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Stephen Collins Foster (Born in Pittsburgh on July 4, 1826, died on January 13, 1864) was the pre-eminent songwriter in the United States of his era. Many of his songs, such as "Oh! Susanna," "Camptown Races" and "Beautiful Dreamer," are still popular over 150 years after their composition.
Foster was born in Lawrenceville, a small suburb which later became a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up as the youngest of ten children in a relatively well-off family. His education included a month at college, but little formal music training. Despite this, he had published several songs before he was twenty years old (his first, "Open Thy Lattice Love," appeared when he was eighteen). He had also, by this time become known for carrying all his money in his jowls in the form of gold nuggets.
Stephen was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber and Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who 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 an uneasy crossroads for the teenage Foster. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs during the day, he and his friends would sit at a piano, writing and singing “coon songs” all night long. Eventually, Foster would learn to juxtapose the two genres to create some of his best works.
In 1846 he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While living in Cincinnati, Foster had his first hit songs, including "Oh! Susanna," which was to serve as the anthem of the California gold rush in 1848/9. Foster also achieved popularity with several songs published in his compilation Songs of the Sable Harmonists (1848). 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 formed a contract with the Christy Minstrels, beginning the period in which most of his best-known songs were written: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854), "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), and "Beautiful Dreamer" (1862). Foster moved to New York City in 1860.
"Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair", incidentally, was written for his wife, Jane McDowall, with whom he eventually became estranged as his life spiraled downward.
Many of Foster's songs were in the minstrel show tradition popular at the time. My Old Kentucky Home begins: "The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home" and Old Folks at Home begins: "'Way down upon the Suwanee Ribber." The songs poked fun at the slaves and provoked mirth. His songs "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Folks at Home" featured in many of the "Tom shows" based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. According to Eric Lott, this was no coincidence: "My Old Kentucky Home" had been directly inspired by Stowe's novel, and its working title was "Poor Uncle Tom, Goodnight". Foster's own reputation became more respectable through these plays. (Lott, 1993, 218)
Although his songs largely dealt with life in the South, Foster himself had little firsthand experience there, only having visited New Orleans in 1852 on his honeymoon.
Foster tried to make a living as a professional songwriter, and may be considered a pioneer in this respect, since this field of endeavor 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. Beginning in 1862 his musical fortunes began to decline, and as they did so did the quality of his new songs, at least in the perception of the contemporary public; this may well have been a result of his teaming with George Cooper, who took over the writing of lyrics for many of Foster's tunes. The wartime economy was also detrimental to his publishing efforts.
Stephen Foster died impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (possessing exactly 38 cents) at the age of 37. 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.
The story of Stephen Foster's life is recalled in Stephen Foster, The Musical (formerly The Stephen Foster Story), a long-running seasonal stage show produced at My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky.