Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

Real Name:
Stephen Collins Foster
Known as the "Father of American music", Foster was the preeminent songwriter in the United States in the 19th century (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864).

His songs — such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "Hard Times Come Again No More", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", and "Beautiful Dreamer" — remain popular over 150 years after their composition.

Foster attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens, and Towanda, Pennsylvania. He received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin and Greek, and mathematics. In 1839, his elder brother William was serving his apprenticeship as an engineer at nearby Towanda and thought Stephen would benefit from being under his supervision. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens, and 15 miles from Towanda. Stephen attended Athens Academy from 1839 to 1841. Stephen's first composition, Tioga Waltz, was written while he attended Athens Academy and was performed at the 1839 commencement exercises. He was 14. It was not published during the composer's lifetime, but it is included in the collection of published works by Morrison Foster. In 1842, Athens Academy was destroyed by fire.

His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (now Washington & Jefferson College). His tuition was paid, but Foster had little spending money. Sources conflict on whether he left willingly or was dismissed; but, either way, he left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and didn't return.

During his teenage years, Foster was influenced greatly by two men. Henry Kleber (1816–97), one of Stephen’s few formal music instructors, was a classically trained musician who emigrated from Darmstadt, Germany, to Pittsburgh and opened a music store. Dan Rice was an entertainer, a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best work.

In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful songs, among them "Oh! Susanna" which would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848–1849. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels. A plaque marks the site of Foster's residence in Cincinnati, where the Guilford School building is now located.

Then he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (known also as "Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.

Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "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."

Although many of his songs had Southern themes, Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, by river-boat voyage (on his brother Dunning's steam boat, the Millinger) down the Mississippi to New Orleans, during his honeymoon in 1852.

Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, not paying Foster anything. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes decreased, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. Early in 1863, he began working with George Cooper, whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War created a flurry of newly written music with patriotic war themes, but this did not benefit Foster.

He had become impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. His brother Henry described the accident that led to his death: Confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Foster tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to Bellevue Hospital, and in an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance at the age of thirty-seven.

In his worn leather wallet, there was found a scrap of paper that simply said "Dear friends and gentle hearts" along with 35 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.

Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. One of his most beloved works, "Beautiful Dreamer", was published shortly after his death.

Stephen Foster Discography


PLP 524 Stephen Foster Melodies(10", Album) Pontiac (2) PLP 524 US 1951 Sell This Version
Stephen Foster, Eric Rogers Chorale And Orchestra Stephen Foster, Eric Rogers Chorale And Orchestra - The Beloved Melodies Of Stephen Foster (Album) London Records US 1964 Sell This Version
8057 Stephen Foster / Jerome Kern Stephen Foster / Jerome Kern - A Commemoration Symphony / A Symphonic Story (LP, Mono, Club) World Record Club 8057 Australia 1964 Sell This Version
SM 3006 Stephen Foster Stephen Foster Melodies(LP, Album) Joker Hi-Fi Records SM 3006 Italy 1966 Sell This Version
H-71268 Stephen Foster, Jan Degaetani, Leslie Guinn Stephen Foster, Jan Degaetani, Leslie Guinn - Songs By Stephen Foster (1826-1864)(LP, Album) Nonesuch H-71268 US 1972 Sell This Version
BLA024 Stephen Foster Coming Home In A Jar(LP, Album) Bootleg BLA024 Australia 1972 Sell This Version
EXE 01514 Bach* / Mozart* / Haydn* / Schubert* / Cherubini* / Chopin* / Fauré* / Strauss* / Foster* / Ivanovici* - Corul De Copii Al Radioteleviziunii* Dirijor Ion Vanica Bach* / Mozart* / Haydn* / Schubert* / Cherubini* / Chopin* / Fauré* / Strauss* / Foster* / Ivanovici* - Corul De Copii Al Radioteleviziunii* Dirijor Ion Vanica - Corul De Copii Al Radioteleviziunii(LP, Mono) Electrecord EXE 01514 Romania 1979 Sell This Version
Stephen Foster, Thomas Hampson, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, David Alpher Stephen Foster, Thomas Hampson, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason, David Alpher - American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster (Album) Angel Records US 1992 Sell This Version
CXS-72 Stephen Foster In Swing Time(LP, Album) Coronet Records CXS-72 US Unknown Sell This Version
Stephen Foster Plantation Melodies Festival Records, Remington, Remington US Unknown Sell This Version
Stephen Foster - American Recording Society Orchestra, Eugene Lowell Stephen Foster - American Recording Society Orchestra, Eugene Lowell - Village Festival Music Treasures Of The World US Unknown Sell This Version
P-8267 Stephen Foster, The Roger Wagner Chorale Stephen Foster, The Roger Wagner Chorale - Songs Of Stephen Foster(LP) Capitol Records P-8267 Unknown Sell This Version
Nelson Eddy, Stephen Foster Nelson Eddy, Stephen Foster - Nelson Eddy In Songs Of Stephen Foster Columbia Masterworks US Unknown Sell This Version
VL 2620 Stephen Foster His Story And His Music(10", Album) VOX (6) VL 2620 US Unknown Sell This Version

Singles & EPs

ECR 90 Stephen Foster Melodies(7", EP) Concerteum ECR 90 France Unknown Sell This Version


MC 318 Foster* His Life And His Music(LP, Comp) Sine Qua Non MC 318 US 1974 Sell This Version
H-71333 Stephen Foster Songs By Stephen Foster, Volume II(LP, Comp) Nonesuch H-71333 US 1976 Sell This Version