Skip To Content
Stephen Foster | Article

Musical Movements: Impact, Influence and Issues

foster-events-african-american-music.jpg
Library of Congress

African American Music in Stephen Foster's Time
Both free and enslaved African American people in antebellum America composed and performed music in a wide variety of styles. Like their white counterparts, they listened to and performed the songs of Stephen Foster and other popular white composers.

Brought to America in captivity and sold into slavery, Africans carried their culture with them as best they could. Music and dance — an integral part of African life — became an important part of life for blacks in America. Both slaves and free blacks used music as an accompaniment to work, worship, and celebration. For money, for fun, and at the command of plantation masters, blacks played music and sang at public performances and private social gatherings catering to both whites and blacks. 

In Northern cities, a small number of black musicians gained the kind of renown usually reserved for whites. Frank Johnson, a talented musician and prolific composer, led orchestras and string bands that gave gala public performances in Philadelphia and other locales. Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, known as the Black Swan, toured the North from 1851 and 1853; her voice was compared favorably to that of international opera star Jenny Lind. Both Johnson and Greenfield also toured England and performed for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace.

From 1821 to 1828, New York's African Grove Theater played host to black productions of ballets, plays, and so-called ballad operas — plays that were supplemented by musical performances. The theater was closed down by the city after complaints about rowdy behavior. At least one observer blamed the trouble on white patrons, who had a special area in the theater reserved for them. In 1848, African American Peter O'Fake conducted a performance of the Newark Theatre Orchestra — the first documented instance of a black conductor leading a white orchestra.

Most black urban musicians practiced their trade in less formal settings. African American fiddlers were popular fixtures in dance halls, where they spun out the jigs and reels that kept white patrons on the move. Black musicians, including banjo players, guitarists, horn players, and singers performed at all manner of social events, from parties to formal balls. Black stevedores sang work songs in shipyards, and among the whites who listened were composers such as Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett, inventor of the minstrel show. Marching bands enjoyed great popularity across America, and blacks were represented there as well.

Music played a key role in African American religious life. Hymns and spirituals, many written by black composers, accompanied preaching in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and other congregations. But it wasn't until about the 1840s that choral singing and musical instruments made their way into church services. In the South, white slaveholders feared religion as an opportunity for slaves to organize, and severely restricted worship. Yet in services both public and private, Southern blacks joined in songs of praise. Private worship often included "shouts," ecstatic spiritual circle dances that had a basis in traditional African ceremonies. Accompanied by singing and chanting, shouts often went on for hours at a time.

On Southern plantations, slaves sang work songs as they chopped cotton, loaded wagons, and stripped tobacco. They also performed music for the social gatherings of their white masters. When work was done, slaves turned to music as a source of recreation, singing and dancing jigs and reels to the fiddle, the banjo, and the tambourine. The instruments they used were frequently fashioned from gourds, cigar boxes, and other found materials. Some musicians even used their own bodies as instruments, "patting Juba," or providing rhythmic accompaniment by slapping their chests and thighs, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands. The melodies and lyrics of the tunes blacks played were often directly descended from African songs. 

From the first arrival of Africans in America, traditional tribal music strongly influenced the music of American blacks. As late as 1843, a weekly gathering in New Orleans' Place Congo drew hundreds of traditional African dancers and drummers and thousands of spectators. By then, the rich mixture of African and European music had already begun. Soon, white composers like Stephen Foster and Dan Emmett would gain fame with "Ethiopian" minstrel songs that reflected their ideas of black life and music. White minstrels would perform these songs using banjos, fiddles, tambourines, and even animal jaw rattles — instruments popular with African American players. 

In turn, white music influenced the compositions and performances of African Americans. Black musicians like Frank Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield performed popular, classical and opera music written by Europeans and European Americans. Singers in African American churches used the Bible as a source of lyrics for their spirituals, often choosing a verse or two and writing more lyrics of their own or writing new lyrics to traditional European hymns. And when minstrel songs written by Stephen Foster and other composers became popular, they were listened to, performed, and altered by black musicians. By the time of Foster's death in 1864, it would be hard for many Americans to tell the difference between popular and folk songs, or the racial identities of the people who wrote each.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Takes the Nation by Storm
Although it was first published as a newspaper serial, many Americans encountered Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time as a musical play. Not surprisingly, the plantation songs of Stephen Foster often accompanied such musicals.

Stowe's story of an African American family's oppression under the "peculiar institution" of slavery struck an immediate chord with Northern readers, most of whom had never witnessed Southern slavery firsthand. First presented serially in the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper, in 1851 and 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin became an instant success. Published as a novel in March 1852, it sold some 300,000 copies in that year alone. 

If the book exposed many Americans to the horrors of slavery, it also depicted African Americans in a new way — not as the carefree, shuffling caricatures of the minstrel shows, but as they were: fully human, and capable of the same range and sophistication of thought an emotion as their white counterparts. The story deeply affected white audiences in the North, including composer Stephen Foster, who had gained fame writing blackface minstrel songs such as "Uncle Ned" and "Camptown Races."

By the time Uncle Tom's Cabin made its debut, Foster had begun to distance himself from such blackface minstrel songs, which mocked African American speech patterns and almost universally portrayed blacks as buffoons. In his 1850 composition "Nelly Was a Lady," Foster afforded an African American woman dignity in song that she would likely not be afforded in life. Two years later, he wrote E. P. Christy, leader of a minstrel troupe that performed Foster's songs, that "by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian song among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order."

Foster undoubtedly recognized some of his own feelings about African Americans and slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel inspired "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!," one of Foster's most enduring hits. Written in standard English rather than dialect, and expressing deep, authentic emotion, it represented another move away from blackface. In the song's original draft, Foster titled it "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night," and included a chorus:

Oh, good night, good night, Poor Uncle Tom Grieve not for your old Kentucky home Your [sic] bound for a better land Old Uncle Tom.

Given the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is not surprising that it was soon adapted into a play — without Stowe's permission. The first significant production, directed and with songs written by George Howard, premiered in Troy, New York, on September 27, 1852. By the following year, the play had hit New York City; soon, companies across the North were producing their own versions. Many productions featured Stephen Foster songs, notably "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!," "Old Folks at Home," and "Massa's in the Cold Ground."

The Civil War put an end to slavery in America. Still, "Tom shows," as the plays came to be known, drew large audiences through the end of the century. As song and theater changed, so did Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the 1870s, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers popularized African American spirituals. Soon, productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin featured such songs. Some productions even added the kind of variety acts that would later typify vaudeville shows. Still, Stephen Foster's songs often found their way into later productions. Stephen Foster and Harriet Beecher Stowe were gone, but their work, among the first to bring dignity to African Americans, lived on.

Stephen Foster Backs Buchanan
As Pennsylvania Democrat James Buchanan battled Republican John C. Frémont in the bitter presidential race of 1856, an unlikely ally came to Buchanan's aid — songwriter Stephen Foster, one of America's favorite composers. Foster had already written such popular hits as "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night," and "Camptown Races." Now, he put his songwriting talents to use as musical director of Pittsburgh's Buchanan Glee Club.

Given Foster's political and familial history, his support of Buchanan seems like a natural. Stephen's father, William Barclay Foster, won election to the Pennsylvania legislature and the mayoralty of Allegheny, a Pittsburgh suburb, on the Democratic ticket. His loyalty to the party provided a steady stream of patronage jobs for himself and his son Henry. Stephen's sister Ann Eliza further cemented the connection to James Buchanan by marrying his only brother, the Rev. Edward Buchanan.

Foster's support for the Democrats extended beyond feelings of party and familial loyalty. Though not the most political member of his family, Stephen opposed the tactics of Republican abolitionists. The Democratic platform he allied himself with, which supported popular sovereignty, states' rights, and the Fugitive Slave Act, solidly supported pro-slavery positions. Scholars today disagree about how to characterize Stephen Foster's views on abolition, though like many Northerners and Democrats he may have opposed slavery but still believed African Americans to be an inferior race.

More than the issues, though, it was the Republicans' rallies and sloganeering that Foster found distasteful. What he objected to most of all was the political use of non-voters, which at the time included everyone in the population except white men. Stephen wrote a political song that satirized a Republican rally as a gathering of everyone who could not vote, including "raccoons and oxen" and "women and boys." An early version of the song, which Stephen drafted in his sketchbook, included "niggers and ruffians/raccoons and fools."

At the first meeting of the Buchanan Glee Club, on August 6th, 1856, Stephen was not the only Foster present. His older brother Morrison, an ardent Democrat who had, in fact, recruited his brother to the cause, was elected the group's treasurer. According to one participant's recollection, the Glee Club also included a "bodyguard" of between 50 and 100 men. An incident occurring shortly after the formation of the Glee Club shows why such a vanguard might be necessary.

During a public march, Glee Club members stopped in the street in front of the home of some friends to sing a few songs, including at least one of Foster's. When a passerby insisted on singing out of turn, a scuffle ensued. It quickly developed into a full-scale riot, thanks to members of the Pittsburgh Fire Department. Ardent Republicans with a known disposition for brawling, the firemen attacked the Glee Club with unrestrained fury. Foster and some other men escaped, thanks to their loyal bodyguard.

If Foster failed to hold his own in political street fights, he unleashed his fury in pro-Buchanan — and anti-Frémont — ditties that were notable for their scathing tone if not for their musical complexity. "The White House Chair" implored voters to hold the Union together by voting Buchanan and the Democrats, whose "creed is broad and fair." "The Abolition Show" (originally titled "The Great Baby Show") attacked Frémont's pro-abolition position, ridiculed blacks, and attempted to link the Republicans to the violence in the Kansas border wars.

When the votes were counted, James Buchanan had won, although the Buchanan Glee Club probably had a limited effect on the outcome. As his candidate settled into the White House, Stephen Foster was a man on the brink of a long downhill slide. The Buchanan songs represented two-thirds of Foster's musical output for the year, and none of his songs from 1856 would be remembered for long.

The Yale Glee Club Nixes Foster
In the fall of 1996, Stephen Foster's songs drew fire from members of one of Yale University's most esteemed clubs. The Yale Glee Club had been invited to sing at the Bard College Festival at New York's Lincoln Center. The Festival planned a tribute to composer Charles Ives, a member of the Glee Club and the Yale Class of 1898. A portion of the program focused on the music popular during Ives' tenure at Yale. Among the songs in this part of the program were three Stephen Foster songs, including "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!"

The Glee Club began rehearsal for the Bard Festival in the fall of 1996. Just two days after the Stephen Foster songs were introduced to the club's members, Kimberly Daniel and Aurore Victor, the club's only African American members, announced they would refuse to sing them. At the heart of the controversy were Foster's allegedly racist lyrics. "I objected to the songs," said Victor, "because they were historically inaccurate, used derogatory statements, and glorified slavery."

This was not the first time that songs associated with American slavery had caused controversy. In 1997 the Virginia senate voted to remove "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" as its state song because of lyrical references to "darkeys" and "old massa." The song, written in 1875 during the Reconstruction Era, expresses a prevalent myth of the time among some white Americans that blacks were failing in the post-Civil War economy and were better off in slavery. Florida legislators tried, but failed, to revoke state song status from Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home," also because of a lyrical reference to "darkeys." 

In a Yale Glee Club meeting about the Foster controversy, some members favored withdrawal of the Foster songs. Others, including Glee Club Director David Connell, argued that the lyrics should be viewed in their historical context, and that the Foster songs should be performed. By the meeting's end, the club had decided not to sing "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!" In an attempt to put the controversy behind the group, Glee Club president Erik Lien publicly burned a copy of the song.

Controversy over whether to perform the other two songs continued. While some Yalies bemoaned the rise of political correctness, an editorial in the Yale Daily News declared that "America's Slave Past Belongs in Museums," not in performances at Lincoln Center. Eventually, another Foster song was deleted from the Bard Festival program. And within the month, Victor and Daniel announced they would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the Glee Club. 

Stephen Foster himself described the lyrics of blackface minstrel songs as "the trashy and really offensive." He was among the first popular songwriters to create songs that depicted black men and women with individual dignity. But more than a century after his death, the struggle to reconcile his musical and poetic talent with his controversial lyrics remained.

Support Provided by: Learn More