Birth Date: July 4, 1826
Death Date: January 13, 1864
Composer of popular mid-19th-century music. Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826. He was self-taught on the flute and the violin and could pick out tunes on the piano at a young age. In 1844 Foster's first printed song, “Open Thy Lattice, Love,” was issued.
As a young man, Foster headed down the Ohio River to work as a bookkeeper for his brother. Foster was struck by the singing of slave deckhands on the steamer during the trip, and from then on the influence of African American music was strong in the songs he continued to write. Some of his tunes, such as “Old Uncle Ned” and “Oh! Susanna,” were published and gained fast popularity. As a result, Foster decided to make songwriting his career and returned to Pennsylvania around 1849.
At that time, minstrel shows were a popular form of stage entertainment. In them white performers in blackface mimicked a variety of African American stereotypes. Foster eventually composed about 30 songs for minstrels and gave one such group, the famous Christy's Minstrels, exclusive first-performance rights to all new songs he wrote, including “Camptown Races,” “Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Foster wrote some of his finest songs between 1850 and 1856, among them “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (1854) and “Gentle Annie” (1856). Unfortunately, his family always lived beyond its means and was plagued by debt and borrowing. In 1857 Foster sold future rights to already-published songs to settle overdrawn royalty accounts. By 1860, he was overdrawn at his publishers again, and he sold all future rights for $1,600. He settled debts in Pennsylvania and moved his family to New York.
Foster soon succumbed to alcoholism, financial despair, and a broken marriage. He died on January 13, 1864, at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. During his lifetime, Foster wrote about 200 songs and a few instrumental works. Many were in the sentimental vein so popular at the time—love songs or nostalgic evocations such as “Old Dog Tray.” In some there are hints of European traditions—the Irish in “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” genteel British American stage music in “Stay, Summer Breath,” and even Italian opera in “Beautiful Dreamer,” published posthumously. A few were Civil War songs supporting the Union, among them “We Are Coming, Father Abraham.”
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