STEPHEN COLLINS FOSTER
Arguably America's most beloved and popular melodist, Stephen Collins Foster became the nation's first truly
great professional songwriter, who managed to compose over 200 songs in his tragically short life.
Born in Pittsburgh, PA on July 4, 1826, on the same day that both Presidents Jefferson and Madison died, Foster
came from an an educated and relatively affluent family of patriots, though a sharp reversal in his father's fortunes
forced the family to abandon the composer's idyllic birthplace when Stephen was a boy.
Despite the urgings of his father
and brothers to enter the world of commerce, Stephen's inclinations remained musical. Throughout his youth he
delighted in playing the flute, guitar, and, to some degree, the piano, in attending theatrical entertainments--among
them minstrel shows--and in composing songs for a the Knights of the S.T., a thespian society he formed with his friends
in 1844. That year also marked his first song publication, OPEN THY LATTICE LOVE, and for the next six years before
his marriage to Jane McDowell in 1850, Foster's skill and fame as a songwriter steadily grew.
Determined to function
as a full-fledged artistic and business professional, he rented an office in 1851 shortly after the birth of his
daughter Marion. The next decade would prove a tumultuous one for Foster. There were incompatibilities in his
marital situation that caused him to separate, reconcile and separate from Jane; his finances took a turn for the
worse (owing largely to the lack of copyright protection), and his health also deteriorated, worsened in no small
measure by his alcoholism. Saddened and conflicted by the outbreak of the Civil War, Foster spent his last years
in New York City, living on the Bowery and writing songs for ready cash. When he died on January 13, 1864 at
Bellevue Hospital, weakened by a severe shaving accident and fall, his purse contained thirty-eight cents and a
scrap of paper with the scrawled inscription: "Dear friends and gentle hearts."
Foster can truly be termed the trunk of the tree of American song. His roots reach deep into the soil of three continents;
his branches span two centuries and stretch out toward a third.
The songs he composed between 1844 and 1864 gave America
a body of melodies so popular that while one critic complained of their omnipresence on the lips of our citizens,
HARPER'S NEW MONTHLY MAGAZINE ventured to dub them our national music. Translated into countless languages, the
tunes re-outfitted with new lyrics for different occasions, Foster's works made their way across the vast frontiers of
19th century America and on to the far-reaches of the globe, at the same time that they took an enduring hold in those
most intimate of places: the home and the heart.
One of the ironies about the pervasiveness of Foster's music is that what were actually carefully structured and revised
compositions which melded word and melody with great sensitivity and purposefulness were frequently perceived as simple
folk songs. While the folk tradition was both a potent influence on and dynamic outgrowth from Foster's melodies, the
reason for this perception more likely rests on the composer's extraordinary--and seemingly effortless-- gift for absorbing the sounds around him and transforming them into a voice that appeared to resonate from deep within the collective consciousness. Among the sounds which inspired Foster were the bel canto melodies of European opera, the ballads of the Anglo-Celtic tradition, the melodramas of the budding American concert song, and the music of African-Americans brought to these shores as slaves. From each of these diverse traditions, Foster extracted an essence which contributed to the shaping of his own inimitable and indomitable talent as a poet and melodist.
From Donizetti's and Bellini's graceful, melismatic arias, he created the languid romance of songs like LINGER IN
BLISSFUL REPOSE (1858) or THE VOICE OF BYGONE DAYS (1850), while from Robert Burns and Thomas Moore, he distilled not
only the haunting tunefulness , but also the deep strain of pathos that pervades the Celtic tradition.
appreciation for Scots-Irish song was based not only on his Scottish ancestry, but also on the overwhelming popularity
of three seminal song collections which were products of the European Folk Movement of the late eighteenth century and
nineteenth centuries: James Johnson's SCOTS MUSICAL MUSEUM (to which Robert Burns was a primary contributor), George
Thomson's NATIONAL AIRS and Thomas Moore's IRISH MELODIES. It was from these song books that Foster, as a child, heard
his beloved sister Charlotte sing and accompany herself at the piano, and they exerted a potent visceral influence on
him--an influence which was both literal (Foster quotes, for example, ROBIN ADAIR in SADLY TO MINE HEART APPEALING, 1858)
and spiritual. Not only did Foster aspire to emulate Burns' and Moore's tenderness of lyrical expression and passion
for the common man, but he also sought to absorb their sentiment-rich vocabulary, their unerring instinct for
capturing the rhythms of their native dialects, and their belief that poetry consisted of words meant to be sung,
not read! "There is blood on every page that Burns writes," Walt Whitman once declared. The same could have been
said of Moore, whose unabashed Irish patriotism turned the drawing rooms of which he was an idol into salons of
The same blood--the passion and suffering of a race of people--finds eloquent expression in the song tradition which
African-Americans developed in America. Intermingling the rhythms and chant structures of their lost homeland with the
strains of white hymnody and Anglo ballads, blacks produced a rich treasure trove of spirituals, gospel songs, and work
tunes. Foster's access to this music may, indeed, have begun, as his brother asserts, with hearing the family's black
servant, Olivia Pise, sing, but his fascination must also have stemmed from the popularity of the minstrel show and of
the hybrid genre, euphemistically termed "Ethiopian song"-- northern white impressions of plantation life that derived
musically as much from black idioms as they did from the British folk song tradition.
Though these songs present difficulties for a modern audience which now spurns their minstrel dialect, over-simplification
of feelings and politics, and their connection to the exploitative treatment of African-Americans, it is important to
note that within the context of Foster's period they represented a popular source of entertainment for both races.
Moreover, to Foster's credit it must be remembered that while his early songs used conventions of the Ethiopian style,
he, subsequently eschewed dialect, forbade caricatures to be published on the covers of his sheet music, and sought,
to the best of his abilities and within the temper of his times, to refine, humanize, and transform this genre into
what he preferred to call "plantation song." In works like NELLY WAS A LADY (1849) and OLD BLACK JOE (POOR OLD JOE,
1860) Foster endowed his African-American protagonists with a color-blind dignity and humanity, just as in MY OLD
KENTUCKY HOME (1853) (whose universality is especially evident in a foreign-language translation) he sang less about
the longing of slaves for their "home" plantation than he did about the yearning of all weary wandering souls for a
physical and spiritual dwelling.
Foster's hugely popular OH! SUSANNA (1848) not only launched the composer on his successful career as a songwriter, but
influenced a wide range of subsequent compositions in both the folk and art song genres. Foster's Ethiopian and
plantation songs were popularized by both black and white performing groups from the Christy Minstrels to the
Hutchinsons, the Hamptons, and later to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and their influence can be felt in far-reaching
forms: from the white song sermons of YMCA founder Philip Bliss, who blended the revivalist tradition of the
Salvation Army with his own love of African-American music and Stephen Foster; to the spirituals of Henry Thacker
Burleigh; to the art song adaptations of Aaron Copland (OLD AMERICAN SONGS, A LINCOLN PORTRAIT), Charles Ives
(SYMPHONY # 2, THREE PLACES IN NEW ENGLAND, THINGS OUR FATHERS LOVED, THOREAU), John Carpenter, and John Jacob
Niles; to the ballad makers of the American frontier, and to the contemporary renditions of Ray Charles
(OLD FOLKS, SWANEE RIVER ROCK).
