|Artist Birtday :||04/07/1826 (Age 37)|
|Born In :||Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, U.S.|
|Occupation(s) :||Composer, lyricist, poet|
|Agent :||Various sheet music publishers and brother, Morrison Foster|
Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known also as “the father of American music”, was an American songwriter known primarily for his parlor and minstrel music. 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. Most of his handwritten music manuscripts are lost, but editions issued by publishers of his day feature in various collections.
There are many biographies on Foster, but details can differ widely. In addition, Foster wrote very little biographical information himself, and his brother Morrison Foster destroyed much of the information that he judged to reflect negatively upon the family.
Foster was born on July 4, 1826, to William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster, with three older sisters and six older brothers. His parents were of Ulster Scots and English descent. 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.
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 (1816–97), a German-born music dealer in Pittsburgh. 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 from Towanda. His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Washington, Pennsylvania, now Washington & Jefferson College. His tuition was paid, but he had little spending money. He left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and did not return.
In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother Dunning’s steamship company. He wrote his first successful songs in 1848–1849, among them “Oh! Susanna”, which became an anthem of the California Gold Rush. In 1849, he published Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song “Nelly Was a Lady” as made famous by the Christy Minstrels. A plaque marks the site of his residence in Cincinnati, where the Guilford School building is now located.
House in Hoboken, New Jersey where Foster is believed to have written “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” in 1854
Then he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that he 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 of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time but now recognized as racist. 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”. In the 1850s, he associated with a Pittsburgh-area abolitionist leader named Charles Shiras, and wrote an abolitionist play himself. Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, during his 1852 honeymoon.
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.
Illness and death
Foster got 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. Other biographers describe different accounts of his death.
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. George Cooper, who was with Foster until he died, said: “He lay there on the floor, naked, suffering horribly. He had wonderful big brown eyes, and they looked up at me with an appeal I can never forget. He whispered, ‘I’m done for.’” Unlike Foster’s brother Morrison, who was not in New York and said Foster was ill and cut his neck on a washbasin, Cooper mentioned no broken crockery and also said Foster had a “large knife” for cutting up apples and turnips. Morrison may have covered up Foster’s suicide. Evelyn Morneweck, Morrison’s daughter, also said the family would have covered up the suicide of their uncle if they could have.
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.”
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 38 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. One of the best-loved of his works was “Beautiful Dreamer”, published shortly after his death.
Foster grew up in a section of the city where many European immigrants had settled and was 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). 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”. 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”, “All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus”, and “Blame not those who weep and sigh”. 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?”
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.
Foster’s songs, lyrics, and melodies have often been altered by publishers and performers. 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.
“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. The lyrics are widely regarded as racist today, however, so “Old Folks at Home” was 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.
Critics and controversies
From a modern perspective Foster’s compositions can be seen as disparaging to African Americans, or outright racist. Apologists have argued that Foster unveiled the realities of slavery in his work while also imparting some dignity to African Americans in his compositions, especially as he grew as an artist.[ 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. In the early 1830s, these minstrel shows gained popularity, and blackface minstrel shows were a separate musical art form by 1848, more readily accessible to the general public than opera.
Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum
In 1935, Henry Ford ceremonially presented a new addition to his historical collection of early American memorabilia in 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 part of Pittsburgh), to Greenfield Village, attached to the Henry Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Michigan. Foster’s niece insisted that it was not his birthplace, and the claim was withdrawn in 1953. Greenfield Village still displays a structure that is identified as the birthplace of Stephen Foster. The Foster family stated that the original Foster birthplace structure was torn down in 1865.
- Many early filmmakers selected Foster’s songs for their work because his copyrights had expired and cost them nothing.
- Professor of Folklore and musician John Minton wrote a song titled “Stephen C. Foster’s Blues”.
- 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.”
- 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)”
- Spike Jones recorded a comedy send-up “I Dream of Brownie in 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.”
- Art Garfunkel was cast as Stephen Foster and sang his songs in an elementary school play in Queens, New York
- 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.
- 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,” 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?”
- Three Hollywood films 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 the film Tombstone (1993), 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?!?”
- In the film A Million Ways to Die in the West, Seth MacFarlane‘s character Albert can’t get Foster’s song “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache”, from the previous scene, 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”.
- In the 1949 film Mighty Joe Young the character Jill Young (Terry Moore) is able to calm her pet 12-foot-tall gorilla by whistling or playing “Beautiful Dreamer“.
- “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.
- A public sculpture by Giuseppe Moretti honoring Foster and commemorating his song “Uncle Ned” sat in close proximity to the Stephen Foster Memorial until 2018. The statue was removed following complaints about the banjo-playing slave seated next to Foster.
- In Alms Park in Cincinnati, overlooking the Ohio River, there is a seated statue of him.
- The Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx, overlooking the Harlem River, has a bronze bust of him by artist Walter Hancock. Added in 1940, he is among only 98 honorees from 15 classes of distinguished men and women.
- In My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky, a musical, called The Stephen Foster Story has been performed since 1958. There is also a statue of him next to the Federal Hill mansion, where he visited relatives and which is the inspiration for My Old Kentucky Home. A painting by Howard Chandler Christy entitled, “Stephen Foster and the Angel of Genius” is on display in the park’s art collection. The painting inspired Florence Foster Jenkins to author a tableau in which she personally plays the role of the angel depicted in Christy’s painting. The scene was featured in the film Florence Foster Jenkins in 2016.
Accolades and honors
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 is also named in his honor.
One state park is named in honor of Foster’s songs, My Old Kentucky Home, an 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.
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. 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.” 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. 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.