Stephen Foster

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Stephen Foster
Stephen Foster.jpg
Stephen Collins Foster

(1826-07-04)July 4, 1826
DiedJanuary 13, 1864(1864-01-13) (aged 37)
Resting placeAllegheny Cemetery
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
MonumentsStephen Foster Memorial
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
EducationAthens Academy, Towanda, Pennsylvania Athens Academy
  • Composer
  • lyricist
  • poet[1]
Years active1844–1864
Agent(s)Various sheet music publishers and brother, Morrison Foster
Known forFirst fully professional U.S. songwriter and composer [2][3]
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" ("Swanee River"), "Open Thy Lattice Love"
SpouseJane McDowell Foster Wiley (1829–1903) (other sources use Jane Denny Foster Wiley)[1]
ChildrenMarion Foster Welch (1851–1935)

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known also as "the father of American music", was an American composer known primarily for his parlour and minstrel music during the Romantic period. He wrote more than 200 songs, including "Oh! Susanna", "Hard Times Come Again No More", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer", and many of his compositions remain popular today. He has been identified as "the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century" and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries.[4] Most of his handwritten music manuscripts are lost, but editions issued by publishers of his day feature in various collections.[5]


Eliza Tomlinson Foster and William Barclay Foster

There are many biographies of Foster, but details differ widely. Among other issues, Foster wrote very little biographical information himself, and his brother Morrison Foster may have destroyed much information that he judged to reflect negatively upon the family.[6][7]

Foster was born on July 4, 1826.[8] His parents, William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster, were of Ulster Scots and English descent. He had three older sisters and six older brothers. He attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens, and Towanda, Pennsylvania, and received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin, Greek, and mathematics. The family lived in a northern city but they did not support the abolition of slavery.[8]

Foster taught himself to play the clarinet, guitar, flute, and piano. He did not have formal instruction in composition but he was helped by Henry Kleber (1816–1897), a German-born music dealer in Pittsburgh. They studied the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.[9] In 1839, his brother William was serving his apprenticeship as an engineer at Towanda and thought that Stephen would benefit from being under his supervision. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles (48 km) from Athens and 15 miles (24 km) from Towanda. His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, now part of Washington & Jefferson College.[10][nb 1] His tuition was paid, but he had little spending money.[10] He left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and did not return.[10]


House in Hoboken, New Jersey where Foster is believed to have written "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" in 1854[12]

He then returned to Pennsylvania and wrote most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Ring de Banjo" (1851), "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.

A Pittsburgh Press illustration of the original headstone on Stephen Foster's grave

Many of Foster's songs were used in blackface minstrel show entertainment popular at the time. He sought 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".[13] However, Foster’s output of minstrel songs declined after the early 1850s, as he turned primarily to parlor music.[14] Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, during his 1852 honeymoon. Available archival evidence does not suggest that Foster was an abolitionist.[14]

Foster's last four years were spent in New York City. There is little information on this period of his life, although family correspondence has been preserved.[5]

Illness and death[edit]

Foster became sick with a fever in January 1864. Weakened, he fell in his hotel in the Bowery, cutting his neck. His writing partner George Cooper found him still alive but lying in a pool of blood. Foster died in Bellevue Hospital three days later at the age of 37.[15] Other biographers describe different accounts of his death.[16]

Historian JoAnne O'Connell speculates in her biography, The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster, that Foster may have killed himself, a common occurrence during the Civil War.[17]

As O'Connell and musicologist Ken Emerson have noted, several of the songs Foster wrote during the last years of his life foreshadow his death, such as "The Little Ballad Girl" and "Kiss Me Dear Mother Ere I Die." Emerson says in his 2010 Stephen Foster and Co. that Foster's injuries may have been "accidental or self-inflicted".[18]

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

When Foster died, his leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, "Dear friends and gentle hearts", along with 37 cents (one for each year of his life) 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.[5] One of the best-loved of his works was "Beautiful Dreamer", published in 1864 (posthumously).[19]


Foster grew up in a section of the city[which?] where many European immigrants had settled and were accustomed to hearing the music of the Italian, Scots-Irish, and German residents. He composed his first song when he was 14 and entitled it the "Tioga Waltz". The first song that he had published was "Open thy Lattice Love" (1844).[9][20] He wrote songs in support of drinking, such as "My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman", "Mr. and Mrs. Brown", and "When the Bowl Goes Round", while also composing temperance songs such as "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me" or "The Wife".[8]

Foster also authored many church hymns, although the inclusion of his hymns in hymnals ended by 1910. Some of the hymns are "Seek and ye shall find",[21] "All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus",[22] and "Blame not those who weep and sigh".[23] Several rare Civil War-era hymns by Foster were performed by The Old Stoughton Musical Society Chorus, including "The Pure, The Bright, The Beautiful", "Over The River", "Give Us This Day", and "What Shall The Harvest Be?" He arranged many works by Mozart, Beethoven, Donizetti, Strauss and Schubert for flute and guitar.

Foster usually sent his handwritten scores directly to his publishers. The publishers kept the sheet music manuscripts and did not give them to libraries nor return them to his heirs. Some of his original, hand-written scores were bought and put into private collections and the Library of Congress.[5]

Popular songs[edit]

Foster's songs, lyrics, and melodies have often been altered by publishers and performers.[24] Ray Charles released a version of "Old Folks at Home" that was titled "Swanee River Rock (Talkin’ ’Bout That River)", which became his first pop hit in November 1957.[25]

"My Old Kentucky Home" is the official state song of Kentucky, adopted by the General Assembly on March 19, 1928. "Old Folks at Home" became the official state song of Florida, designated in 1935.[26] The use of offensive terms in the song's lyrics led "Old Folks at Home" to be modified with approval from the Stephen Foster Memorial. The modified song was kept as the official state song, while "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)" was added as the state anthem.

A 1974 published collection of Stephen Foster's popular songs was edited by musicologist Richard Jackson.[27]


Musical influence[edit]

  • Many early filmmakers selected Foster's songs for their work because his copyrights had expired and cost them nothing.[28]
  • Professor of Folklore and musician John Minton wrote a song titled "Stephen C. Foster's Blues".[29]
  • Walt Kelly recorded an acapella rendition of Foster's "Old Dog Tray" on the 1956 album, Songs of the Pogo. Kelly regularly referenced "Old Dog Tray" as the theme song for his character, Beauregard Hound Dog, from his comic strip, Pogo.
  • 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."[30]
  • The Firesign Theatre makes many references to Foster's compositions in their CD, Boom Dot Bust (1999, Rhino Records)
  • Larry Kirwan of Black 47 mixes the music of 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, and a revised version of the musical called Paradise Square opened at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2018.
  • Gordon Lightfoot wrote a song in 1970 titled "Your Love's Return (Song for Stephen Foster)"
  • Randy Newman's 1970 album 12 Songs contained Newman's song "Old Kentucky Home" (originally titled "Turpentine and Dandelion Wine"), which is based on Foster's "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" Newman told Billboard magazine, "It's a good song because Stephen Foster wrote the hook, that's why."[31] Under various titles, Newman's "Old Kentucky Home" was covered by the Beau Brummels, the Alan Price Set and Johnny Cash.
  • Spike Jones recorded a comedy send-up "I Dream of Brownie with the Light Blue Jeans".
  • Humorist Stan Freberg imagined a 1950s style version of Foster's music in "Rock Around Stephen Foster" and, with Harry Shearer, had a sketch about Foster having writer's block in a bit from his "United States of America" project.
  • Songwriter Tom Shaner mentions Stephen Foster meeting up with Eminem's alter ego "Slim Shady" on the Bowery in Shaner's song "Rock & Roll is A Natural Thing".
  • The music of Stephen Foster was an early influence on the Australian composer Percy Grainger, who stated that hearing "Camptown Races" sung by his mother was one of his earliest musical recollections. He went on to write a piece entitled "Tribute to Foster", a composition for mixed choir, orchestra, and pitched wine glasses based on the melody of "Camptown Races".[32]
  • Art Garfunkel was cast as Stephen Foster and sang his songs in an elementary school play in Queens, New York [33]
  • Foster's name is included in the rapid fire litany of musicians and songs that make up the lyrics of the 1974 pop novelty song "Life Is a Rock (But the Radio Rolled Me)" by Reunion.
  • Neil Sedaka wrote and recorded a song about Foster and released it on his 1975 album, The Hungry Years.
  • Alternative country duo The Handsome Family's song "Wildebeest", from their 2013 album Wilderness, is about Foster's death.[34]
  • Squirrel Nut Zippers wrote and recorded a song in 1998 titled "The Ghost of Stephen Foster".
Foster commemorative stamp in the Famous American Composers series, 1940[35]


