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Brief Biographical / Historical Sketch


Stephen Foster was born the ninth child of William Barclay Foster, a businessman and sometime politician, and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson. Though neither parent was musical, their daughters' education in voice and piano and Mrs Foster's subscriptions to literary magazines brought music and poetry into the home. The details of his life and career are sketchy. His first biography, an introduction to a collected edition of his songs, written by his brother Morrison (1896), offered impressions that have been repeated unquestioningly. As the keeper of the family papers, Morrison retained only selected correspondence and manuscripts, destroyed embarrassing items, and portrayed the songwriter as a naive genius, devoted to his parents, a dreamer and hopelessly inept at business. Emerson's more recent biography (1997) helps relate Foster to the other cultural figures and movements of his era in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and New York.

From the age of five, Foster grew up in Allegheny City (now Pittsburgh's North Side), where he heard contrasting musical styles in Scots-Irish, German, Italian and American neighbourhoods and in public halls. He received a thorough education at private academies in Allegheny and at Athens and Towanda in northeastern Pennsylvania. He taught himself the flute (his principal instrument), clarinet, violin, piano and guitar sufficiently to perform socially. Although he did not study composition formally, he was helped by the German-born Henry Kleber (1816–97), who from 1830 began a career as songwriter, music teacher, impresario, accompanist, conductor and music dealer in Pittsburgh. When he was 14 Foster composed the "Tioga Waltz"; his first published work was "Open thy lattice love" (1844), a barcarolle setting of a poem by George Pope Morris. Foster was attracted to the parlour ballads of Henry Russell and William Dempster, and to the songs and dances of the blackface minstrel shows. With a group of friends that included the writer Charles Shiras, who later collaborated with Foster on a musical play The Invisible Prince (performed 1853, now lost) and the song "Annie My Own Love" (1853), Foster first tried out his polka-songs "Lou'siana Belle" and "Susanna" (Oh! Susanna) and the dirge "Uncle Ned" (Old Uncle Ned).

Like his brothers, Foster was expected to find work in industry, and served from late 1846 to 1849 as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning's steamship company in Cincinnati. His main interest was music, however, and he offered his minstrel songs in manuscript copies to professional performers and the ballads and piano dances to young ladies, making presents of neatly inked scores. "Susanna" became an instant hit, even before he offered it to the publisher W.C. Peters in Cincinnati for a token payment. As the ‘marching song of the ’49ers’ in the California Gold Rush and the unofficial theme song of the wagon trains of the westward expansion, the song became known by members of all levels of society and all ethnic and racial groups, its melody and words – “I come from Alabama, with my banjo on my knee” – becoming enduring as icons of Americana.

Largely on the unprecedented popularity of the minstrel songs, he signed a contract with the New York publishers Firth, Pond & Co. in 1849, then in 1850 returned to Pittsburgh and married Jane Denny McDowell. From 1851 until his death, initially to the disapproval of his family, he wrote songs professionally, becoming the first person in the United States to earn his living solely through the sale of compositions to the public. In February 1852 he took his only trip to the South, a delayed honeymoon with Jane on a steamboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. In 1853 he wrote a new contract with Firth, Pond & Co., and in January 1854 produced The Social Orchestra, a collection of 73 of his own and other composers' melodies arranged as instrumental solos, duets, trios and quartets to accompany quadrilles and other social dancing. In the same year he ceased writing minstrel melodies and began arranging his most popular songs for guitar accompaniment, focusing his efforts on parlour ballads such as "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Hard Times Come Again No More "(1854), the unaccompanied quartet "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming", the comedic "Some Folks", his only temperance song "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me" (all 1855) and "Gentle Annie" (1856).

In 1853–4 Stephen and Jane were separated, Shiras died in 1854, and in the following year Foster lost both parents and all but ceased writing music. He produced one published song each in 1856 and 1857; with debts mounting, in 1857 he sold the future rights to his previous work back to his publishers Firth, Pond & Co. and F.D. Benteen. He wrote a new contract with Firth, Pond & Co. in 1858, although still not producing songs, and was soon overdrawn. In 1860 he moved to New York to be near the publishers and theatres, and returned briefly to minstrelsy with "The Glendy Burk". The same year "Old Black Joe" (Poor Old Joe) appeared, a synthesis of his ideals for stage and parlour ballads. His wife and daughter returned to Pennsylvania, and his remaining three years were his most productive if least inspired, with 98 titles including 27 Sunday School hymns. He collaborated with the lyricist George Cooper on music hall songs such as "If You've Only Got a Moustache" and the comic duet "Mr. & Mrs. Brown" (issued posthumously in 1864). His one enduringly memorable song from this period is the serenade "Beautiful Dreamer", written in 1862 but published after his death.

