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Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music," was the pre-eminent songwriter in the United Statesmarker of the 19th century. His songs, such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "Hard Times Come Again No More", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer", remain popular over 150 years after their composition.

Early life

Stephen Foster, who was of Irish descent, was born and lived in Lawrenceville, now part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvaniamarker, and grew up as the youngest of ten children in a middle-class family that would eventually become nearly destitute after his father became an alcoholic.

His education included a brief period at Jefferson College (now Washington & Jefferson Collegemarker) in Canonsburg, Pennsylvaniamarker, where his grandfather was once a trustee. His tuition was paid, but Foster had little spending money. Sources conflict on whether he left willingly or was dismissed , but either way, he left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and never returned.

Foster was influenced greatly by two men during his teenage years: Henry Kleber (1816-1897) and Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who emigrated from the German city of Darmstadtmarker 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. 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 songs 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, Ohiomarker and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful 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 successful song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels.

Then 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" (known also as "Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.

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 Caucasian performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.

Although many of his songs had Southern themes, Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, by river-boat voyage (on his brother Dunning's steam boat, the James Millinger) down the Mississippi to New Orleansmarker, during his honeymoon in 1852. Foster is notable for popularizing the use of the "honky tonk" piano style and the use of the Swanee whistle for a mainstream audience.

Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Consequently, due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized 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, not paying Foster anything. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100.

Foster moved to New York Citymarker in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes decreased, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. Early in 1863, he began working with George Cooper, whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War created a flurry of newly written music with patriotic war themes, but this did not benefit Foster.


He had been impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowerymarker on the Lower East Sidemarker of Manhattan, New Yorkmarker. His brother Henry described the accident that led to his death: confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Foster tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to Bellevue Hospital, and in an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance at the age of thirty-seven.

In his worn leather wallet there was found a scrap of paper that simply said "Dear friends and gentle hearts." He had thirty-seven cents at the time of his passing.

Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemeterymarker in Pittsburgh. One of his best loved works, "Beautiful Dreamer," was published shortly after his death.



Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970.

"My Old Kentucky Home" is the official state song of Kentuckymarker, adopted by the General Assembly on March 19, 1928. "Old Folks at Home" is the official state song of Floridamarker, designated in 1935.

The melody of Foster's "Old Dog Tray" is incorporated into Puccini's opera La Fanciulla del West (as the aria Che faranno).

Eighteen of Foster's compositions were recorded and released on the Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster collection. Among the artists that are featured on the album are John Prine, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples and Suzy Bogguss. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.

Douglas Jimerson, a tenor from Baltimore who has released CD's of music from the Civil War era, released Stephen Foster's America in 1998.

American classical composer Charles Ives freely quoted a wide variety of Foster's songs in many of his own works.

A Squirrel Nut Zippers song titled "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" features references to his most famous works, including "Camptown Races".

Other honors

Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburghmarker campus with the Stephen Foster Memorialmarker, a landmark building that houses the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center for American Music, as well as two theatres: 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 has inspired almost the whole world.

A public sculpturemarker by Giuseppe Moretti honoring Stephen Foster and commemorating his song "Uncle Ned" sits in close proximity to the Stephen Foster Memorial.

In My Old Kentucky Home State Parkmarker in Bardstown, Kentuckymarker, a musical, called Stephen Foster-The Musical has been performed since 1958. There is also a statue of him next to the Federal Hill mansionmarker, where he visited relatives and is the inspiration for "My Old Kentucky Home".

Georgia named Stephen C. Foster State Park in his honor.

The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Parkmarker in White Springs, Floridamarker is a Florida State Park named in his honor.

Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Parkmarker in Pennsylvania is named in his honor as well.

In Alms Park in Cincinnatimarker, overlooking the Ohio River, there is a seated statue of him.

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.

The Lawrenceville 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 the most influential songwriters in America's history.

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. Stephen Foster was featured on the obverse of the coin despite his tenuous links to the city.


Three Hollywood movies 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 film studios, but the 1952 film was in color.

References in popular culture

Stephen Foster's memory has been preserved in the following works, media and events:
  • Journalist Nellie Bly took her pseudonym from the title character of Foster's song "Nelly Bly".
  • "Stephen Foster Super Saturday" is a day of thoroughbred racing during the Spring/Summer meet at Churchill Downsmarker in Louisville, Kentuckymarker. 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.
  • The Squirrel Nut Zippers' song "Ghost of Stephen Foster" refers to the artist's life and work, especially to Camptown Races.

See also


  • Emerson, Ken (1998). Doo Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80852-8.
  • Charles Hamm (1979). Yesterdays: Popular Song in America (Chapter 10, "Old Folks at Home, or, the Songs of Stephen Foster"). W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-01257-3.

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