1826 — 1864
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Stephen Foster was an early American songwriting legend who helped create the sound of America with his many famous tunes includingOh! Susanna, The Camptown Races, Hard Times Come Again No More, Old Folks at Home and Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair. His songs often show compassion towards slaves.
Stephen Collins Foster was the ninth of ten children in his family, though the tenth child died during infancy, leaving Stephen to be the youngest in the family. Though it is commonly thought that Foster was a southerner, he was born east of Pittsburgh in 1826, above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville.
Foster’s education was sporadic, occurring before free public education was implemented in America. He received a combination of private tutoring and education at various private academies in Pennsylvania. He despised the standard rote-style education, and preferred reading on his own, becoming literate and well-educated. His interest in music was evident from a young age and he most likely received formal training from Henry Kleber, a German immigrant and accomplished musician. Kleber’s influence reached across the whole of Pittsburg through his work as a performer, composer, merchant and teacher.
During his teenage years, Foster, along with his brother Morrison and friend Charles Shiras, joined the secret group Knights of the S.T. (likely Square Table). The group met several times per week to sing. Some of Foster’s earliest compositions were for this all-male secret club, includingOh! Susanna (1848)and his first published songOpen Thy Lattice Love (1844).
While working for his brother’s steamship firm in Cincinnati as a bookkeeper, Stephen began selling some of his songs and piano pieces to a local music publisher. His first big hit was his previously composedOh! Susanna. By the age of 24, he already had 12 published compositions. He then married Jane Denny MacDowell and returned to Pittsburgh to begin his professional career as a songwriter.
In 1852, Stephen and Jane travelled to New Orleans with friends, marking his only venture to the deep south, with the exception of a childhood visit to the Ohio River towns in Kentucky. In 1853, Foster moved to New York for a year, to be near his publishers.
Foster was a perfectionist. He spent hour upon hour sketching the perfect melodies and song lyrics. He also studied the musical styles of the immigrants with the goal of writing a music of the people that could be grasped by all groups.
Foster’s songs focus on humanizing people. The characters in his songs care for one another despite ethnicity or economic class. His goal was to convince his white audience to feel compassion for slaves. Much of his compassion was also encouraged by his friend Charles Shiras, a leader of the abolitionist activities in Pennsylvania. For the upper-class, he sought out “words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words”. Scholars believe that Foster reformed the popular style of black-face minstrelsy. With Shiras, Foster wrote at least one song and a stage work that was never published.
Left: Stephen Foster Monument, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. Sculptor: Giuseppe Moretti (1857—1935).
With his songs for the minstrel stage, Foster was able to secure a large audience. Foster freely circulated his manuscript of his first hit,Oh! Susanna among the minstrel troupes before it was taken up by music publishing firms, who pirated the work and then sold it, earning a small fortune. Realizing this financial failure, Foster sought out a contract with a publisher.
Foster was a pioneer in the business side of music. He wrote the contracts between himself and his publishers, which are quite possibly the earliest contracts between an individual and an American music publisher. Foster also kept meticulous records on the payments he received for each song and his estimated future earnings per piece. Unfortunately, Foster was not able to earn much money as there were no guidelines for performing rights yet in place. He only earned a 5 to 10 percent of royalties on his songs, though sometimes he sold his songs outright to the publishers. At this time there was also a lack of a good copyright law for songwriters. As a result, he also earned nothing from arrangements or the use of his lyrics. Though, it is estimated that if he had worked in today’s music industry, he would be worth millions per year. Instead, he died with 38 cents in his pocket.
Foster’s output includes ballads and dances for parlour singers and pianists, in addition to many minstrel songs. All of his works contain simple melodies and accompaniments and sometimes text written in dialect, though he later moved away from the use of dialect in his texts and began referring to his songs as plantation songs and finally just as American melodies.
First, his songs aimed to show that the slaves were just simple, good-natured people. Later, his songs portrayed the slaves as humans, experiencing everyday emotions such as love, joy and pain. One example is found in the song,Nelly Was a Lady(1849) which laments a slave’s loved one. This song is the first of its kind, written by a white composer for a white audience, sharing the love story of a black couple. Foster also refers to the woman as a lady, a term that was reserved for upper-class white women. Other songs from this time include Angelina Baker(1851), Ring, Ring de Banjo! (1851) and Old Folks at Home (1851).
During the 1850s, Foster experimented with instrumental parlour music with the Social Orchestra(1954). This volume contained 73 arrangements of works ranging from opera to popular. He even included some of his own original songs. The collection was flexible, allowing for various combinations of instruments, perfect for home entertainment. Though the collection was incredibly popular, he earned very little money on it.
Foster’s songs remain popular to this day, though the majority of people can probably not identify him as the composer of these classic American tunes. He resonates with musicians of many backgrounds, particularly with African Americans and folk artists. W. C. Handy, known as Father of the Blues, said of Foster in 1941 "I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow. 'My Old Kentucky Home' makes you think so, at any rate. Something there suggests close acquaintance with my people."
After his brief detour into instrumental writing, Foster returned to song-writing. The most personal of his songs from the 1850s is hisHard Times Come Again No More (1855), a song that has been interpreted and recorded by Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and many more. During this period he and his wife separated and he mourned the death of his friend Charles Shiras and also his parents. Understandably, he composed very little at this time, and his debts grew, forcing him to take advances from his publishers, for songs he was unable to finish. The last song he ever composed wasBeautiful Dreamer.
Foster’s career was in trouble by the time the Civil War drew near. He returned to composing plantation melodies, includingOld Black Joe (1860). After a series of moves throughout New York, the majority of Foster’s manuscripts were lost. In the 1960s, back in Pennsylvania, Foster joined forces with the young poet, George Cooper, who provided light-hearted, humorous texts. Their collaborations resulted in the songsThere Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea (1863), Kissing in the Dark(1863) and If You’ve Only Got a Moustache (1964). They also produced a few Civil War songs includingWillie has Gone to the War (1863) and For the Dear Old Flag I Die!(1863). Foster’s final works include a series of Sunday school songs and hymns.