The American composer Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) was one of the first professional song-writers in the country, and his minstrel tunes, particularly, were among the most successful songs of the era just before the Civil War.
Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pa., near Pittsburgh, on July 4, 1826. His father had settled in Pittsburgh when it was still a frontier settlement; later he became a successful businessman. Stephen's mother was the daughter of an aristocratic family from Delaware. The youngest of the children, Stephen was loved by his family, who nevertheless failed to understand either his artistic temperament or his dreaming, indolent ways. The boy attended schools around Pittsburgh and Allegheny and later enrolled in the academies at Athens and Towanda. But he was interested neither in schooling nor in business. He tried a number of occupations, but none with much enthusiasm.
Stephen early displayed a musical talent, which his family persistently failed to take seriously. (In 19th-century America, music was viewed as an essential part of a young lady's upbringing but not a profession for middle-class boys.) About the age of 10 he began composing tunes, and at 17 he wrote his first published song, "Open Thy Lattice, Love," in several respects typical of the sentimental parlor songs he would produce over the next 20 years. Well suited to the genteel tastes of the time, this song is in the manner of an English air, with touches of Irish and Scottish songs.
Foster was sent to Cincinnati in 1846 to serve as bookkeeper for his brother's steamboat company. He disliked the work almost immediately, continued writing tunes, and soon met a music publisher. Four of Foster's songs, including "Old Uncle Ned" and "Oh! Susanna," which he sold for practically nothing, made so much profit for the publisher that Foster determined to make song writing his profession. He returned to Pittsburgh to enjoy his most productive years. As time went by and as his introspective disposition became more apparent, his songs became increasingly melancholic and lost much of the spontaneous fun and rollicking good humor of the earlier tunes.
While living along the Ohio River, Foster came in contact with the blackface minstrelsy so popular in pre-Civil War America. Many of the composer's best-known songs were written for the minstrel stage, although Foster actually preferred more polite, parlor ballads. For several years E. P. Christy, of the famous Christy Minstrels, had the official right to introduce Foster's songs, and at the composer's suggestion Christy took credit for "Old Folks at Home." Since there was public prejudice against African American tunes of this type, Foster initially sought to keep his name in the background. By 1852, however, he wrote Christy, "I have concluded to reinstate my name on my songs and to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame." The composer entered into a publishing agreement with Firth, Pond and Company in 1849 which granted him standard royalties. Over the next 11 years Foster's total earnings from his songs slightly exceeded $15,000, most of this from sheet music sales. Always a poor businessman, the musician never realized the full commercial potential of his best music.
On July 22, 1850, Foster married Jane Denny McDowell, daughter of a Pittsburgh physician. The couple lived for several years with Foster's parents and had one daughter. The marriage was plagued with difficulties, mainly resulting from Foster's impractical nature. In 1853, for unknown reasons, Foster left his wife and went to New York City. A year later the family was reunited for a few months in Hoboken, N.J. In October 1854 Foster took his wife and child back to Pennsylvania, leaving them again in 1860, when publishing ventures returned him to New York. He remained in New York, part of the time with his wife and daughter, until his death in 1864. At the time of his death he was living alone at the American Hotel. Taken with fever, he arose after several days of illness and fell, cutting himself on the washbasin and lying unconscious until discovered by a chambermaid. He was taken to a hospital, where he died on Jan. 13, 1864, weakened by fever and loss of blood.
Foster's tragic life was punctuated with financial and personal disasters. The gradual disintegration of his character almost literally ended him in the gutter. That he loved his home is indicated in his songs, for he probably reached his greatest heights as a poet of homesickness. Yet he was never able to achieve the domestic solidarity he longed for. His love songs are less plausible, mingling love with nostalgia, while the sweethearts of his lyrics are almost always unattainable, either dead or distant. The poet dwells on them only in memory. In "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854) Jeanie is gone, and in "Beautiful Dreamer," his last love song (copyrighted in 1864), the love object is asleep. A few of Foster's nonsense songs have obtained lasting popularity because of their vital melodies. "Oh! Susanna" became the theme song of the forty-niners on their trek to California, and "De Camptown Races" with its "doodah" chant remains a perennial favorite.
Foster's primary fame rests on his songs of the antebellum South, and taken song for song, these remain his best. At the time "Old Folks at Home" was written, the composer had never been south of the Ohio River, except, possibly, on visits to Kentucky. The name "Swanee River" was found on a map; Foster thought it sounded better than the "Pedee River" he originally intended. The musician's concept of African American life was gained principally from childhood visits to black church services and from minstrel shows. Not until 1852 did Foster make a brief trip through the plantation South on a visit to New Orleans with his wife. Certainly the African American element in his songs is slight, essentially shaped by the white man's sentimentalized notions of African American character. While Foster was an avowed Democrat and an opponent of abolition, his song "My Old Kentucky Home" was originally entitled "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night" and bears certain similarities to Harriet Beecher Stowe's book Uncle Tom's Cabin. The song pictures happy "darkies," who when "hard times comes a-knocking at the door" have to part, as they are sent "where the head must bow and the back will have to bend." "Old Black Joe" (1860) reflects this same unrealistic view of blacks before the Civil War—a view widely held among Northern whites. Aside from his own sentimentality, Foster was writing for a market, and he produced songs to appeal to blackface minstrels.
Foster's strength as a composer lay in his gift for poignant melody; some of his simplest tunes are among his finest. Since he had little formal training as a musician, his compositions sprang far more from his heart than from his mind and even occasionally fell into amateurishness. Pressed by financial considerations, he was never able to cultivate a musicianship of subtlety or depth. He was nevertheless adept enough to harmonize his tunes instinctively in a manner consistent with their overall mood—that is, quite directly and simply, allowing the melody to predominate. In this regard he has been compared with the Austrian composer Franz Schubert. Yet, unlike many of the professional musicians of the seaboard cities of the early United States, Foster did not imitate foreign models. The influences shaping his music were predominantly American, and therefore his tunes are perhaps as native as any produced in the United States during the early 19th century. At the same time Foster's songs are fundamentally human and are of fairly universal appeal. One American writer of the day, reporting on his visit to the Orient in 1853, said that he had heard "Oh! Susanna" sung by a Hindu musician in Delhi.
Foster composed over 200 songs. Approximately 150 were parlor songs; about 30 were written for minstrel shows. Of far lesser quality were his religious hymns published in 1863. Foster also wrote occasional pieces such as "Santa Anna's Retreat from Buena Vista," a quick-step for piano. Although his songs have often been spoken of loosely as folk music, in their sentimentality and nostalgia they reflect the temperament and character of their composer and fall more accurately into the category of popular art.
The standard biography of Foster is John Tasker Howard, Stephen Foster, America's Troubador (1934; rev. ed. 1953). The serious researcher will find Evelyn Foster Morneweck, Chronicles of Stephen Foster's Family (2 vols., 1944), indispensable. Foster's participation in politics is satisfactorily covered in Fletcher Hodges, Stephen Foster, Democrat (1946). Interesting sections on Foster may be found in Gilbert Chase, America's Music: From the Pilgrims to the Present (1955; 2d ed. 1966), and Wilfrid Mellers, Music in a New Found Land (1964). Recommended for general historical background are Carl F. Wittke, Tambo and Bones: A History of the American Minstrel Stage (1930), the classic study of minstrelsy, but with no particular reference to Foster's music; and E. Douglas Branch, The Sentimental Years, 1836-1860 (1934).
Milligan, Harold Vincent, Stephen Collins Foster: a biography of America's folk-song composer, New York: Gordon Press, 1977, 1920.