Stephen Foster is one of the most enduring figures in 19th century American music -- a status borne out by the fact that he and his music are still being discussed in the 21st century. In an era when even Charles K. Harris, whose "After the Ball" sold millions of copies of sheet music at the end of the 19th century and got a further boost from its inclusion in the musical Show Boat, is scarcely remembered at all, Stephen Foster still looms astonishingly large over American popular music and popular culture. His songs, including "Oh! Susanna," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home" (better known as "Swanee River," "Camptown Races," and "Beautiful Dreamer," remain among the best-known standards in American music, 150 years after they were written.
Stephen Foster was the ninth child of William Barclay Foster and the former Eliza Clayland Tomlinson. He was an indifferent student, but loved music, and he taught himself the flute, clarinet, guitar, violin, and piano. According to one account of his life, he was introduced to black church music through a household servant, who brought him to services in his community in what is now part of Pennsylvania -- there may be some truth in the contact, but his background was just as strongly rooted in European sources: English, Irish, and German. He never studied composition in any formal way, but by the age of 14 he was writing songs, and at 18 he had his first piece published.
Foster entertained at social gatherings and in other informal settings but earned his living as a bookkeeper. Initially, he made his way in music with two distinctly different bodies of music, one the minstrel song, which he offered to established stage performers, and the other the more dignified parlor songs, which were intended to engage middle-class listeners, especially women, in their homes. In 1849, he latched onto a piece of popular culture immortality when he wrote "Susannah," better known today as "Oh! Susannah"; adopted spontaneously by the forty-niners and others heading West, "Oh! Susannah" became an anthem of the era and was still identified with travel West a hundred years later. It was pieces such as this, for which he received only a very small fee from a publisher he was trying to court and the success of his minstrel songs, that got Foster his first serious publishing contract in 1849. He became a professional songwriter the following year, at around the same time that he married. He and his wife, the former Jane Denny McDowell, had one daughter.
Foster was massively prolific and supremely popular -- he was the first person in the history of the United States to make a living off of sales of his compositions, though this proved to be a chaotic and uncertain living at best. For most of the early 1850s, Foster concentrated on the authorship of minstrel songs, although he also saw some potential interest in larger scale works -- in 1853, Foster published a musical play called The Invisible Prince, co-authored with a friend, writer Charles Shiras, and in January of the following year, he released the Social Orchestra, a collection of 73 melodies, of his own and also those by others, specifically presented in dance arrangements. After 1854, Foster turned away from the authorship of minstrel songs, however, and instead concentrated on parlor ballads such as "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair." In a time when the country was expanding and prosperous, different elements of Foster's music were accepted in all social classes -- native-born American and immigrant, rich and poor, white and black -- and sales of his songs through sheet music ran well into the hundreds of thousands and higher. His publisher, Firth, Pond & Co., were considered generous by the standards of the era, but the accounting methods of the period were dubious at best. In particular, he was vulnerable to being denied royalties for sales of his music that took place after the effective dates of his contracts.
One oddity of Foster's career is that his most successful songs were those with Southern themes. This has left the impression on future generations that he was tied to the Southern, slave-owning culture of the era. He did, in fact, earn most of his money -- as much as 90 percent of his royalty income -- from those songs, which is saying a lot given that the South was monetarily the poorest region of the country; the truth, however, was that Foster had no sympathy for the institution of slavery or the culture that supported it and also had very little direct knowledge of it. He spent most of his time in the North, around Philadelphia and Cincinnati and later, New York; he only ever took one trip, by steamboat, South of the Mason-Dixon line, in 1852, and that was on the occasion of the honeymoon that he and his wife spent in New Orleans. It simply happened that the sentimentality of his songs, which often dealt with separation from home and loved ones and feelings of nostalgia, tied in well with a peculiar element of Southern culture. Even before the Civil War, Southerners had a way of romanticizing their homes and homeland that was second to none among the different regions of the country. Indeed, Samuel Clemens and other observers of the period blamed the emotional impetus for the Civil War -- or, at least, the South's willingness and eagerness to fire the first shot and to fight to the last man -- on that same romanticism, and that element of Foster's music struck a responsive chord in whites south of the Mason-Dixon Line, as well as those settlers from the region who headed West into new territories. Blacks also liked his music because it was not only good, but it was inoffensive by the standards of the entertainment of the day.
In actual fact, Foster knew little of minstrel entertainment when he'd started out, and his music, including those minstrel songs that referred to blacks and even to slavery, often treated blacks better, with more dignity and sensitivity than was the custom of the period. Even W.E.B. Du Bois cited Foster's "Swanee River," as we now know it, and "Old Black Joe" as being different and separate from the truly racist songs of the period. Further productions of the play Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was as inflammatory an anti-slavery work as there was during the 1850s, often used the Foster songs "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-night!" and "Old Folks at Home." The fact that Foster was a northerner mattered not at all to his white southern audience, nor did his work offend educated blacks in the same way as other minstrel songs that caricatured blacks mercilessly.
One factor that is also difficult to appreciate now is that Foster kept his use of black dialect in his published minstrel songs to a minimum. And while he had anything to say about it, Foster insisted on the dignified, not burlesqued performance of his music, even when he was dealing with Edward Christy. The leader and founder of the Christy Minstrels, the most popular performing group (who often worked in blackface) of their era, Christy played a decisive role in popularizing Foster's songs, but he was forced to accede to Foster's demands. As a composer, he had that kind of clout that he could make those demands of a man in Christy's position. Foster seemed to have the world at his feet during the early 1850s, but then his life took a series of tragic turns. In the mid-1850s, his wife took their daughter and left him; this was followed by the deaths of Shiras and both of Foster's parents. He virtually ceased writing music, publishing only two songs in the next two years, and in 1857, in an effort to pay off his debts, he sold off all rights to his existing song catalog to his publisher. He might never have written another song, had he not moved to New York City in 1860. In his desire to be near the center of theater, he found new inspiration, and he wrote 98 songs over the next three years, including parlor songs, hymns, and music hall numbers. Although his output during this second great productive period was less distinguished, it did include "Beautiful Dreamer," which was published posthumously in 1864.
As with most songwriters, Foster was at the mercy of the business practices of the entertainment industry at the time, which were weighted in favor of the publisher. In any part of the 20th century, he would have been a millionaire at least twice over, but in the 1850s, he was never compensated remotely that well. Foster never fully caught up with his debts and was always writing new songs to keep his income flowing in. He managed to sustain himself until an accident In early 1864; on January 10 of that year, while living in a hotel in New York and weakened from a previous accident in which he was burned by a lamp, Foster collapsed and struck his head. He died three days later, not yet 38 years old. He was mourned publicly from the moment of his death, as a genuine American icon and symbol -- even today, he seems like Huckleberry Finn (or, perhaps, more correctly, Tom Sawyer) re-imagined with a musical education. Within months of his death, Foster was hailed as the truest American composer of the 19th century, much as William Billings before him had embodied the musical spirit of the American Revolution; but 19th century America was a bigger, greater country than its 18th century counterpart, and his music was spread across the continent and the globe. Singers ranging from Jenny Lind to Paul Robeson to Thomas Hampson have performed his songs, and his name and fame endured right into the age of television. Indeed, his song "Swanee River" (aka "Old Folks at Home") figured prominently in one of the most famous episodes ever done on the comedy series "The Honeymooners: The $99,000 Answer." Played throughout the episode as a running joke and finally turning up as the one song that hapless hero Ralph Kramden doesn't know, the song was the centerpiece of the program's audio props, and Foster even got his name mentioned at the denouement. More tellingly, Foster's work came to be included in the collections of American standards taught to seemingly every schoolchild in the country for most of the century after his death, and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys saw nothing absurd about informally cutting a version of "Old Folks at Home" during one of their late-'60s sessions (which turned up on the 1990 CD of Friends/20/20).
Foster's music only began to disappear when it was caught up, unfairly, in the net of political correctness during the late '50s and 1960s, during and after the struggle for civil rights legislation. The distinctions that had made Foster's music different from other songs that came out of the background of minstrel shows were lost on modern activists and their allies in the school systems (where The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, as anti-slavery, anti-Southern culture a novel as was ever written, also came under fire from black educators and their liberal white allies), and children simply stopped learning Foster's songs after the 1960s. In more recent years, however, his songs and reputation have once again been elevated, as scholars and musicologists have gotten their views heard. That academic defense, coupled with the fact that Foster's songs are an integral part of our popular culture landscape, inescapably presented in movies and entertainment in the United States (and also familiar to listeners on five other continents), renewed the respect and appreciation of Foster's songs just in time for the opening of the 21st century. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi