Stephen Foster Biography
Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 - January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music," was the pre-eminent songwriter in the United States of the 19th century. His songs, such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River") remain popular over 150 years after their composition.
Foster was born in Lawrenceville, now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up as the youngest of ten children in a middle-class family that would eventually become near destitue after his father's fall into alcoholism. Foster's education included one month at college but little formal music training. Despite this, he published several songs before the age of twenty. His first, "Open Thy Lattice Love," appeared when he was 18.
Stephen was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber (1816-1897) and Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who immigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, and who was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. The latter was an entertainer –- a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. These two very different musical worlds created a tension for the teenage Foster. 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 song through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best work.
In 1846 Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati Foster penned his first hit songs, among them "Oh! Susanna". It would prove to be the anthem of the California gold rush in 1848/1849. In 1849 he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the hit song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels.
That year 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" (also known as "Swanee River," 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) and "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane McDowall.
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." He instructed white performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.
Although many of his songs held Southern themes, Foster only visited the South once, on a river-boat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1852 on his honeymoon.
Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered a pioneer in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Consequently, due in part to the poor provisions for music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster saw very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, paying Foster nothing. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100.
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 would decline, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. He began working with George Cooper early in 1863 whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War helped ruin the commercial market for newy written music.
Stephen Foster died on January 13, 1864, at the age of 37. He had been impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (possessing exactly 38 cents) when he died. In his pocket was a scrap of paper with only the enigmatic, "dear friends and gentle hearts", written on it. He is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of his best loved works, "Beautiful Dreamer" would be published shortly after his death.
His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.
Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburgh campus with the Stephen Foster Memorial, as well as a museum in his honor.
'Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters' Hall of Fame in 1970