Foster Stephen C(ollins)

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Foster Stephen C(ollins)

Foster, Stephen C(ollins), premier American songwriter; b. Lawrenceville, Pa., July 4, 1826; d. N.Y., Jan. 13, 1864. Foster is the best- remembered and most influential American songwriter of the 19th century, composing both minstrel songs (including “Oh! Sus-anna/7 “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “De Camptown Races”) and romantic ballads (“I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Beautiful Dreamer”). During his lifetime, his songs were among the most popular in the world. Long after Foster’s death his songs have maintained their popularity, achieving the status of folk songs: everyone knows them, though only some people know who wrote them. His mix of European melodic styles with African-American rhythms into a peculiarly American form has proven to be the dominant characteristic of American popular music from his time forward. As such, his influence is incalculable.

Foster was the ninth of ten children of William Barclay Foster (b. Berkeley County, Va., Sept. 7, 1779; d. Allegheny, Pa., July 27, 1855), a businessman and minor political figure who established the town in which his son was born, and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson (b. Wilmington, Del, Jan. 21, 1788; d. Pittsburgh, Jan. 18, 1855), whom he had married Nov. 14, 1807. His paternal ancestors were Irish; his great-grandfather, Alexander Foster, emigrated from Londonderry about 1728, and his grandfather, James Foster, fought in the Revolutionary War. His mother’s family had come to Md. from England in the 17th century.

Foster showed an early interest in music, picking out harmonies on a guitar at the age of two, playing the drum at five, and playing the flageolet (a kind of flute) at seven. In January 1840 he left home to attend Athens Academy at Tioga Point, where he wrote his first musical composition, “Tioga Waltz.” He also briefly attended the Towanda Academy. On July 20, 1841, he began to attend Jefferson Coll. in Canonsburg, Pa., but stayed only a week before dropping out and returning home. In addition, he may have studied music privately with a German-born teacher named Henry Kleber.

Though an indifferent student and largely self-taught, Foster showed what his father called “a strange talent” for music. One of the strange elements of that talent, revealed as early as the age of nine, was an affinity for “Ethiopian” songs, i.e., the songs of African-Americans and similar material performed by blackface minstrels. (Elements of Irish melodies, German songs, and Italian operas also have been identified in his music.) His first published song was “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (December 1844), with lyrics from a poem by journalist George P. Morris (also lyricist of “Woodman, Spare That Tree”) that had appeared in a supplement to the New York Mirror and previously set to music by Joseph Philip Knight.

In 1845, Foster became a member of an informal men’s club for which he began to write songs in the style of those he had heard in minstrel shows. Enormously popular at the time, the minstrel shows can be viewed as having a double-edged impact on race relations: On the one hand, by portraying African-Americans in a sympathetic light they helped promote abolitionist sentiment in the North; on the other, by portraying them as inferior they tended to reinforce established prejudices. For his part Foster was genuinely engaged by the black- based music, and though he wrote songs in Southern Negro dialect at first, his later minstrel songs eliminated such demeaning elements. The minstrel songs he composed for the men’s club may have included “Lou’siana Belle,” “Old Uncle Ned,” and “Oh! Susanna.” He also tried to interest traveling minstrel groups in performing his songs when they appeared locally.

Foster moved to Cincinnati in late 1846 or early 1847 and took a job as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning. Meanwhile, a few minstrel performers began featuring Foster’s work and often submitted his songs under their own names for copyright (a common practice of the day); this created some confusion in chronicling his early songwriting efforts, particularly “Oh! Susanna,” which was copyrighted and published more than 20 times between Feb. 25, 1848, and Feb. 14, 1851. During that time the song, with its jaunty melody and clever, contradictory nonsense lyrics (“It rained all night the day I left/The weather it was dry/The sun so hot I froze to death/Susanna, don’t you cry”), became a substantial success and was adopted by the forty-niners as the unofficial anthem of the 1849 Calif. Gold Rush.

The popularity of “Oh! Susanna” and other songs led publishers Firth, Pond & Co. of N.Y. in 1849 to offer Foster royalty payments of two cents per copy of sheet music for his future compositions, which at the time was an unusually generous form of compensation. Foster may have made a similar arrangement with F. D. Benteen publishers of Baltimore, which also began to issue his copyrights in 1850. As a result, he gave up his bookkeeping job in early 1850 and returned home to his family (now living in Allegheny, Pa.) to pursue a career as a full-time songwriter.

Many of Foster’s songs were popularized by the most successful minstrel group of the day, the Christy Minstrels, founded by Edwin P. Christy. On Feb. 23, 1850, Foster sent Christy the nonsense song “De Camp-town Races” (which had been published four days earlier by Benteen), and when the group began to perform it, it became an enormous popular success. By 1851, Foster was giving Christy first look at all his newly written minstrel songs, and Christy was paying $10 for the right to premiere each of them.

On July 22, 1850, Foster married Jane Denny McDowell; the union produced a daughter on April 18, 1851. But the marriage proved tumultuous, marked by separations and reconciliations. What part Foster’s economic situation may have played in the couple’s difficulties cannot easily be said.

