of the titles of the hymns are: "Seek and ye shall find",[11] "All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus",[12] and "Blame not those who weep and sigh".[13]

Popular songs[edit]

"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, "Old Folks at Home" 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.

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/conductor 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.

The tribute album, Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album in 2005. 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.

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. Jennifer Warnes did another version of this song on her 1979 album, Shot Through the Heart. The Byrds did a rock 'n roll version of "Oh Susanna" on their 1965 album, Turn Turn Turn., while James Taylor offered a traditional folk version of "Oh Susanna" on his 1970 album Sweet Baby James.

In 2012, performer and educator Jonathan Guyot Smith, who taught a college course devoted exclusively to the study of Foster's music and 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.

Four rare Civil War Era hymns by Stephen Foster were released in 2012, performed by The Old Stoughton Musical Society Chorus: "The Pure, The Bright, The Beautiful"; "Over The River"; "Give Us This Day"; and "What Shall The Harvest Be?"; on a CD-ROM titled, "Glory, Hallelujah: Songs and Hymns of the Civil War Era.

Other honors[edit]

Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial contains two theaters.

Critics and controversies[edit]

Foster has been characterized as an uneducated "genius" while many have attributed his success to strong will-power and periods of inspiration. Other critics determined that he lost his artistic abilities later in his life. He is criticized for his longing "for the old order, the "Old South" and his inability to handle his financial affairs. Historians speculate that he may have been "a drunkard". Thirty years after his death one reporter described him as paying "the penalty of an irregular life", being "weak-willed", and writing songs about people of "a pathetic character".[14]


Academics readily admit to the existence of culturally created mythology related to Stephen Foster. This means that the following statements about him, his life and his work remain unsupported and unsourced. These are that he:

  • hated school
  • was a Southerner
  • was homosexual
  • committed suicide
  • was an "idle dreamer"
  • was poorly educated
  • was incapable of any kind of work
  • regretted the abolition of slavery
  • did not have to labor at writing music
  • was a drunkard who died intoxicated in a Bowery gutter
  • earned a great deal of money but was financially inept
  • was an untrained musical genius whose songs were flashes of inspiration
  • was a carefree, spendthrift artist who neither knew nor cared about money
  • was a racist who glorified slavery and the happy life for slaves on the plantation
  • wrote about the "Swanee" River and the old Kentucky home after (or while) visiting those sites
  • got many of his musical ideas by listening to slaves or attending black church services and then writing down what he heard[3][6][15]

Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum[edit]

In 1935, Henry Ford ceremonially presented a new addition to his historical collection of early American memorabilia - the "Home of Stephen Foster". The structure was identified by notable historians of the time as being authentic and was then deconstructed and moved "piece by piece" from Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now Pittsburgh) to Greenfield Village, Michigan. Foster's niece insisted that it was not his birthplace and in 1953, the claim was withdrawn. Greenfield Village still displays a structure that is identified as the birthplace of Stephen Foster.[16] The Foster family stated that the original Foster birthplace structure was torn down in 1865.[17][18]

Foster's music in popular culture[edit]

Generally, Foster's compositions would be considered disparaging to African Americans in current cultural contexts. Yet Foster was the first to refer to an African American black woman as "a lady" in his composition "Nelly Was a Lady."[19]

Foster commemorative stamp in the Famous American Composers series, 1940[20]

Foster composed many songs that were used in minstrel shows. This form of public entertainment lampooned African Americans as buffoonish, superstitious, without-a-care, musical, lazy, and dim-witted.[21][22] In the early 1830s, these minstrel shows gained popularity. The shows evolved and by 1848, blackface minstrel shows were a separate musical art form accessible to the general public (contrasted with opera which was more upper-class at the time.)[23]

Musical influence[edit]

  • Professor of Folklore and musician John Minton wrote a song titled "Stephen C. Foster's Blues".[24]
  • Erika M. Anderson, of the band EMA, refers to Foster's "Camptown Races" in the song "California", from past Life Martyred Saints (2011): "I bet my money on the bobtail nag/somebody bet on the bay."[25]
  • The Firesign Theatre makes many references to Stephen Foster's compositions 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 earned a New York 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.
  • Spike Jones recorded a comedy send-up "I Dream of Brownie in the Light Blue Jeans."
  • The swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers released a song entitled "The ghost of Stephen Foster."


  • 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; both were titled 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, "Ed Norton," and loses the game.
  • 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?"


Other events[edit]


Stephen Foster by Giuseppe Moretti (1900)


  • A Pittsburgh Composer and his Memorial. Pittsburgh — Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania, 1938?
  • Stephen Foster, Democrat. Pittsburgh — University of Pittsburgh, 1945.
  • The Research Work of the Foster Hall Collection. Philadelphia — Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1948.
  • Stephen Foster. An address by Mr. Fletcher Hodges, Jr., given at the 1949 Annual Meeting of the Historical and Philosophical Society of Ohio. Cincinnati — Printed and bound by the C.J. Krehbiel Co., 1950.
  • Swanee River and a Biographical Sketch of Stephen Collins Foster, White Springs, Florida. — Stephen Foster Memorial Association, 1958.

The Stephen Foster Collection (archives)[edit]

Most primary sources related to his life, family and music have been retained by the University of Pittsburgh Library System as the Foster Hall Collection housed in the Stephen Foster Memorial. These materials where obtained from philanthropists, donated by collectors or his heirs.[3]


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.

  1. ^ His grandfather, James Foster, was an associate of John McMillan and a founding trustee of Canonsburg Academy, a predecessor institution to Jefferson College; his father, William Barclay Foster, attended Canonsburg Academy until the age of 16.[8]


  1. ^ Marks, Rusty (2001-04-22), "ON TELEVISION: Stephen Foster: Quintessential songwriter lived in music, died in ruin", Sunday Gazette-Mail (Gazette Daily Inc. via HighBeam Research), retrieved 2012-04-25, The song, written in 1847, soon spread throughout the country. Foster decided to become a full-time songwriter, a vocation no one had bothered to pursue until then. (subscription required)
  2. ^ Pittsburgh Native Son and Songwriter Stephen Foster to be Inducted into Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame Oct. 17., US Fed News Service, Including US State News. The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. via HighBeam Research, 2010-10-16, retrieved 2012-04-25 (subscription required)
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Root, Deane L. (March 12, 1990). "The "Mythtory" of Stephen C. Foster or Why His True Story Remains Untold" (Lecture transcript at the American Music Center Research Conference). American Music Research Center Journal: 20–36. Retrieved 4 October 2015: Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh Library System 
  4. ^ a b Howard, John Tasker (1944). "The Literature on Stephen Foster". Notes 1 (2): 10. doi:10.2307/891301. ISSN 0027-4380. 
  5. ^ a b c Sanders, Paul (Fall 2008). "Comrades, Fill No Glass For Me: Stephen Foster's Medlodies As Borrowed by the American Temperance Movement" (PDF). Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 23 (1): 24–40. Retrieved 13 October 2015. 
  6. ^ a b c "Foster Hall Collection, Collection Number: CAM.FHC.2011.01, Guide to Archives and Manuscript Collections at the University of Pittsburgh Library System". University of Pittsburgh, Center for American Music. Retrieved 2015-10-13. 
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ Vincent Milligan, Harold (1920). Stephen Collins Foster: a biography of America's folk-song composer. G. Schirmer. pp. 3–4. 
  9. ^ "More about the film Stephen Foster Características físicasEditar". American Experience. PBS. Retrieved October 2, 2015. 
  10. ^ W. Tomaschewski. "The Last Chapter". Stephen Collins Foster. W. Tomaschewski. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  11. ^ "Waters' Choral Harp: a new and superior collection of choice hymns and tunes, mostly new, written and composed for Sunday schools, missionary, revival, and social meetings, and for church worship 106. Who has our Redeemer heard -". 
  12. ^ "All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus". 
  13. ^ "Blame not those who weep and sigh". 
  14. ^ "Stephen G. Foster." The Musical Visitor, a Magazine of Musical Literature and Music (1883-1897) 12 1888: 319. Accessed October 10, 2015. Accessed through the University of Pittsburgh Library System.
  15. ^ "Myths About Stephen Foster". Retrieved 2015-10-27. 
  16. ^ Schwallie, Karen. "Greenfield Village Memories - Stephen Foster Home". Retrieved 2015-10-03. 
  17. ^ Wilkinson, Clint; "Stephen Foster House In Museum Wrong One", The Detroit Free Press, January 30, 1953. Access date October 2, 2015| Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh Library System
  18. ^ Lowry, Patricia (30 March 2003). "Theater: A dramatic makeover for the Stephen Foster Memorial". Retrieved 2015-10-25. 
  19. ^ Gross (host), Terry; Emerson (guest), Ken (April 16, 2010). "The Lyrics And Legacy Of Stephen Foster". Fresh Air. transcript. NPR. Retrieved 18 October 2015. 
  20. ^ "1-cent Foster". Arago: people, postage & the post, Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  21. ^ The Coon Character, Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, Ferris State University. Retrieved 9 November 2011.
  22. ^ John Kenrick, A History of the Musical: Minstrel Shows, 1996, revised 2003. Retrieved 2 October 2015.
  23. ^ Behind the Burnt Cork Mask: Early Blackface Minstrelsy and Antebellum American Popular Culture by William J. Mahar, University of Illinois Press (1998) p. 9 ISBN 0-252-06696-0.
  24. ^ "Stephen C. Foster's Blues". The Possum Trot Orchestra. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  25. ^ "E.M.A. - California Lyrics". SongLyrics. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  26. ^ "Stephen Collins Foster, Introduction to Pictorial Biography". Retrieved 2015-11-07. 

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]

Music scores