Birthday: July 4, 1826
Died At Age: 37
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Stephen Collins Foster, The father of American music
Born in: Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania United States
Famous as: Composer, Lyricist
Lyricists & Songwriters
Spouse/Ex-: Jane McDowell
father: William B. Foster
mother: Eliza T. Foster
siblings: Anne Eliza Foster Buchanan (1812 - 1891), Charlotte Susanna Foster (1809 - 1829), Dunning McNair Foster (1821 - 1856), Henrietta Angelica Foster Thornton (1819 - 1879), Henry Baldwin Foster (1816 - 1870), Morrison Foster (1823 - 1904)
children: Marion Foster Welch (1851 - 1935)
Died on: January 13, 1864
place of death: New York City
U.S. State: Pennsylvania
education: Washington & Jefferson College
Who was Stephen Foster?
Stephens Collins Foster was an American composer and songwriter who wrote 286 songs spanning a writing career of 20 years. Some of his songs became the favorites of middle class families which were sung by amateur singers when people gathered in their parlors. The “parlor” songs were accompanied by musical instruments such as pianos which were the prized possessions of a few well-to-do households. He also wrote a large number of songs sung by the minstrels while enacting comical skits and variety shows. The music curriculums followed by many schools include some his songs and they are termed as “childhood songs”. Most of his songs seemed to be based on his own experiences in life. The lyrics of his songs were tender and their rhythm was spell-binding. The songs contained his opinion about home, temperament, politics, battles, and life in plantations. His songs are still popular even after more than 150 years since the time they were written. He is considered as the most famous songwriter to have emerged in the nineteenth century. He is probably the most recognized American composer in other parts of the world.
Childhood & Early Life
Stephens Collins Foster was born in a middle-class family on July 4, 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pittsburg. His mother was Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster and his father was William Barclay Foster. His father was the mayor of a Pittsburg suburb called the Allegheny City and held a membership in the legislature formed by the State of Pennsylvania.
He was the ninth child born to his parents and was preceded by Ann Eliza, Charlotte Susana, William Sr., William Jr., Henry, Henrietta, Dunning, Morrison and James. Ann Eliza, William Jr. and James had died in their infancy leaving him as the “baby” in the family.
In 1840, he joined the Allegheny Academy but soon left it to join the Athens Academy and then the Towanda Academy. He left this institution to join the Jefferson College the next year but left it after a week only to remain with his family from 1841 to 1846.
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In 1846, he moved to Cincinnati to work for Irwin & Foster Steamboat Agency as a bookkeeper where he came across the lives of people from the Irish working class as well as the aristocracies of the English and Scottish people.
He soon gave up the job of a bookkeeper and devoted himself to writing songs. He sold the rights of “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Uncle Ned” to a publisher named W.C. Peters in 1848.
He negotiated with New York based publishers Firth & Pond Co. in 1849 who agreed to publish his songs.
In 1850, Stephen Collins moved back to Pittsburg and remained with his family for the next six years. During this time he wrote more than 160 songs. Correspondence with one of the leading minstrel singer groups “Christy Minstrels” and their leader E.P Christy happened during this time. The two reached an agreement that Foster’s song would be bought by E.P. Christy, sung first by the minstrels at every show and the sheet music credit would say “As sung by the Christy Minstrels”. It was an agreement that lasted many years and benefited both.
The only hitch in this relationship developed in 1851 when the publication of the song “Old Folks At Home” was credited to E.P. Christy.
The creative talent of Stephen Foster suffered in the late 1850s and he was unable to write much during that time.
Though he had got substantial amount of royalties from the New York publisher Firth & Pond Co. during all these years, the contract with them ended with the song “Old Black Joe” in 1860.
When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Stephen Foster wrote many songs which told about heroism, patriotism, love, homesickness, but none of the songs could make a mark like his old songs.
While at the Athens Academy in 1840 he wrote his first song “The Tioga Waltz” at the age of fourteen. It was published only after his death.
His first song “Open Thy Lattice Love” was published in 1843 and the next three “Louisiana Belle”, “Old Uncle Ned” and “Oh! Susanna” in 1845 during family concerts when he was still with his family.
Personal Life & Legacy
On July 22, 1850, Stephen Collins Foster married Jane Denny McDowell and settled in Pittsburg. They had a daughter named Marion from the marriage.
His addiction to alcohol led to many separations from his wife with repeated reconciliations. Inspiration from his wife was evident during one such separation when he wrote the song “Jeanne With the Light Brown Hair”. His wife agreed for another reconciliation which was also short lived.
With the alcohol addiction breaking up his marriage and rendering him penniless, Stephen Foster moved to New York in 1861. While in New York, Stephen Collins Foster sold all the rights to his songs for hard cash.
Burdened with debt, alcoholism and loneliness, he died in New York on January 13th, 1864. He left a purse carrying only 40 cents and a note.
He had penned his last song “Beautiful Dreamer” only two weeks before his death which told of his escape from the realities of life which seemed very bitter. The song was published after his death.
He had always been deeply attached to his family and spent most of his life with them. He was very sensitive to things around him and he portrayed the same in his songs.
The frequent separations from his wife affected his creativity and he was unable to write because of the loneliness that engulfed him.