In 1851, Foster sent Christy the sentimental minstrel song “Old Folks at Home/7 also known as “Swanee River” (deliberately truncated; it referred to the Suwanee River in Fla., which Foster’s brother Morrison found listed in an atlas). Christy introduced the song and initially claimed authorship of it with Foster’s permission, in exchange for a financial consideration (probably $5). Foster had decided to remove his name from his minstrel songs and to associate himself with more socially acceptable romantic ballads. Within a year, however, he tried, unsuccessfully, to reclaim title to “Old Folks at Home,” which had become an overwhelming success. By November 1854 it was reported to have sold more than 130,000 copies of sheet music. It eventually topped 20 million, making it Foster’s most popular composition and arguably the most successful song ever published. Despite lacking the songwriting credit, Foster was paid his usual royalty. When the copyright was renewed in 1879, his name was restored to the song. In 1935, “Old Folks at Home” became the official state song of Fla.

Christy also introduced Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” (1852), reported to have sold 74,000 copies by November 1854, and “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), which sold almost 90,000 copies by the same time. In 1928, “My Old Kentucky Home” was named the official state song of Ky.

By July 1853, Foster, separated from his wife, was living in N.Y. to be closer to Firth, Pond & Co., by then his exclusive publisher. On Jan. 26, 1854, the company published The Social Orchestra, a music book compiled by Foster containing arrangements of previously published songs, new instrumental pieces, and works by others. Foster and his wife reconciled in the spring of 1854 and lived in Hoboken, N.J. “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” the best known of the songs he wrote for his wife, was composed there and published in June. By October the Fosters had returned to Allegheny.

In the late 1850s, Foster’s songwriting output diminished. As his finances became precarious, he sold his earlier songs to his publishers outright and drew advances on yet-to-be-written ones. In 1860 he moved back to N.Y. and concentrated on sentimental ballads rather than minstrel songs. He spent his last years as a penniless alcoholic in the city’s skid-row district, the Bowery, selling his songs cheaply. He was unusually prolific during this period but produced little of lasting value. Of his posthumously published songs, the most successful was “Beautiful Dreamer,” composed at least six months before his death. In poor health, he died after falling down and suffering a severe cut to his neck.

Foster’s songs maintained their popularity into the age of recording. “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home” repeatedly became pop hits for recording artists from the 1890s through the 1930s. As late as 1957, Ray Charles hit the Top 40 with “Swanee River Rock (Talkin’ ’Bout That River),” and the Osborne Brothers and Johnny Cash reached the country charts with versions of “My Old Kentucky Home” in the 1970s. Several of Foster’s other songs also became perennial hits. In 1911, Billy Murray successfully recorded what he called “The Camptown Races (Gwine to Run All Night).” In 1922, Lambert Murphy scored with “I Dream of Jeannie [sic] with the Light Brown Hair.” In 1924, Wendell Hall and the Shannon Four had a hit with “Oh! Susanna,” and there was even a novelty version by the Singing Dogs (a recording of dogs barking) that made the Top 40 in 1955. George Gershwin and Irving Caesar’s “Swanee,” a 1920 hit for Al Jolson, who interpolated it into the Broadway show Sinbad, was, of course, inspired by “Old Folks at Home.”

In 1939, 20th Century-Fox released Swanee River, a film biography of Foster starring Don Ameche, with Jolson portraying Christy and Andrea Leeds as Mrs. Foster. In 1940, Foster became the first popular composer to be elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at N.Y.U. In 1941, when all ASCAP songs were banned from airplay in a dispute between the song licensing organization and radio stations, Foster’s songs, by then in the public domain, were played frequently. A second film biography, I Dream of Jeanie, starring Ray Middleton and Muriel Lawrence, was released by Republic Pictures in 1952.

Various institutions have been established to honor and memorialize Foster, including the Stephen Foster Memorial at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, Federal Hill in Bardstown, Ky, an exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and the Stephen Foster Museum in White Springs, Fla.


M. Foster (his brother), Biography, Songs and Musical Compositions ofS. C. F. (Pittsburgh, 1896); W. R. Wittlesey and O.G. Sonneck, Catalogue of First Editions of S. C. F (Washington, D.C., 1915); H. V. Milligan, S. C. F., A Biography (N.Y, 1920); D.J. Rice, Two S. C. F. Songs (N.Y, 1931); J. T. Howard, S. F, America’s Troubadour (N.Y, 1934; 3rd ed., 1962); Howard, Newly Discovered F.iana (N.Y, 1935); R. Walters, S. F: Youth’s Golden Dream (Princeton, N.J., 1936); E. Foster Mornewick, Chronicles ofS. F.’s Family (2 vols.; Pittsburgh, 1944); J. T. Howard, ed., A Treasury of S. F. (N.Y, 1946); H. Gaul, The Minstrel of the Alleghenies (Pittsburgh, 1952); J. J. Fuld, A Pictorial Bibliography of the First Editions of S. C. F. (Philadelphia, 1957); G. Chase, “America’s Minstrel,” America’s Music (N.Y, 1955; 2nd ed., rev., 1966); R. Jackson, ed., S. F Song Book (N.Y, 1974); W. W Austin, ”Susanna,” “Jeanie,” and “The Old Folks at Home”: The Songs of S. C. F.from His Time to Ours (N.Y, 1975); E. List, ed., S. F: Complete Piano Music (N.Y, 1984); C. Elliker, S. C. F.: A Guide to Research(N.Y, 1988); K. Emerson, Doo-Dah! S. F. and the Rise of American Popular Culture (N.Y, 1997).

—William Ruhlmann