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Aired April 23, 2001

Stephen Foster

Film Description

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.


Produced by
Beth Hager
Randall MacLowry

Written by
Ken Emerson 
Randall MacLowry

Randall MacLowry

Catherine Shields

Steven W. Ross

Original Music
Tom Phillips

Joe Morton

Associate Producer
Michael J. Williams

Assistant Editor
Michael Menapace

Production Crew
Phil Cousins
Peter Aufiero
E. J. Inscho
John H. Rex
Andrea Campbell

Assistant Camera
Ramone Britt
Simon Manses
John David Pope
Jay Sanchez

Crane Operator
John S. Moyer

Production Assistants
Sandy Kern
Diane Staz

Sound Design
Skip SoRelle

Narration Record
Lou Verrico, Fullhouse Productions

Re-recording Mixer
Bob Elder, East Side Mix

Photo Animation
Berle Cherney, Visual Productions
Tim Bowman

Film Laboratory

Negative Matching
Elliott Gamson, Immaculate Matching

Video Post Production
The Tape House

John J. Dowdell III

On-line Editor
Joe Salleres

Lenwood O. Sloan

Minstrel Dancer
Fernand R. Jackson, Jr.

Michael Christie
Eric Mansilla
Glen Daniels
Jesse Daniels
Jessica Latrice Daniels
Shonté Daniels

Costumes & Props
Howard W. McIntosh
George Wunderlich
Mark Elrod
Paul Foltz, Theatre Harrisburg
Trish McLean
Beth Miller

Archival Footage Research
Joan Cohen
Gail Schumann

Archival Images
Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh

Nicholas M. and Marilyn A. Graver
James F. Bollman
George S. Whiteley, IV
Matthew Isenburg
Kathryn Schwemley
Greg French
Joe, Cory, and Sky Bauman
Howard McManus
Julian Wolff
Archive Photos
The Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley 
Brooklyn Public Library-Brooklyn Collection
California State Library
Chicago Historical Society 
(The Cleveland Museum of Art
The Corcoran Gallery of Art
Denver Public Library, Western History Collection
Courtesy George Eastman House
Historical Society of Dauphin County
Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania
Huntington Museum of Art
Lester S. Levy Collection, The Johns Hopkins University
The Long Island Museum
Library of Congress
The Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Maryland
Michael Ochs
Minnesota Historical Society
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
Museum of the City of New York
New Hampshire Historical Society
(Collection of The New-York Historical Society
Penn School Collection/Penn Center, Inc.
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities
The Saint Louis Art Museum
U.S. Army Military History Institute

Allegheny Cemetery, PA
Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site, PA
Belle of Louisville, KY
Benjamin Doom House, KY
Brush Arbor Appalachian Pioneer Log Village, KY
Evergreen Plantation, LA
Fort Hunter Mansion, PA
Greenwood Plantation, LA
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, WV
Historic Rock Ford Plantation, PA
Marlin Opera House, PA
Oak Alley Plantation, LA
Old Economy Village, PA
Riverside, The Farnsley-Moreman Landing, KY
Schriver House, PA
Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill, KY

Additional Music
"Beautiful Dreamer, ""Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Open Thy Lattice Love"
Arranged by Jay Ungar & Molly Mason
Performed by Thomas Hampson, Jay Ungar, Molly Mason & David Alpher
Courtesy of Angel Records, EMI Capitol

"Camptown Races"
Performed by Johnny Cash
Courtesy of Historic Film Archive

"De Boatmen's Dance, ""Lucy Neal," and "Old Uncle Ned"
(c)1998 Recorded Anthology of American Music, Inc.
Courtesy of New World Records

"Hard Times"
Performed by Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers
Courtesy of TNN - The National Network

"Hard Times Come Again No More"
Performed by Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Families
Courtesy of Ginger Group Productions

"Jim Along Josie" and "Medley: Alabama Joe/Alabama Walkaround"
Performed by Bob Flesher
Courtesy of Rounder Records

"My Old Kentucky Home"
"Oh! Susanna"
Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site

"Oh, Susannah"
Arranged and performed by James Taylor
Used by permission of EMI Blackwood Music Inc. and EMI April Music Inc.
Courtesy of Columbia TriStar Television

"Old Folks at Home"
Performed by Louis Armstrong with the Mills Brothers
Courtesy of Universal Music Group

"Old Folks at Home"
Performed by Richard Crooks
Courtesy of Nimbus Records

"Ring de Banjo"
Performed by The Amoskeag Players
Courtesy of Amoskeag Music

"Swanee River Rock"
Written and performed by Ray Charles
Courtesy of Unichappell Music, Inc., BMI
and Warner Special Products

Jeanine Basinger
Spencer R. Crew
H. Wiley Hitchcock
Eric Lott
Deane L. Root
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
Josephine Wright

Special Thanks
Kathryn Miller Haines

Julie Fasano
Stephanie Miller
Dick Strawser
David & Cinda Taylor
Clarion University Theater Department
Family Heirloom Weavers

Inspired by Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture by Ken Emerson
WITF-TV, Harrisburg


Nanci Griffith, Songwriter: Stephen Foster just reached out and put the hook right in you, you know, the very first line of the song with his melodies and with the lyrics.

Fath Ruffins, Historian: Foster's music is seen as fundamental Americana. When you listen to these songs, you're listening to the history of the United States.

Sean Wilentz, Historian: I can't think of any great American songster, from Jerome Kern to Rogers and Hart to Elvis Presley to, to Bob Dylan, that doesn't owe a great deal to Stephen Foster.

Mel Watkins, Author: Foster was at the forefront of when white culture started to integrate black culture with their own. Foster's music is a combination of these strains. He brought it together, and he made it into something that was quintessentially American.

Song  "Old Folks at Home"

Peter Quinn, Author: There's no way to understand what America is without understanding popular culture. We're a people in search of each other. We come from different backgrounds. We have to find ourselves. And we find ourselves in popular culture. Foster's one of the architects of that common ground that we meet on, that popular culture where we sing the same music.

Narrator: On February 20, 1852, Stephen Foster and his wife Jane boarded a steamboat in Pittsburgh. It was a high point of his career and his marriage.

Narrator: En route to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, the couple was celebrating the success of his most recent hit, "Old Folks at Home," a sentimental song about life on the plantation. It was Foster's only journey to the deep South.

Sean Wilentz, Historian: Here is this Northerner who wrote these songs that we think of as quintessentially Southern.

Narrator: All around the world, people were singing his songs about idyllic life in the South. Foster's party sat on deck and sang "Old Folks at Home" as they drifted past stately mansions and slave shacks -- scenes he had imagined in his songs and now saw for the first time.

Narrator: Home, for Foster, was not the South, and it wasn't really Pittsburgh, either. It was some kind of state of grace from which he had fallen as a child.

Narrator: On July 4, 1826, Stephen Collins Foster was born in the lap of apparent luxury in a village outside Pittsburgh.

Narrator: He was the youngest child of a large, lively and musical family. He spent his first years on a handsome estate called "The White Cottage." Stephen's mother described life there as Eden.

Narrator: A descendant of wealthy plantation owners, Eliza Foster was a doting mother and devoted wife. Her husband, William, was an up-and-coming politician and land speculator.

Deane Root, Musicologist: Stephen's father could have been one of the grand old men of Pittsburgh society, but he lost all of his vast properties. Partly through his own poor business sense, apparently, but also, he did have a big drinking problem. The family was always in great fear of him sliding back to drink.

Narrator: When Stephen was three, the family was forced to leave their beloved White Cottage.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: Stephen Foster was devastated by the loss of his home, even if he knew it not so much in his own memory as in what was told him by his siblings and by his parents. His life was marked by tremendous instability after this, and he was always yearning for a home that he couldn't have. Nostalgia for a lost home is one the deepest impulses behind Stephen Foster's music.

Narrator: In the fall of 1832, the Foster family moved across the Allegheny River from bustling Pittsburgh.

Narrator: While visiting a music store, seven-year-old Stephen picked up a flageolet and quickly mastered the flute-like instrument. "His love of music was an all-absorbing passion," a schoolmate said, "and his execution on the flute was the very genius of melody." Stephen's enthusiasm for music often interfered with his studies. "I promise," he told his parents "not to pay any attention to my music until after eight o'clock in the evening." But little else inspired him. At age 14 he composed his first piece, arranged for four flutes. In the parlor, young Stephen enjoyed singing and playing sentimental ballads with his family.