  • Two television shows about the life of Foster and his childhood friend (and later wife) Jane 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", Ralph Kramden studies decades' worth of popular songs for his upcoming appearance on a television game show. Before each song, Ed Norton warms up on the piano by playing the opening to "Swanee River". On the program, Ralph is asked his first question for just 100 dollars: "Who is the composer of 'Swanee River'?" Ralph freezes, then nervously responds "Ed Norton?" and loses.
  • 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! 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.
  • 36 U.S.C. §140 designates January 13 as Stephen Foster Memorial Day, a United States National Observance. In 1936, Congress authorized the minting of a silver half dollar in honor of the Cincinnati Musical Center. Foster was featured on the obverse of the coin.
  • "Stephen Foster Music Camp" is a summer music camp held on EKU's campus of Richmond, Kentucky. The camp offers piano courses, choir, band, and orchestra ensembles.


Stephen Foster by Giuseppe Moretti (1900)

Accolades and 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 worldwide.

Two state parks are named in Foster's honor: the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida and Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia. Both parks are on the Suwannee River. Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Park in Pennsylvania.

One state park is named in honor of Foster's songs, My Old Kentucky Home, a historic mansion formerly named Federal Hill, located in Bardstown, Kentucky where Stephen is said to have been an occasional visitor according to his brother, Morrison Foster. The park dedicated a bronze statue in honor of Stephen's work.

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 of 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.

Statue controversy and later views[edit]

A 1900 statue of Foster by Giuseppe Moretti was located in Schenley Plaza, in Pittsburgh, from 1940 until 2018. On the unanimous recommendation of the Pittsburgh Art Commission, the statue was removed on April 26, 2018.[37] Its new home has not yet been determined. It has a long reputation as the most controversial public art in Pittsburgh "for its depiction of an African-American banjo player at the feet of the seated composer. Critics say the statue glorifies white appropriation of black culture and depicts the vacantly smiling musician in a way that is at best condescending and at worst racist."[38] A city-appointed Task Force on Women in Public Art called for the statue to be replaced with one honoring an African American woman with ties to the Pittsburgh community. The Task Force held a series of community forums in Pittsburgh to collect public feedback on the statue replacement and circulated an online form which allowed the public to vote for one of seven previously selected candidates or write in an alternate suggestion.[39] However, the Task Force on Women in Public Art and the Pittsburgh Art Commission have not reached an agreement as to who will be commemorated or if the statue will stay in the Schenley Plaza location.[40]

A number of musicologists have written about the racism in Foster's lyrics.[41] Some authors of music instruction books have replaced songs by Foster with other songs in newer editions due to increased awareness of these concerns.

See also[edit]

  • The Stephen Foster Collection and archive – 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 were obtained from philanthropists or donated by collectors or his heirs.


  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 age 16.[11]