Foster's difficulty in earning a living was due in part to a lack of legal recourse with publishers and the absence of performing or mechanical rights; he frequently borrowed against future earnings and accrued unpayable debts. During the Civil War his health declined and he resorted to alcohol. Weakened by a fever and an untreated burn from an overturned lamp, on 10 January 1864 he collapsed in his New York hotel room, struck a wash basin and gashed his head: he died three days later at Bellevue Hospital. After a funeral at Trinity Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh where his birth and marriage had been registered, he was buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville.


From the start Foster concentrated his attention on songs for the home and for the stage, demurring when asked to write other genres. His 287 authenticated works include songs with piano accompaniment, arrangements of his songs with guitar accompaniment, vocal duets, quartets, hymns, piano pieces and other instrumental works and arrangements published as The Social Orchestra. He left a number of unfinished songs and instrumental pieces, mostly in a sketchbook he kept from 1851 until his final departure from Pittsburgh for New York in 1860.

By far the majority of the songs are ballads of sentiment, centered on longing for a place or an absent loved one, written for women who undertook the formal music-making in the home. Only 23 of the songs have ‘southern’ themes, but these provided 90% of his income while his contracts were in force. Foster had little knowledge of professional blackface minstrelsy, and even less about the American South: his letters (23 Feb 1850 and 20 June 1851) enclosing new songs prior to publication revealed that he was unfamiliar with the Christy Minstrel's voices and instruments and that he had not even heard this widely popular band. Foster composed lyrics and music instead from his own experience of parlour poetic imagery and from the perspective of northern urban society. Hamm (1979, 1983) has identified the immigrant influences in Foster's music, noting that the composer had to appeal to all tastes in order to sell sufficient copies of his songs to support himself; Austin has made a similar point about the imagery of Foster's lyrics. Even in the minstrel songs of pathos, beginning with "Uncle Ned" but increasingly in "Old Folks at Home" (‘Way down upon de Swanee Ribber’), "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-night!" (My Old Kentucky Home), "Massa's in de cold ground", and "Old Black Joe", Foster drew not so much on stage conventions as on the themes of longing for home and family that were so prevalent in his parlour repertory, thus appealing across all boundaries of ethnicity, race, national origin, economic level and class.

Morrison Foster's story of their family's bonded servant taking the young Stephen to a black American church where he ‘was fond of their singing and boisterous devotions’ has stoked the imaginations of scriptwriters, whose scenes have given rise to the false impression that Foster copied and sold for his own profit the traditional music of its unrecompensed creators. A more pervasive myth sees Foster as an American Thomas Moore (ii) or proto-Bartók, who gathered appealing melodies which he then reworked in his published compositions. Hamm's analysis, however, reveals Foster's command of British pleasure-garden song, Irish and Scottish melodies, Italian opera airs, German Lieder and other national schools of song, without documentable trace of black American styles. The early songs such as "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!", "I Would Not Die in Spring Time", and the duet "Turn Not Away!" especially show the influence of Anglo-American concert music. The Irish influence predominates in "Gentle Annie" and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair". For the piano introduction to "Sadly to Mine Heart Appealing" Foster did borrow eight bars of "Robin Adair" from a book of Scottish melodies, but in the song itself the Germanic tradition is most apparent. Opera is his model for the duets "The Hour for Thee and Me" and "Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?" (on a text from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet) and the solo "Linger in Blissful Repose". He did not typically use syncopation, something considered a marker for black American rhythmic influence, but rather the Scotch snap, frequently to set a two-syllable name as with Mary, Annie, Dolly and Lily.

Foster wrote most of his own lyrics, which usually preceded his work on the musical setting, Morrison's claim to the contrary notwithstanding. Here he took a similarly eclectic approach, drawing on his familiarity with the themes and conceits of immigrant song-poetry: grieving for family and friends, recalling earlier homes and longing for the carefree joys of childhood. Events in Foster's life might have suggested ideas for his songs, but he transformed them from the specific to the universal. His sentiments crossed boundaries of race and social standing and transcended barriers of class and political power throughout the United States and abroad.

A chronological survey of Foster's output reveals his foresighted approach to racial conciliation. His early song "Nelly was a Lady" (1848, published 1849) was among the first songs by a white author or composer to portray a black husband and wife as a loving, faithful couple, and to insist on the term ‘lady’ for the woman. The dialect in Foster's minstrel lyrics, often exaggerated in later editions and in imitations of his work by other songwriters, is limited in his authorized editions mostly to selectively substituting ‘d’ for ‘th’, ‘b’ for ‘v’ and ‘a’ for ‘e’ (‘whar’ instead of ‘where’); other vernacular touches not necessarily denoting race are either contractions or the adding of ‘a’ to the beginning of present participles of verbs. Foster abandoned these along with race-specific terms in the early 1850s, and his stage-song imagery thoroughly merged with his parlour ballad style. His first minstrel song published without dialect is "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-night!" (drafted in dialect in 1852, copyrighted in 1853), and the first to appear in fully standard English is "Old Dog Tray" (1853), although in 1860 he briefly went back to dialect ( "The Glendy Burk") in an apparent attempt to boost flagging sales. The illustrated sheet-music covers of his authorized editions lack the cartoon caricatures of black Americans or black-face performers that proliferated on other minstrel music and on pirated and foreign editions of his songs. He admonished Christy to perform his tragic plantation songs ‘in a pathetic, not a comic style’ which would engender pity and compassion rather than derision.

Whether or not Foster sought to redress the injustice of insensitive caricatures of black Americans in popular culture, his tragic minstrel songs conveyed universal human emotions that were embraced by black and white alike. Early stage productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe's anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin prominently employed "My Old Kentucky Home, good-night!" and "Old Folks at Home". Clearly Foster sought to reform minstrels songwriting: at the start of his career Foster felt he could unite with Christy ‘in every effort to encourage a taste for this style of music [minstrelsy] so cried down by opera mongers’ (letter, 23 February 1850). Two years later, after Christy had paid Foster to name him as the composer and author of "Old Folks at Home", Foster expressed himself more clearly (letter, 25 May 1852):

“As I once intimated to you, I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs, owing to the prejudice against them by some, which might injure my reputation as a writer of another style of music, but I find that by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order. ”

He wrote frolicking tunes that entered oral tradition as instrumental numbers, such as "Nelly Bly", "Camptown Races", "Angelina Baker" (all 1850) and "Ring, Ring de Banjo!" (1851). But his minstrel songs, usually written as solos with four-voice chorus, increasingly portrayed sympathetic, dignified, compassionate, even tragic characters: "Oh! Boys, carry me ’long" and "Old Folks at Home" (both 1851), "Massa's in de Cold Ground" (1852), "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-night!" and "Old Dog Tray" (1853). His parlour ballads such as "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway!" (1850), solos with refrain but (in the early years) lacking the multi-voice chorus, were more prolific but collectively less remunerative.

Reputation and Influence

The estimation of Foster as a composer varies widely. Within two months of his death Harper's New Monthly Magazine proclaimed that ‘The air is full of his melodies. They are our national music’. Contemporary reviews noted that his songs sounded distinctively American, and were unprecedentedly popular. The singers who have performed Foster's songs include Jenny Lind, Adelina Patti, John McCormack, Paul Robeson, Richard Crooks, Marilyn Horne and Thomas Hampson. Foster's melodies have been arranged for many combinations of instruments and voices, beginning with the piano variations by Henri Herz, extending through Dvořák's setting of "Old Folks at Home" for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and continuing through Fritz Kreisler's violin encores and Robert Shaw's choral arrangements. Foster's contemporary advocates of refined culture, led by John Sullivan Dwight (Dwight's Journal of Music, 19 November 1853), excoriated them: ‘they persecute and haunt the morbidly sensitive nerves of deeply musical persons’, and ‘such and such a melody breaks out every now and then, like a morbid irritation of the skin’. Such scorn notwithstanding, the American songwriter George F. Root credited Foster with creating the ‘people's song’, seemingly simple words and music combined in such a way ‘that it will be received and live in the hearts of the people’.

The appraisal of Foster has also shifted with changing social views. In the late 19th century, the post-Reconstructionist recasting of minstrelsy as ‘coon songs’ coincided with a condescending view that Foster's songs elevated and ennobled the crude music of uncultured peoples; simultaneously, black Americans' sense of ownership is reflected in the assessment by W.E.B. Du Bois that "Old Folks at Home" and "Old Black Joe" were different from the debasing minstrel songs, and in Henry T. Burleigh's singing of Foster's melodies along with black spirituals for Dvořák. By the second quarter of the 20th century, Foster's songs were freely performed on radio and in films, and he was acclaimed as ‘America's troubadour’; "My old Kentucky home, good-night!" was adopted as the official state song of Kentucky (1928) and "Old Folks at Home" as that of Florida (1935). Josiah Kirby Lilly, an Indianapolis philanthropist and bibliophile, issued a facsimile edition of Foster's complete works in 1933, and in 1940, Foster was the first musician elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Between 1939 and 1952 three Hollywood biographical films appeared.

Following the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which heightened sensitivity to minstrelsy's racism, many schools in the USA abandoned Foster's songs. In the 1980s and 90s, however, they gained new currency, partly through scholarly research into the songs' history of interpretations and significance for racial conciliation, partly because of their continued circulation among American country and folk-music performers, partly through worldwide interest in Americana, and partly because the American entertainment industry continued to use them as iconic melodies in cartoons, films and television shows. Ethnomusicologists have recorded them along the Tibetan border in China; black South Africans taught them in their schools under Apartheid; since the 1880s when Luther Whiting Mason created a system of music education for Japan, all Japanese children have sung the music of Foster along with Mozart and Schubert as part of a mandatory eight-year music curriculum. In the 1850s Foster's songs were the first significant body of identifiably American song; by the end of the 1990s, a handful of Foster's songs remained among the best-known music in the world.

Taken from The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.