Fath Ruffins, Historian: The piano in the parlor really comes to be a symbol of middle-class life and, in particular, the role of women. Part of her role is to create beauty and a pleasing environment for the family to, children to be nurtured in and for the husband to experience civility and peace and calm. The piano becomes a focal point for family entertainment of crucial importance in the decades before any kind of recorded music.

Narrator: According to "Godey's Lady's Book," to be seen lugging groceries was unspeakably vulgar, but "a roll of music looks so perfectly genteel." Away from the parlor, Stephen began experimenting with a different kind of music. He, his brother Morrison, and friends put on shows for the neighbors. Stephen was the star. He sang comic songs written in crude black dialect that were part of a craze sweeping the country. This new music captivated the young boys, who caught the latest acts at the Pittsburgh Theater.

SONG  "Jump Jim Crow"

Narrator: Stephen and his friends whooped at the antics of white men who smeared their faces with burnt cork, wore wooly wigs, and made a mockery of black song and dance. It was known as blackface minstrelsy.

Josephine Wright, Musicologist: Minstrelsy did more that any other institution to perpetuate stereotypes of black Americans. The minstrel tunes presented the black man and woman as a source of derision, someone that the white American public could look down upon -- the debasement of their life, their culture, their folk speech, their music.

Mel Watkins, Author: It presented the black character as being stupid, as being comical. It affected all of society because those people who didn't know blacks, and there were many places where there were very few blacks, assumed that those characterizations, those depictions, those foolish characters that we saw on stage, were real black people.

Dale Cockrell, Musicologist: It need hardly be said that minstrelsy is about racial derision. But at the same time, people are having great fun, entertainment. They're embracing a culture that they're seeming to deride at precisely the same time. It's a kind of love and loathing that's happening simultaneously.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: Stephen Foster was drawn to blackface at a young age out of the sheer spirit of fun, of rebellion and high-spirited cool.

Narrator: His parents may have accepted his flirtation with minstrel music as youthful rebellion, but his father was upset when a homesick Stephen dropped out of college after only one week. "He is a very good boy, but I cannot get him to stick at school," his father remarked. "His leisure hours are all devoted to music for which he possesses a strange talent." "Stephen studied deeply," his brother Morrison recalled, "and burned much midnight oil over the works of the masters, especially Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber." At the age of eighteen, he published his first song, a sentimental serenade.

SONG  "Open Thy Lattice Love"
Open thy lattice love Listen to me
The cool balmy breeze is abroad on the sea!
The moon like a queen, roams her realms of blue
And the stars keep their vigils in heaven for you

Narrator: Soon he began writing songs for friends to sing in harmony under his leadership. It was for these sing-a-longs that Stephen composed his first blackface song.

SONG  "Lou'siana Belle"
Oh! Lou'siana's de same old state,
Wha Massa us'd to dwell;
He had a lubly cullud gal.
'Twas the Louisiana Belle.

Oh! belle don't you tell
Don't tell Massa, don't you Belle,

Eric Lott, Historian: When Foster and his buddies gather around the piano and do these songs, it's kind of like in the 50's if you were a middle class guy and you saw Elvis. You knew that Elvis was shaking his hips in ways that wasn't typically countenanced for white middle-class boys.

Narrator: "Stephen would sit at home and improvise by the hour," said Morrison, but his financially strapped family pressured him to get a job. Another brother encouraged him to apply to West Point, but nothing came of it. He swept floors in a cotton factory but soon quit.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: He didn't want to put his nose to the grindstone and his shoulder to the wheel. And this was a difficult thing for any child to rebel against in America at that point, which was the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when everybody was going ahead and getting ahead.

Deane Root, Musicologist: What was gnawing at him was his passion for music and poetry.

Thomas Hampson, Baritone: I think that Stephen Foster found himself very quickly in a world that he didn't fit. And that's not unusual in the artistic, in the artistic mind. The world of Stephen Foster is in the imagination of Stephen Foster.

Narrator: America was on the move in the 1840s. Streaming west to fulfill their "manifest destiny," Americans blazed the Oregon Trail, annexed Texas, invaded Mexico, and struck gold in California. As the nation expanded, tensions over slavery threatened to tear the country apart. By 1847, Foster had moved to Cincinnati on the Ohio River to work as a clerk for his brother's shipping business. His office was just up from the Public Landing where the steamboats docked. Across the river was Kentucky, a slave state. Cincinnati was a major hub on the Underground Railroad and a tinderbox of racial conflict.