  1. ^ a b "Stephen C. Foster As Man and Musician, The Life Story of the Sweet Singer of Pittsburg Told by His Contemporaries and Comrades". The Pittsburg Press. September 12, 1900 – via open access
  2. ^ Marks, Rusty (April 22, 2001), "On Television: Stephen Foster: Quintessential songwriter lived in music, died in ruin", Sunday Gazette-Mail, Gazette Daily Inc. via HighBeam Research, archived from the original on October 11, 2013, retrieved April 25, 2012, 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)
  3. ^ 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, October 16, 2010, archived from the original on October 11, 2013, retrieved April 25, 2012(subscription required)
  4. ^ 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: 20–21. Retrieved December 24, 2019. [Stephen Foster] was the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century, and he is still the best-known American composer in many countries of the world today. Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh Library System
  5. ^ a b c d 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 October 4, 2015. Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh Library System
  6. ^ Howard, John Tasker (March 1944). "The Literature on Stephen Foster". Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. 1 (2): 10–15. doi:10.2307/891301. ISSN 0027-4380. JSTOR 891301.
  7. ^ Root, Deane L. (March 1990). "The "Mythtory" of Stephen C. Foster or Why His True Story Remains Untold" (PDF). American Music Research Center. U. Colorado, Boulder. Retrieved September 25, 2018.
  8. ^ 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. doi:10.1086/SHAD23010024. S2CID 165454878. Retrieved October 13, 2015.
  9. ^ a b "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 October 13, 2015. Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Vincent Milligan, Harold (1920). Stephen Collins Foster: a biography of America's folk-song composer. G. Schirmer. pp. 3–4.
  12. ^ Sisario, Ben (September 20, 1998). "On the Map; Stephen Foster's Old Hoboken Home". The New York Times. Retrieved July 4, 2016.
  13. ^ "American Experience | Stephen Foster | People & Events". Retrieved January 8, 2021.
  14. ^ a b Saunders (2012). "The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster's Plantation Melodies". American Music. 30 (3): 275–289. doi:10.5406/americanmusic.30.3.0275. JSTOR 10.5406/americanmusic.30.3.0275. S2CID 144617319.
  15. ^ "More about the film Stephen Foster". American Experience. PBS. Retrieved October 2, 2015.
  16. ^ O'Connell, JoAnne H. (2007). Understanding Stephen Collins Foster, His World and Music (PDF) (Thesis). University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved June 25, 2016.
  17. ^ O'Connell, JoAnne (2016). The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster: a Revealing Portrait of the Forgotten Man Behind Swanee River, Beautiful Dreamer, and My Old Kentucky Home. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield. p. 321. ISBN 9781442253865.
  18. ^ Emerson, Ken (2010). Stephen Foster and Co.: Lyrics of America's First Great Popular Songs. New York: Library of America. p. 10. ISBN 978-1598530704.
  19. ^ W. Tomaschewski. ""The Last Chapter"". Stephen Collins Foster. W. Tomaschewski. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  20. ^ Barcousky, Len (February 14, 2016). "Eyewitness 1916: Living link to Foster passes on". Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Retrieved April 27, 2016.
  21. ^ ""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"". Retrieved August 23, 2016.
  22. ^ "All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus". Retrieved August 23, 2016.
  23. ^ ""Blame, not those who weep and sigh"". Retrieved August 23, 2016.
  24. ^ Steel, David Warren (2008). "Foster, Stephen (1826–1864) Composer and Songwriter". The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture; Volume 12: Music. University of North Carolina Press. JSTOR 10.5149/9781469616667_malone.86. Access provided by the University of Pittsburgh
  25. ^ Whitburn, Joel, Top R&B Singles, 1942–1999, p. 74.
  26. ^ "The State Anthem: "Florida (Where the Sawgrass Meets the Sky)"". State of Florida. Retrieved April 29, 2011.
  27. ^ Paula Morgan (2001). "Jackson, Richard (Hammel)". Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.47105.
  28. ^ Lerner, Neil (September 2006). "Review: Tunes for 'Toons': Music and the Hollywood Cartoon by Daniel Goldmark". Notes: Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association. 63 (1): 121–124. JSTOR 4487739.
  29. ^ "Stephen C. Foster's Blues". The Possum Trot Orchestra. Retrieved May 10, 2015.
  30. ^ "E.M.A. – California Lyrics". SongLyrics. Retrieved August 4, 2012.
  31. ^ White, Timothy (December 9, 2000). "Randy Newman's America: A Portrait of the Artist". Billboard. 112 (50): 17.
  32. ^ Lewis, Thomas P. (1991). A Source guide to the music of Percy Grainger (1st ed.). White Plains, New York: Pro/Am Music Resources. ISBN 9780912483566. OCLC 24019532.
  33. ^ "What Is It All but Luminous by Art Garfunkel | Books". Retrieved April 25, 2019.
  34. ^ Monger, James. "Wilderness – The Handsome Family". Retrieved July 8, 2013.
  35. ^ "1-cent Foster". Arago: people, postage & the post, Smithsonian National Postal Museum. Retrieved May 10, 2015.
  36. ^ "'Oh! Susanna' songwriter's statue removed from Pittsburgh park after criticism". NBC News. Retrieved April 25, 2019.
  37. ^ "'Oh Susanna' songwriter's statue removed amid criticism". Associated Press. April 26, 2018. Retrieved April 26, 2018.
  38. ^ Majors, Dan (October 25, 2017). "City's art commission unanimous: Statue of Stephen Foster needs to go". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved May 5, 2018.
  39. ^ "City wants statue of African-American woman to replace Stephen Foster monument". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. March 14, 2018. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
  40. ^ O'Driscoll, Bill (July 2, 2018). "Initiative To Honor Women Of Color With Public Art Sparks Debate". WESA. WESA. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
  41. ^ "The Lyrics and Legacy of Stephen Foster".

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Music scores