You might not know his name, but if you’ve ever hummed “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” or “Camptown Races,” you certainly know Stephen Foster’s music.
From 1844 until his death in 1864, this prolific Pennsylvanian songwriter (b. 1826) wrote more than two hundred songs, many of which remain in the American popular repertoire. The country’s first fully professional songwriter is often overlooked. Perennially popular, Foster’s songs sold in the millions as sheet music in their day, and most of them remain publicly available.
Behind his jovial lyrics, now often sung to children, the man himself was mysterious and troubled. The records of his early life leave much to be desired by cultural historians and unfamiliar readers. This dearth of information is largely due to his elder brother Morrison’s bizarre destruction in the 1890s of all documents that he felt reflected poorly on his family. Yet much has been inferred and discerned over the years, and the picture of Foster has been painted in broad strokes.
The country’s first fully professional songwriter is often overlooked.
What is known is that his father, William B. Foster, was a notable merchant in Pittsburgh. He put his son, one of ten children, through private schooling, which offered the young Foster a more robust education than many of his contemporaries. He did not receive any formal instruction in music, but he taught himself to play several instruments, including the piano, guitar, and violin. Foster showed an early aptitude for both musicianship and composition, writing his first song in 1841. It was called “Tioga Waltz” and was inspired by the music of European immigrants in his neighborhood.
As a young adult, Foster relocated from the Pittsburgh area to Cincinnati to work as a bookkeeper for his elder brother’s steamship company. It was in this period that Foster composed some of his first hits. “Oh! Susanna,” written in 1848, quickly entered the popular repertoire and became something of an anthem for westward-bound miners in the 1849 California Gold Rush. That year he published a book of minstrel songs called Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies. These and others of his songs were often performed in blackface at minstrel shows.
“Oh! Susanna,” written in 1848, quickly entered the popular repertoire and became something of an anthem for westward-bound miners in the 1849 California Gold Rush.
Shortly thereafter, Foster returned to Pennsylvania. He signed a songwriting contract with the Christy Minstrels, a popular minstrel troupe operating in western New York. During his business relationship with the popular performer E. P. Christy and his minstrels, Foster wrote some his most iconic songs, such as those mentioned above and others, like “Ring de Banjo,” that have been largely forgotten.
In 1850, Foster married Jane McDowell, who inspired his popular 1854 song “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” Though his songs often spoke of life below the Mason-Dixon Line, Foster was almost a complete stranger to the antebellum South. He reportedly visited it only once, while on his honeymoon. Baltimore was the only Southern city he visited, and Maryland the only Southern state.
As Foster’s income declined in the latter half of the 1850s, so did his personal and familial stability. His songs were no longer generating the same revenue as minstrelsy declined in popularity in the North following the 1850 publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He started writing mostly parlor songs, meant to be performed on subdued, domestic occasions, but he failed to recapture his early success. He and his wife separated, and, at the time of his death, they had been living apart for four years.
During the upheaval of the Civil War, Foster lived in obscurity. When he died, he was living in New York at a hotel. Suffering from an illness in January 1864, he fell and cut his neck. He was found bleeding out by a songwriting partner and was rushed to the hospital. He died in Bellevue Hospital on January 13, 1864, at the age of thirty-seven. It was an unceremonious end to the life of the nation’s most famous songwriter.
Not long after Foster died, “Beautiful Dreamer,” his most successful parlor song, was published. It remains well known and admired. Yet Foster himself was scorned by the press from the moment of his death, which one reporter called “the penalty of an irregular life.” It is not surprising, then, that he has faded from the national memory, even if many of his songs have not.
Much has been said lately concerning America’s history with minstrelsy, the blackface performances for which much of Foster’s repertory was composed. Some of Foster’s original lyrics, such as those of those songs mentioned above, included verses so replete with slurs that they have been redacted in modern renditions. But the stories he told in his songs also showed Northern audiences, most with no firsthand experience of slavery, that slaves were humans with dignity and emotions, even in their caricatured portrayals in minstrel shows.
Despite widespread misperceptions about his repertory, Foster impacted the country’s musical landscape and contributed mightily to its popular songbook. Though his ubiquitous work might not be well known or respected today, Stephen Foster deserves a meaningful place in the American cultural tradition.