Sean Wilentz, Historian: The degree of racial tension was very high. The transcendent part of that was that in that river culture, down on the docks, down where there was mingling between some whites and some blacks, there was a much more easy-going familiarity. To a person like Foster, he would have been able to see a kind of cultural interaction -- songs, foods, ideas, etc. -- in a kind of promiscuous assembly that was extraordinary for a young man growing up in what had been a fairly provincial country up to that point.

Narrator: Through his office window Foster saw, and heard, roustabouts loading and unloading boats. The work songs of black and white boatmen filled the air.

SONG  "De Boatmen's Dance"
High row, de boatmen row
Floatin' down de river de old Ohio.
High row, de boatmen row
Floatin' down de river de old Ohio.

De boatmen dance, de boatmen sing,
De boatmen up to ebry ting

Narrator: Inspired by the sounds around him, he continued to write music. One song was a minstrel tune about two separated black lovers. It would become the biggest hit the world had ever known.

SONG  "Oh! Susanna"
I come from Alabama
With my Banjo on my knee
I'se gwine to Lou'siana
My true lub for to see.
It rained all night de day I left,
De wedder it was dry;
The sun so hot I froze to def
Susanna, don't you cry.

Narrator: Prospectors sang it as they joined the California Gold Rush. The temperance movement refashioned it as "O Rum-seller." And Harriet Tubman sang "The Northern Star," set to the tune of "Oh! Susanna," as she guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad.

Fath Ruffins, Historian: His songs come about at a time when these elements of culture, which once before had only really been very localized, through transportation and through new kinds of printing technologies, come to be portable. You can experience them the same way in California as in Maine.

Eric Lott, Historian: It's somebody in a formative moment of popular culture, a moment when the pop music industry is coming together, and Foster is really there at the emergence of this entire industry. He's one of its main engines.

Peter Quinn, Author: Before Stephen Foster, the largest sale of sheet music is five thousand sheets. With "Oh! Susanna" it's a hundred thousand. All of a sudden, you have people all over the country singing the same song.

Narrator: "Oh! Susanna" was a windfall for everyone but Foster. His music publisher made thousands of dollars and others profited from pirated versions. For the first time, Foster realized that he too could make money writing songs.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: This was his way out, from the work-a-day drab realities of being an accountant. It was an opportunity that he could seize. And so out of this developed a resolve, once the songs became big and once they earned publishers money, he decided, "I want some of mine."

Narrator: He signed contracts with two publishing firms, guaranteeing him a royalty -- two cents on every twenty-five cent piece of sheet music sold -- and then quit his accounting job.

Deane Root, Musicologist: When Foster started, there was nothing, no legal profession to help him out, no precedent for contracts written with a publisher. How would he know what was fair and what wasn't fair? There was no one to help him with this. Stephen Foster decided to be a professional songwriter when nothing like that existed.

Narrator: In the Winter of 1850, Foster -- now 23 -- returned to Pittsburgh to launch his new career.

Narrator: A few months later, a young woman with auburn hair caught Stephen's eye. On July 22, he married 20-year-old Jane Denny McDowell.

Narrator: Jane was the daughter of longtime family friends. Her father, a prominent local physician, had recently died, leaving Jane's mother to raise and marry off half-a-dozen daughters.

Narrator: Jane was an unlikely match. She was practical, conventional, and not at all musical.

Deane Root, Musicologist: He made all these life decisions about what his career was going to be, who his wife was going to be, where he was going to live, all within the course of a few months. It was impulsive, as many things were with Stephen Foster, it was impulsive.

Narrator: Stephen and Jane squeezed into his parents' crowded household, which also included his brother Henry's family. Nine occupants became ten when Jane gave birth to Marion, the Fosters' only child.

Narrator: Foster worked in an upstairs studio behind locked doors. He was disciplined and prolific. Writing both minstrel and parlor songs, he published sixteen compositions in 1850 and just as many the next year.

Medley  Early Songs
"Nelly Bly"

"Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love"

"Ring de Banjo"

"Ah, May the Red Rose Live Alway"

Narrator: Though his parlor songs were modestly popular...

