June 20, 2024

Stephen Collins Foster, the “father of American music,” wrote songs in the nineteenth century that live on to this day. He was the forerunner of today’s professional songwriter, though he died in poverty. He expanded the musical tastes of America like no other before him.

Born in Pennsylvania, Foster was one of ten children. Though his family was middle class when he was young, his father’s descent into alcoholism impoverished them. Foster took to songwriting, though he had little formal training on the piano. When he was eighteen, he published his first song.

While he lived in Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster met his two pivotal influences. One was a music store owner from Germany named Henry Kleber. Kleber was classically trained and taught Foster proper technique and musical theory. The other was a blackface singer named Dan Rice that introduced Foster to a completely different style of music. Foster was intrigued by both the classics and the minstrel songs, and he learned to combine the two worlds into one musical genre.

Stephen Foster relocated to Cincinnati to work with his brother’s steamship company. While there, he would write his first hit. “Oh Susanna” became the de facto theme song of the California Gold Rush of 1848. Since songwriting royalties were unheard of at the time, he received one hundred dollars for one of the most well-known songs of all time. If he were alive today, a hit of its magnitude would make him a millionaire many times over.

He moved back to Pittsburgh soon after and wrote many other hit songs under contract with Christy Minstrels. Two of these songs, “Camptown Races” and “Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair” are still well known today. The latter was referenced in the song “Sins of the Father” by maverick songwriter Tom Waits on his 2004 album Real Gone.

Copyright laws for songwriting were in their infancy at the time, so Stephen Foster was often in poverty. He soldiered on and kept writing despite his lack of money. His wife and daughter left him in 1861 after moving to New York City. The quality of his songs began to decline, and the Civil War destroyed the market for new songs. Foster tried using a co-writer to help him gain ground with new audiences, but he failed miserably.

Stephen Foster died with thirty-eight cents to his name at the young age of thirty-seven. He collapsed while trying to call a chambermaid and cut his head open on a broken washbasin. A scrap of paper was found in his wallet that read, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” One of his songs was published posthumously and became a favorite in music boxes. It was called “Beautiful Dreamer.”

Throughout his life, Stephen Foster used his meager piano skills to write songs that brought minstrel music to the masses. While many performers of the era mocked slaves with minstrel songs, Foster abhorred this and demanded that performers not talk down to slaves. He demanded performers understand the plight of the black community and have compassion for their fellow man. It was in this way that Stephen Foster transcended both musical genre and social convention, and it is part of the reason why the words and melodies of his songs have resonance today.