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About the American Folk Composer, Stephen Foster's Works and Life

Stephen Foster: Overview 

  • Born: 1826 - Pennsylvania, USA
  • Died: 1864 - PennsylvaniaUSA
  • Styles: American songs, parlor, minstrel, folk 
  • Composer & Lyricist 

American composer, Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster: An Inseparable Part of American Music

Stephen Foster was born in Pennsylvania, America in the year 1826, displaying an avid interest in becoming a composer from a rather early age. His training in music was primarily a self-process and he was strongly drawn to the genres of Ethiopian or Minstrel music, adding a personal touch to these in the form of Irish, Italian and German melodies. Open Thy Lattice, Love, written in 1844, was his debut composition that got published, inspired by George P. Morris’s poem. Foster went on to both compose music as well as lyrics for his future songs, which were over 200.

Despite his self-educational efforts to develop his artistic prowess, he was educated in music by classical teacher Henry Kleber and by blackface performer Dan Rice. Referred to as the first composer from America, Foster is popularly considered the one who made songwriting profitable. His main compositions always had a touch of Americanism in them, with themes of the American way of life, battlefields, slavery and even politics.  

It was 1840 when Foster joined the Allegheny Academy, which didn’t work out for him, and he left to join two other institutions in his pursuit of musical education. These were the Towanda Academy and the Athens Academy. It was at the latter where Foster penned The Tioga Waltz (1839). This was published in 1896, years after his death. After going to Athens Academy, he gained admission in Jefferson College at Canonsburg in 1841, but soon went back home and continued to study in private. This was the time when his true talents began to emerge, resulting in works like the aforementioned Open Thy Lattice Love (1844), followed by Lou'siana Belle (1847) and Old Uncle Ned (1848).

Oh, Susanna (1848) is among his most well-known songs and it is characterized by a melody that reminds of a military tone. It possesses a rhythm that is reminiscent of the Czech Polka, which was brought to American shores by immigrants. The tone was unapologetic racism, written during a time when the country was undergoing one of its greatest struggles with regard to slavery. The next year saw the composer agrees to a contract with Firth, Pond & Co., who were publishers from New York. 

Jane Denny McDowell became Foster’s wife in 1850, and although the two had a daughter named Marion, they eventually decided to separate. It was during this period that he composed Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair (1854), dedicated to his wife. This was followed by considerable royalties from publishing houses in New York, yet, he descended into alcoholism and wasted most of his money.

Old Folks at Home (1851) and My Old Kentucky Home (1853) are other notable songs of his. Old Folks at Home has an enchanting tune which depicts a slave's reminiscence about his life on a plantation. Foster also penned Hard Times Come Again No More (1854) in the same year when he lost his parents and his friend Charles Shiras. Following these, came Slumber My Darling (1862), which is an exceptionally haunting song written during the American Civil War. It encompasses the elements of compassion, devotion and communicates the general tone of the era.

The songs that were written after this were full of sentimentality and the notable examples are:  

  • Old Black Joe (1853)
  • Poor Drooping Maiden (circa 1860)
  • Camptown Races (1850)
  • Nelly Bly (1850)
  • Beautiful Dreamer (1864)
  • Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground (1852)
  • Old Dog Tray (1853)

Stephen Foster’s creations became involved in an era of political correctness in 1950s and 60s, especially during the period of civil rights legislation. The reasons why Foster’s songs were incredible for his time became insufficient for modern social activists and listeners. 

He passed away at the young age of 37 in 1864. Shortly after Foster's death, one of his best works, "Beautiful Dreamer" was published. 

Today, his body of work has once again gained prominence in musical circles around the world and his reputation as a composer is growing. Consistent attempts by musical experts to propagate the excellence of Foster’s pieces and the fact that his songs are a part of American culture have resulted in these being added to film soundtracks. Stephen Foster was a man of culture and despite the topics of his songs, the ideas behind them and the time passed since he remains one of the foremost symbols of American musical brilliance. 


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