"Camptown Races"

Narrator: ... his blackface songs were famous.

Narrator: "They seemed to travel like the wind from city to city," a friend recalled, "and one had hardly heard them in Pittsburgh when they were being whistled on the streets of New York."

Narrator: He would have preferred to make his mark with parlor ballads, which appealed to the genteel taste of his family, but a song like "Laura Lee" earned only $13 while the blackface "Nelly Bly" made $564.

Narrator: Foster was thrilled by his success, but the vulgarity of blackface made him uncomfortable.

Deane Root, Musicologist: It had been one of the great pains of his relationship with his family that he was writing for theatre and worse still minstrel theatre.

Narrator: Stephen Foster resolved to make blackface respectable as well as profitable.

Narrator: In the 1850s, the most successful minstrel troupe in America was Christy's Minstrels. They staged a less raunchy, more refined blackface show that appealed to middle-class families. "I wish to unite with you," Foster wrote E. P. Christy, the troupe's leader, "in every effort to encourage a taste for this style of music."

Dale Cockrell, Musicologist: Quite consciously, Stephen Foster recognized that the economic clout of the American parlor, the American middle-class, was growing, and that if he was to achieve a livelihood in songwriting, that he had to appeal to that group.

Narrator: Foster's early songs used the dialect of the minstrel stage. But he soon began to replace what he described as the "trashy and really offensive words" of blackface with lyrics and themes more appropriate for the parlor.

Narrator: In 1849, he mourned the passing of a black boatman's wife in "Nelly was a Lady".

SONG —​​​​​​​ "Nelly Was a Lady"
Down on the Mississippi floating,
Long time I trabble on de way,
All night de cottonwood a toting,
Sing for my true lub all de day.
Nelly was a lady
Last night she died,
Toll de bell for lubly Nell
My dark Virginny bride.

Ken Emerson, Author: No American songwriter had ever called an African American woman a "lady" before. Foster began to invest more dignity in African Americans than they had ever previously enjoyed in blackface music.

Narrator: Foster's life now centered totally on music, often at the expense of his family. "He could not bear the slightest noise or interruption in his work," his daughter Marion remembered. "I could not quite understand his sudden change from my gay, almost child-like companion on the street, to the thoughtful preoccupied, almost stern man in the study."

Deane Root, Musicologist: Jane could not understand Stephen's need to be isolated while he was working. She interrupted him. He would fly into screaming fits when she wanted his attention and he was trying to compose. They were incompatible spiritually in some way because she was not musical she could not understand his passion, his devotion and this was his life.

Thomas Hampson, Baritone: Would Foster have done anything else? No. He was a songwriter. He was a musician. He was an artist.

Narrator: Increasingly, he spent evenings out, playing music with friends and drinking into the early morning.

Narrator: In the Summer of 1851, Foster was struggling over lyrics about plantation life on South Carolina's Pee Dee River. Unhappy with the name of the river, he consulted an atlas and discovered one in Florida he'd never heard of. The song was soon finished.

SONG —​​​​​​​ "Old Folks at Home"
Way down upon de Swanee ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere's wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere's wha de old folks stay.

Narrator: "Old Folks at Home" was a huge hit. "Pianos and guitars groan with it," reported the Albany State Register, "sentimental young ladies sing it, boatmen roar it out at all times, and the butcher's boy treats you to a strain or two of it as he hands in the steaks for dinner."

Peter Quinn, Author: In the 1850s as more and more people are leaving the land going into the cities, there's a sense that we're gaining something but we're losing something. That we've lost our home or are in search of a home. And you hear that theme in his music about the "Old Folks At Home," finding your way home, and that he heard this and that he put it in songs that all different groups could sing and have different images in their head, but they were singing about the same thing.

SONG — "Old Folks at Home"
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam

Narrator: "Old Folks at Home" merged a blackface fantasy of life on the plantation with memories of Foster's own childhood in the White Cottage.

SONG — "Old Folks at Home"
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: He projected upon African American his own longings and anxieties. After all, Foster had been dispossessed of his home when he was a child. He knew about the frailty and fragility of families, this yearning for home and for connection.

Narrator: Foster's portrayal of plantation life was naïve, especially as the national debate over slavery intensified. A critic charged it was like all other minstrel songs -- "black things white-washed, or white things black-washed."

Mel Watkins, Author: These were images of black people who were treated well and supposedly wanted to go back to the South because they were so comfortable in slavery. What was basically missing there was the slaves' rebellious spirit, the slaves' understanding that slavery was wrong and need to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.

Narrator: Still, African Americans took the song to heart. Slaves sang it in cotton fields down South, and a former slave recounted how another won her hand by serenading her with "Old Folks at Home."

Narrator: Foster had succeeded in fusing blackface with the nostalgic sentiments of the parlor, and "Old Folks at Home" was as popular in middle-class homes as on minstrel stages.

Narrator: The song became the property of the people. The one person who could not lay claim to it was Foster. For an additional $15 he had sold E. P. Christy the right to be credited as author of what would become his biggest seller.

Eric Lott, Historian: He backed into blackface music, wasn't altogether comfortable penning those songs. But at a certain point, partly because of financial concerns or maybe even mostly because of financial concerns, he says, "Look, they're mine and I want them back and I want to be known as this kind of blackface writer."

Narrator: "I have concluded to pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame and establish my name as the best Ethiopian songwriter," he wrote Christy. "But I am not encouraged in undertaking this so long as 'Old Folks at Home' stares me in the face with another's name on it."

Narrator: In March 1852, a novel appeared in bookstores in Pittsburgh and throughout the North that would stir Foster and the nation. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe attacked the evils of slavery, encouraging abolitionists and outraging slaveholders.

Narrator: Foster's reaction to the book was conflicted. He sympathized with the plight of Stowe's terrorized slaves. Yet, like the rest of his family, he was a so-called "Doughface Democrat," tolerating slavery in order to preserve the Union.

Thomas Hampson, Baritone: I don't think he was an active abolitionist any more than he was an active racist. I don't think he was an active anything. I don't think it was about Stephen Foster. I think it was about a place he wanted people and himself to be.

Narrator: In his sketchbook, he wrote a few lines of a song he first called "Poor Uncle Tom, good night." By the time it was published, he had removed explicit references to the novel, but the song preserved the wrenching story of a slave family's separation.

SONG — "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night"
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home,
'Tis summer, the darkies are gay,
The corn top's ripe and the meadow's in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.

The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy and bright:

By'n by Hard Times comes a knocking at the door,
Then my old Kentucky Home, good night!

Dale Cockrell, Musicologist: "My Old Kentucky Home" is Stephen Foster's shining moment. It's filled with lyrical lines that are of surpassing beauty. The chorus just kind of wafts in the air: "Weep no more, my lady, weep no more today."

SONG —​​​​​​​ "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night"
Weep no more my lady,
oh weep no more today

Dale Cockrell, Musicologist: People sing the song, understand the sentiment of the song and then are halfway through the song and realize that this is a song about a slave sold down river. And I think struck home that slavery is something that is their problem as well as something that's a Southern problem.

Narrator: Even the black leader and abolitionist Frederick Douglass admired the sentiments of "My Old Kentucky Home." "They awaken the sympathies for the slave," he stated, "in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish."

Fath Ruffins, Historian: Frederick Douglass saw the benefit of his portrayals as being tragic and sentimental in ways which stirred feelings of perhaps not equality but feelings that no one should be treated in this way.

Sean Wilentz, Historian: It imparted to black people a degree of grace, humanity, dignity, which they had not had before in American culture. How conscious he was of what he was doing is another question. But his songs had a quality that was larger than themselves and actually went well beyond what he himself could have intended.

Narrator: Recognizing the value of Foster's name, his New York publisher began promoting him as "THE SONGWRITER OF AMERICA." Only twenty-seven years old, Foster was at the height of his musical talent and popularity.

Narrator: In the spring of 1853, Jane and Stephen separated. Family and friends gossiped that Jane "did not care for music and hoped that Stephen would give up songwriting." She "nagged Stephen constantly," they said, "so that he became increasingly moody."

Narrator: The suffocating Foster household -- and her husband's growing drinking problem -- added to Jane's frustration. Taking Marion, she moved in with her mother.

Eric Lott, Historian: He tries to maintain a middle-class life with a wife and a child, but it fails him at every turn and he is constantly feeling displaced, away from his family, drunk. He's a Bohemian recruit who is trying to maintain the middle-class persona and the two come into sharp contradiction.

Narrator: Stephen moved to New York to be close to the music publishing industry.

Peter Quinn, Author: In 1853 when Foster comes to New York, his music is being sung in New York. It's part of the beginnings of the popular song industry that will come to be centered in New York at Tin Pan Alley. And he is a celebrity. He's sought out by the newspapers. People want to talk to him.

Nanci Griffith, Songwriter: That was unheard of, for a songwriter to become so popular, but it was like waiting for the new Bruce Springsteen record to come out. At that time, it was sheet music. And, you know, people would scramble to go and buy this sheet music.

Narrator: But the New York critics scorned his popular blackface songs. "Much of his music is excellent," the Musical World & Times noted, "but being wedded to negro idioms it is discarded by many who would otherwise gladly welcome it to their pianos. We were glad to learn from Mr. F. that he intends to devote himself principally hereafter to the production of 'White men's' music.'"

Deane Root, Musicologist: One of the great ironies of Foster's career is that he earned the most from the minstrel songs, but they tailed off in his production. He stopped writing them. He needed acceptance for what he was writing by the highest cultured taste in this country.

Narrator: Soon after moving to New York, he published the Social Orchestra, a collection of seventy-three instrumental arrangements of popular songs, classical melodies and operatic arias. It was his most ambitious bid for respectability, but he made only $150 compared to the $1,300 "My Old Kentucky Home," brought in.

Narrator: His earnings averaged $1,400 a year -- a middle-class income for the time. By all accounts, he should have been making more.

Deane Root, Musicologist: Foster was generating millions of dollars of profit for publishers. He had no income except for an outright payment from the publisher or a minuscule royalty on sales that he couldn't track. He had no way of knowing whether he was being paid fairly or not. If he lived in the 20th century with all the protections and legal resources that we have today, he would be making tens of million dollars a year.

SONG —​​​​​​​ "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air

Narrator: In June 1854, he published a wistful Irish ballad that was only modestly successful.

Narrator: In his first draft, "Jeanie" was "Jennie," Stephen's nickname for Jane.

Ken Emerson, Biographer: In the original version of the song, Jenny is dead. Her chilled form lies low. She's in the grave. And it's almost as if Stephen wished that Jane were dead. And then, in subsequent versions, she becomes back to life. It's almost as if he feels guilty because of his desire to wish Jenny dead, and so he comes to wishing that they were reunited.

Narrator: That year, Stephen and Jane reconciled. She and Marion joined him in New York and together they set up home across the river in Hoboken, New Jersey.

Peter Quinn, Author: One of the great American dreams is that if we change places, we'll change our lives. And he goes to Hoboken to set up this little domestic place where he'll finally live with Jane and raise their daughter. And Stephen Foster in Hoboken is the same person he was in Cincinnati and New York. Nothing really changes.

Narrator: Within months, Stephen abruptly returned to Pittsburgh and his parents -- to be joined only later by his wife and daughter.

SONG  "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair"
Oh!.......I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low,
Never more to find her
where the bright waters flow.

Narrator: Foster returned home at a time of economic hardship. "Hard times were the general subject of talk," noted one observer, "with no sign of any let-up on their hardness." Unemployment was widespread in Pittsburgh and the Fosters were forced to add a boarder to their already crowded house.

Narrator: Instead of retreating to his familiar dream world, Foster evoked the harsh reality in his own backyard.

SONG —​​​​​​​ "Hard Times Come Again No More"
Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
While we all sup sorrow with the poor:
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.

Peter Quinn, Author: He really writes the first song that's about an economic crisis. It's "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?" in the 1850s. And that comes out of this ability of his to stand back and listen, not just — never to look down on the people but to try to hear what they're saying and put it into music.

Nanci Griffith, Songwriter: His songs were like small short stories with beautiful melodies.

SONG —​​​​​​​ "Hard Times Come Again No More"
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay
There are frail forms fainting at the door:
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.

Narrator: Hard times hit home on January 18, 1855, when Stephen's mother died of a stroke. Six months later, his father died, followed by his brother Dunning, dead of tuberculosis. They were buried in Allegheny Cemetery, less than a mile from the paradise lost of the White Cottage.

