Stephen Foster’s Life
A popular American songwriter and poet, Stephen Collins Foster was known as the father of American music. He was born on July 4, 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He attended private schools in Towanda, Pennsylvania and Allegheny, Athens for good education. He studied diverse subjects such as English grammar, the classics, diction, writing, mathematics, Greek, and Latin.
His father William Foster Sr. was a politician, and worked for President Harrison. Foster Sr. won elections twice and became the mayor of Allegheny. Stephen attended Athens Academy from 1839 to 1841, where he wrote his first song Tioga Waltz at the age of fourteen. He performed the same song for the academy’s commencement exercises in 1841. However, he failed to publish this composition any time during his life, though it was added and published in the works of Morrison Foster later. In the meanwhile, Athens Academy burnt down in 1842. Foster attended Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania for a short period of time (now known as Washington & Jefferson College). He paid his full tuition for the college but, because of unknown reasons, he left Canonsburg and went to Pittsburgh with a fellow student; he never returned to Jefferson College.
Two people greatly influenced Foster during his adolescence. The first was Henry Kleber, his formal music instructor and a classical musician from Germany, who later opened a music store in Pittsburgh. The second person was Dan Rice, an entertainer, a blackface singer and a clown, who made his living by working in a traveling circus. To pursue his musical career, Foster would often sit along with his friends at night playing piano, writing, and singing songs.
Foster did not prove to be lucky in conjugal life. He married Jane Denny McDowell on July 22, 1850, but they separated after only four years. In 1860, he went to New York City and within the next two years his fortune was on the decline. He took to alcohol, which played havoc with his health. He was confined to his bed at the North American Hotel for many days due to a prolonged fever. During this prolonged illness, he tried to call his chambermaid, but collapsed and fell against the sink, injuring his head in the fall. He was taken to the hospital, but could not survive. He died on January 13, 1864 at the young age of thirty-seven.
Stephen Foster’s Works
Stephen Foster started his career as a bookkeeper after working at his brother’s steamship company in 1846. He wrote songs, including “Oh! Susanna,” in 1848 and 1849 during his stay in the company. This song was used as an anthem for the California Gold Rush. After the successful publication of this song in 1849, Foster published a full series of songs called “Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies,” which contained his successful and popular song “Nelly Was a Lady.”
Stephen soon left his brother and moved to Pennsylvania where he signed a contract with Christy Minstrels to write songs. During this time, he wrote his best and most widely recognized songs in quick succession from 1850 to 1854 which included “Camptown Races,” “Nelly Bly,” “Old Fox at Home,” “Old Dog Tray,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” He dedicated this last song to his wife, Jane Denny McDowell, to show his love for her. Besides this, Foster also wrote around 70 patriotic songs during the American Civil War. He also published popular school songs as a collection called “Sunday School Hymns,” which included his best piece “Give Us This Day.”
Stephen Foster’s Style and Popular Poems
Foster was one of the great songwriters of the United States. His lyrical songs, comprising a host of diverse images, metaphors, and personifications, created a unique image of Foster among his contemporaries. He wrote several minstrel songs, sentimental ballads, and hymns, but still stuck to straightforward and simple language. Some of his most popular poems include“Camptown Races,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Black Joe,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
More about Him
In 1970, Foster’s work was inscribed into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and then again in 2010 into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. The University of Pittsburg also honored Foster by establishing the Stephen Foster Memorial to pay tribute to his contributions to music and poetry.