For all the impact of his plantation songs, however, the heart of Foster's legacy lies in the 135 ballads or romantic
parlor songs he composed. These lilting melodies of home and hearth, love and longing owe as much to the musico-poetic
language of Burns, Moore, and the Victorian ethos as they do to the unique socio-political circumstances of America in the
mid- 19th century. In an age of insecurity with a nation cleft in two, families rent apart, and the idyll of a wilderness
paradise gradually transforming itself into a nightmare of carnage and industrial trauma, Foster's delicate images of
transience--his wilting flowers, mists, and frail, pure, ethereal women who vanish into death or dreams--are all part of
the ever-present nostalgia for a lost innocence. The same lonesome longing permeates the poetry of one of Foster's
favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe, as it does in the music of his contemporaries like George Frederick Root and Henry
Among Foster's most influential and poignant compositions in this vein are AH! MAY THE RED ROSE LIVE ALWAY (1850), inspired
by Burns' A RED, RED ROSE; GENTLE ANNIE (1856), one of his most refined lyrics, prompted by witnessing the death of a
young girl in a carriage accident; JEANIE WITH THE LIGHT BROWN HAIR (1854),
whose lilting ballad form with its lullaby
echoes recalls the idyllic period of reconciliation in his marriage when he lived with Jane and his daughter in Hoboken,
NJ, at the height of his fame;
Listen to "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" in the Songbook
the lesser-known gem, MOLLY, DO YOU LOVE ME? (1850); the gracefully ornamented harmonies
of the quartet, COME WHERE MY LOVE LIES DREAMING (1855); and what may have been his last song, BEAUTIFUL DREAMER
(published posthumously in 1864), with its sublime evocation of a gossamer world where imagination takes flight and
harmonious beauty drives out the rude realities of the world.
Listen to "Beautiful Dreamer" in the Songbook
Songs of Social
On more than one occasion, however, Foster could abandon the wishful reverie that characterizes his most popular works and
carol in a voice marked by irony, parody, social consciousness. Periodically throughout his career Foster indulged in
political satire composing songs like THE ABOLITION SHOW (1856) or THE GREAT BABY SHOW, where he mocks the fanaticism of
a rally that employs even infants, or THAT'S WHAT'S THE MATTER, where he bolsters Union spirits with a rollicking tune
about drubbing the Confederates. Wry humor also surfaces in the boyishly risque KISSING IN THE DARK or the atypically
funny MY WIFE IS A MOST KNOWIN' WOMAN (1863), set to lyrics by George Cooper, a New Yorker who befriended Foster in his
last days and helped him eke out a living composing saleable theatrical songs for the vaudeville houses. In this latter
song, however, a jarring pathos pierces the transparent mask of mockery which Foster dons: his failing health,
aggravated by drink, was to precipitate his death a few months later. The same ability to confront a sensitive
theme with touching honesty is heard in COMRADES FILL NO GLASS FOR ME (1855), written for the myriad Temperance
Movements of the time (which even his father had embraced), though it is not without its own confessional subtext.
The plaintive strings heard in the Gaelic-sounding melody remind of Thomas Moore's drinking songs with their
blend of mournful camaraderie, while the sentimental moralizing is virtually Dickensian and not without the great
author's ability to rouse emotions. Dickens's HARD TIMES certainly inspired the title of another of Foster's
socially conscious songs, though in HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE (1854), he was, his brother noted, also making
reference to the nationwide wave of empathy for the oppressed that Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, UNCLE TOM'S
CABIN, had created.
In these genres Foster served as a powerful role model for other American composers of "the people's music." This long
line stems directly from Foster to Root; to Henry Clay Work and Walter Kittredge with his poignant TENTING TONIGHT ON THE
OLD CAMPGROUND; to Harriet Tubman who began the process of using Foster tunes to set freedom lyrics. It continues with a long
line of 20th century troubadours: Woodie Guthrie, whose gritty DUST BOWL BALLADS complement his grimly affirmative
paean, THIS LAND IS MY LAND; his son Arlo; Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and , of course, Pete Seeger,
who, like Burns, Moore, and the other folk collector-composers before him, has borrowed tunes from Foster and other
traditional sources--(WE SHALL OVERCOME is based on an old Sicilian air)--as the settings of new politically relevant
lyrics. In their simplicity and gentle melancholy, Seeger's own compositions, such as WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE?,
also echo the spirit of Burns, Moore, and Foster.
The ability to mirror the temper of the times at the same time transforming these reflections into timeless emotions that
speak to the heart of the people--this has been the genius of this long line of folk-inspired composers from Burns to
Moore to Foster and his descendants. With his spontaneous eclecticism and unabashed heart-on-sleeve naiveté and
romanticism, Stephen Collins Foster came to be the standard bearer of what poet Walt Whitman called heart singing--of
the kind of music-making in which word elevates music and music buoys up the spirit. His poems are the narrations of
an American dreamer, his melodies the voices of the heart.