SONG -- "Hard Times Come Again No More"
Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.

Narrator: Foster drank more and wrote less. In 1856, he published one song. The following year, he produced only one more. He was trapped in a vicious cycle of declining artistic productivity and increasing alcoholic intake.

Narrator: His income plummeted. He survived on advances from his publisher that drove him deeply into debt. "Please send me $12," Stephen requested of his brother Morrison, "I require this amount for little washing bills, etc., which are, you know, the most perplexing."

Narrator: Foster resorted to selling the future rights to all his songs.

Deane Root, Musicologist: He had nothing to sell, except his own talents. He felt washed-up. And the whole idea of the professional songwriter working at the office like his brothers collapsed.

Narrator: Jane, frustrated and desperate, eventually left Stephen for good. She took a job as a telegraph operator to support herself and Marion.

Peter Quinn, Author: She married somebody when Foster was on the way up, and he went down, but he didn't take her with him, nor his daughter. She had the strength of character and mind and the independence to go out and make her own way.

Narrator: In 1860, Foster returned to New York to try to salvage his career. He hadn't written a hit in seven years and his name no longer commanded respect.

Narrator: With his back against the wall, he cranked out songs, publishing 76 in three years. But they were mostly second-rate.

Deane Root, Musicologist: There's a change in his attitude during the Civil War in New York. No longer does he have this professional resolve. A lot of the music is tossed off for the few dollars that he can get from the hand of a publisher. He's lost respect in himself. He has lost respect for the goals or the mission that he had set for his career.

Narrator: He was living at the time in a boarding house on the Bowery and hanging out in a bar in the backroom of a shabby German grocery store.

Narrator: On a raw, snowy day, a young man entered in search of Foster. A law student with a penchant for poetry, George Cooper had written some lines that he told Foster he "fondly hoped might be wedded to immortal melody."

Narrator: Foster quickly fashioned a tune and then set to work on the piano accompaniment. "When in doubt as to a proper note," Cooper remarked, "his right hand would run up and down imaginary piano keys as the finishing touches were made to the song."

Narrator: They sold the song that very night for $25. It was the first of nearly two dozen songs that the duo of Foster and Cooper produced.

Narrator: Foster seldom wrote lyrics anymore, mostly hastily written melodies, and called Cooper "the left wing of the song factory." Even with the support of his new partner, Foster was a beaten man. He "drank constantly," said Cooper. "He was indifferent to food, often making a meal of apples and turnips from the grocery shop."

Narrator: From time to time, a friend later recalled, Foster would entertain the regulars of the grocery barroom by singing "Hard Times."

Narrator: Then, rising above the wreckage of his life, Foster found inspiration to write one of his most enduring songs.

SONG  "Beautiful Dreamer"
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dew drops are waiting for thee

Peter Quinn, Author: It's this desire for something else, not the reality that we live in but the dream. I mean that's what we talk about--the American dream. That echoes in that song "Beautiful Dreamer." It's not just a love song, a man dreaming about a woman. It's what we are as a people, dreaming of something better that defines us.

Narrator: On Sunday morning, January 10, 1864, Foster, weak from a fever, fell in his Bowery hotel and cut his neck. George Cooper and a doctor were summoned. Cooper found Foster lying naked in a pool of blood. "I'm done for," he whispered, and begged for a drink.

Peter Quinn, Author: He was rapidly becoming a national nobody, somebody in a hotel room whose best years were behind him. I think he knew he wasn't coming back. I think he knew he was never gonna hear the music that he had once heard.

Narrator: Three days later, Stephen Foster died in Bellevue Hospital. Among his few possessions was a worn leather purse containing 38-cents and a scrap of paper with the scribbled words "dear friends and gentle hearts."

Narrator: As Foster's body was lowered into a grave next to his parents, the minister concluded his eulogy by saying he hoped "that the deceased had joined in singing an heavenly anthem that would never end."

SONG -- "Beautiful Dreamer"
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dew drops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd away!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,...
List while I woo thee with soft melody;...

Nanci Griffith, Songwriter: We can still feel his tears 150 years later. We still feel and hear his teardrops on the page.

Peter Quinn, Author: To understand him is to understand, not only an individual life but the way that individual life touched so many parts of the American experience.