Today is Stephen Foster Day, and a special Tuneful Tuesday! Learn more about this American Musical Pioneer below.
Stephen Foster war born on July 4th, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the same day Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. His music is woven into the fabric of American history; “My Old Kentucky Home” is Kentucky’s state song, and “Swanee River” was Florida’s state song until 2008. Camptown Races and O Susanna are American Folk Classics.
Foster was born in Pennsylvania to William Foster, a merchant and politician and son of a prosperous Pennsylvania landowner and Eliza Tomlinson, daughter of plantation owners in Maryland. Stephen’s childhood was fraught with uncertainty, as his father had several financial disasters and was an alcoholic, Stephen’s older sister, Charlotte, a talented musician in her own right, died tragically at the age of 19. Stephen published his first song at the age of 18, in 1844. O Susanna, his first big hit, debuted in 1847, at an ice cream parlor. Many of Foster’s most enduring and popular songs were of the Minstrel style popular at the time. Many of Foster’s blackface lyrics are deeply offensive today, and reflect the racism of the times, but he was also of the first white composers to portray African Americans with a dignity and pathos unusual for that era. In Nelly was a Lady, for example, is a slave’s lament at the loss of his love. No songwriter had called a black woman “a lady,” and slaves were not usually given the basic human experiences like grief or love. Also, My Old Kentucky Home is not actually a celebration of the Old South, but indicts slavery for breaking up black families, a la Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Stephen struggled financially for most of his life, and also suffered from the alcoholism of his father. He died, on January 13th, 1864, at Bellevue Hospital in New York, impoverished, with only 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper on which “dear friends and gentle hearts.” was written. He hadn’t seen his wife or daughter in three years. In March of that year, Beautiful Dreamer, his last composition, was published by William A. Pond & Co. Counterfeit “last songs” of his would be published for years after.
For more on Stephen Foster and his legacy, read this article from NPR.
Stephen Foster’s songs have been covered extensively since his passing. Watch a young duo sing his classic Hard Times Come Again No More:
Member Patricia Shih covers Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair: