Friendship Poems

Stephen Foster Biography

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, which is now part of the city of Pittsburgh, on July 4, 1826. Stephen Foster grew up as the ninth of ten children in a middle-class family that eventually became destitute after his father became an alcoholic. Despite this, he was able to begin furthering his education at Jefferson College, where his grandfather was once a trustee. His tuition for college was paid, but he had very little spending money for laundry or for joining a literary society. Nobody knows if he left Jefferson College willingly or if he was dismissed; regardless, he went to visit Pittsburgh with another student and never returned. Despite not having a lot of formal music training, he published several songs before the age of 20. His first song was published when he was only 18 years old.

During Foster’s teenage years, he was greatly influenced by Henry Kleber and Dan Rice. Henry Kleber, who had emigrated from Germany and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, was a classically trained musician and was one of Foster’s few formal music instructors. Dan Rice was an entertainer; a clown and blackface singer, who made his living traveling with circuses. While Foster was respectful of the more civilized parlor songs, he and his friends would often sit at a piano writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Foster eventually learned to blend the two genres together to write some of his best work.

In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio so he could become a bookkeeper at his brother’s steamship company. While he was living in Cincinnati, he penned his first successful songs. One of the most successful songs that he wrote during that time was “Oh! Susanna”, which became known as the anthem of the California Gold Rush from 1848 to 1849. In 1849, Foster published Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies; included in that work was the song “Nelly was a Lady,” which was made famous by the Christy Minstrels.

After publishing his latest work, he moved back to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. During this period in his life, he wrote most of his best-known songs. In 1850 he wrote “Camptown Races, De” and “Nelly Bly,” in 1851 he published “Old Folks at Home,” which is also known as “Swanee River”. During 1853, he wrote and published “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Old Dog Tray.” In 1854, he wrote “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” for his wife, Jane Denny McDowell.

The majority of Foster’s songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition, which was popular at the time. In Foster’s own words, what he wanted to do was “build up taste… among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order.” While most of Foster’s songs had Southern themes, he never lived in the South. In fact, Foster only visited the South once in 1852 when he was on a river-boat voyage on his brother Dunning’s steamboat, for his honeymoon.

The biggest problem Foster faced with trying to make a living as a professional songwriter was that they did not exist in the modern sense. Due to the inadequate provisions for music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little of the profits that his works generated for sheet music printers. Many times competing editions of Foster’s tunes were published by multiple printers and Foster was never paid anything. For the song “Oh! Susanna.” Foster received a total of $100.

In 1860, Foster and his family moved to New York City. About a year later, Foster’s wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Starting in 1862, Foster’s fortunes decreased along with the quality of his songs decreased. Stephen Foster died in New York City at the age of thirty-seven. At the time of his death at Bellevue Hospital, where he had been admitted three days before he died, he had thirty-seven cents to his name.


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