On July 4, 1826, as America celebrated its fiftieth birthday, local patriots and politicians in a small village east of Pittsburgh, read the Declaration of Independence at an open-air banquet. Before sunset, both Thomas Jefferson, who had penned the document, and John Adams, who had encouraged him to do so, died. Not far from the festivities, the host's wife gave birth to their seventh surviving child. The boy, Stephen Foster, who began his life on that auspicious day, would leave as large an imprint on the cultural landscape of the nation as Adams and Jefferson had on the political.
Set to a lively score of 19th century popular music, STEPHEN FOSTER tells the tragic story of America's first great songwriter, the man who wrote "Camptown Races," "Beautiful Dreamer," "Oh! Susanna," and scores of other American favorites. It charts his meteoric rise and his sad lonely decline; the prolific output of his 20s and his difficulties writing in his 30s; and it celebrates the impact his music had on American popular culture.
Stephen Collins Foster showed remarkable talent from his earliest childhood. "His love of music," remembered a school friend, "was an all-absorbing passion." At the age of two he was plucking tunes on the guitar. By 10 he was performing popular comic songs with a group of local boys. And when he was 18 he began composing blackface minstrel songs-the melodies that would make him famous.
Blackface was the rock and roll of its day. Unlike the parlor songs of genteel society, blackface was rowdy, raunchy and raw. And sung in coarse black dialect, it was also racist, dehumanizing the African Americans whom the songs were supposedly about.
A seemingly innocuous blackface ditty Foster wrote when he was 21, launched his career. "Oh! Susanna" was first performed to a crowd that packed the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Cincinnati on Saturday September 11, 1847. Within months the tune was being whistled in soda shops and bars across the country. Three years later, sixteen different publishers had issued 30 different arrangements of the piece. In all likelihood, Foster, who'd given away rights to the music, didn't see a single penny.
Over the next five years, Foster wrote scores of songs. His genius was for beautiful melodies. But as time went by, Foster grew more concerned with the lyrics. In years when debate about slavery was intensifying, he became increasingly sensitive to the suffering of African Americans. Although, he continued to use dialect, his tunes began investing black Americans with greater dignity. African American leader Frederick Douglass even claimed that one Foster song, "Old Kentucky Home," awakened, "the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish."
Foster eventually moved from Pittsburgh to New York to be closer to the music publishing world. Seeking to gain a respectability from his work that had so far eluded him, he focused on producing parlor music. He even published an instrumental arrangement of popular operatic melodies. It enhanced his reputation, but earned him little money.
In 1855, the death of both his parents and one of his brothers in quick succession depressed a Foster who was already drinking too much. He hit the bottle even harder. The more he drank, the less he wrote. In 1857, desperately short of cash, he sold the rights to all his songs for a pittance; some of them he priced at a dollar apiece.
The washed-up Foster spent his last years in an alcoholic haze. No longer able to command royalties for his songs, he cranked them out for a flat fee. He died at the age of 37, leaving little behind save a worn leather purse containing 38 cents and a scrap of paper on which he'd scribbled a lyric fragment, "dear friends and gentle hearts," it said.