Stephen Foster

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For other people named Stephen Foster, see Stephen Foster (disambiguation).
Stephen Foster
Stephen Foster.jpg
Born Stephen Collins Foster
(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 "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. Despite his popularity, Foster did not profit greatly from the publication of his songs, and he died in poverty at the age of 37.


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. 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.[citation needed]

Foster's education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, (now Washington & Jefferson College).[1][nb 1] His tuition was paid, but he 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 did not 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, Rice 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.[citation needed]

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 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" and barely made anything for his many other, popular songs.[citation needed]. Partially as a result of making little profit, he ended up with little money towards the end of the decade, and became impoverished.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. 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]In 1863, horrible riots broke out in New York City. Foster's songs were making little sales in the months before the riots

Foster had become impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on Manhattan's Lower East Side. 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 for a doctor and George Cooper to be summoned and 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. The note is said to have inspired Bob Hilliard's lyric for Dear Hearts and Gentle People. Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. One of the best loved of his works, Beautiful Dreamer, was published shortly after his death.[6]



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.

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, "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.

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/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.

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. 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.

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.

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

Other honors[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]

Foster commemorative stamp in the Famous American Composers series, 1940[9]
  • Professor of Folklore and musician John Minton wrote a song titled "Stephen C. Foster's Blues".[10]
  • 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; 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 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, 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."[11]
  • 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.[12]
  • 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 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."
  • In the movie A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane's character Albert can't get a song out of his head. Charlize Theron's character suggests singing a different song, to which he replies "There are only like 3 songs" and she adds "And they're all by Stephen Foster." The song in question, "If You've Only Got a Moustache", was actually composed by Stephen Foster.
  • The swing revival band Squirrel Nut Zippers released a song entitled "The ghost of Stephen Foster"
  • The film Beautiful Dreamer - Brian Wilson and the Story of 'SMiLE' begins with a brief impromptu rendition of Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" by Brian Wilson.

See also[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.

  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.[2]


  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?". Washington & Jefferson College. 
  4. ^ "Civil War Songs and Hymns". Retrieved 12 March 2013. 
  5. ^ "More about the film Stephen Foster Características físicasEditar". American Experience. PBS. 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". Fresh Air. NPR. Retrieved 29 June 2010. 
  8. ^ "Stephen Foster Home". Greenfield Village Memories. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  9. ^ "1-cent Foster". Arago: people, postage & the post, Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  10. ^ "Stephen C. Foster's Blues". The Possum Trot Orchestra. Retrieved May 10, 2015. 
  11. ^ "E.M.A. - California Lyrics". SongLyrics. Retrieved 4 August 2012. 
  12. ^ "Silver Jews - Tennessee Lyrics". Retrieved 4 August 2012. 


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]