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Who is Stephen Foster?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 21 August 2016
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Stephen Foster, or Stephen Collins Foster, lived from 4 July 1826 and 13 January 1864. He is known to many as the “father of American music.” Stephen Foster, it has been agreed upon by many historians and American musicologists, was the pre-eminent American songwriter in the 1800s. Many of his songs, such as “Oh! Susanna” are still popular songs today. Other famous Stephen Foster songs include “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer”, and “Old Black Joe.” His famous song “Old Folks at Home” is known to most as “Swanee River.”

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, which is now officially a part of the city of Pittsburgh. Foster was the youngest of ten children in a working class family. When his father’s alcoholism took over, the family became nearly destitute. Foster’s education, which included just one month at Washington & Jefferson College, was not largely based in music. Although he had very little formal training, Foster published a number of songs before his twentieth birthday.

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In 1846, he moved to Ohio to work as a bookkeeper for his brother’s steamship company. There, he wrote “Oh! Susanna,” which became a hit song and was quite popular among those people who were swept up in the California Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849. He also wrote the hit “Nelly Was a Lady” which became famous as performed by the Christy Minstrels. He signed a contract with the group and returned to Pennsylvania. He wrote may of his best known songs as a result of this contract. Although many of his songs were intended for blackface minstrel shows, which were very popular at the time, he told performers and fans alike that he wrote the songs not to mock slaves, but to create compassion for them in audiences.

At the time, musical copyrights were not nearly as stringent as they are today. Because of this, Stephen Foster had a difficult time making a living as a songwriter. Publishers of musical line sheets were known to change a song ever so slightly so that they would not have to pay the author for the rights.

In 1860, Stephen Foster moved to New York city. One year after the move, his wife returned to Pittsburgh with their daughter, leaving Foster behind. This marked the beginning of the end for Stephen Foster. The popularity of his songs declined, and he died at the age of 37.

He had become impoverished and was living at the North American Hotel on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the time of his death, Stephen Foster had exactly 38 cents to his name. Foster had experienced a serious fever. Upon rising to call out to the chambermaid for help, he fell and suffered a head wound. After three days in the hospital, he perished.

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ZipLine
Post 5

@Lostnfound-- Who would sue them? Music companies barely paid anything to Stephen Foster in his lifetime. Many of his works were sold without profiting him one cent. That's one of the reasons why he struggled with financial troubles despite being such a great artist.

He was not much appreciated during his lifetime but he is definitely being appreciated today hundreds of years after his death. It's sad though. I wish he had been given more chances when it would have made a difference. I guess no one expected his compositions to be so popular for so long.

ysmina
Post 4

@Grivusangel-- It is not at all surprising that Stephen Foster wrote many Southern themed songs. His songs were Minstrel songs, songs that were made to be performed on Minstrel shows. These shows were popular entertainment skits and music performances at the time. Many of the themes of the skits were on Blacks and life in the South. The Minstrel songs were also heavily influenced by South and Black culture. Stephen Foster used this same style but wrote different, more upper class lyrics for them so that people in a variety of social groups could enjoy them.

Minstrel shows fell out of popularity after the Civil war, particularly as the African Americans started gaining their rights. These shows actually presented

African Americans in a negative light, showing them to be dumb and silly often times. So it was actually a good thing that these shows weren't watched any more. Stephen Foster's songs however, have remained popular and I think they will continue to for a long time to come.
SarahGen
Post 3

@Grivusangel-- Same here. I learned Oh! Susanna in school. I remember that we had so much fun learning and singing this song in school. I didn't know too much about Stephen Foster even though I've probably heard so many of his songs. I agree with you that it's interesting his songs were often Southern themed. But as they say, music is universal. An artist may be inspired by anything.

Lostnfound
Post 2

@Grivusangel -- Yeah, everybody knows Stephen Foster's music, whether they realize it or not. I'm a little surprised that, since his music is public domain now, that some pop or rap artist hasn't done a rap for "Camptown Races" or something, since they couldn't be sued for copyright infringement.

It's sad that he had such an impoverished end. But in that respect, he was like many other composers (Mozart comes to mind) who also died destitute and at a young age. He probably had many more songs left in him, had he lived longer.

Grivusangel
Post 1

I've always loved Stephen Foster's songs, and found it interesting that so many of his songs were Southern-themed, even though he had never spent any time there. It's just odd that someone who was raised in Pennsylvania and later lived in Ohio should have such a fascination with the South -- particularly at a time when the South was not kindly regarded by many Americans.

Not many songwriters have their music become part of the cultural fabric of their country, but Foster's surely did. "Oh Susanna" was probably one of the first songs I learned all the way through, and of course, you can still hear "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Kentucky Derby every year.

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