Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


FOSTER, Stephen

(b Stephen Collins Foster, 4 July 1826, Pittsburgh PA; d 13 January 1864, New York City). Born on the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, he was the most successful American songwriter of the 19th century, perhaps the first indubitably American songwriter, whose songs are still sung today. He was one of the first American songwriters to sign contracts for royalties and to support himself as a full-time composer (others were also publishers, performers or teachers), but there was no modern music publishing business, and no organizations like ASCAP and BMI to see to it that royaties were paid. For all his success, he died a drunk, in poverty in the Bowery, only 37 years old.
      Of Irish descent, Foster was steeped in music from childhood. He was educated in good private schools and then worked in his brother's mercantile business, but he never strayed far from music. His first published song was 'Open Thy Lattice, Love' (1844); his early songs were simple, romantic and mediocre, based on the models of the Englishmen Thomas Arne, who wrote a great many songs for the English pleasure gardens, and (a bit later) Henry Bishop, whose songs were already being forgotten, except for 'Home, Sweet Home', the biggest hit of the century (with words by the American John Howard Payne).
      Foster must have been familiar with slave music from childhood, but it was not until around 1845, through singing and playing them with friends, that he wrote some of what came to be called 'minstrel' songs. 'Lou'siana Belle' was published in 1847, 'Away Down South', 'Uncle Ned' and 'Oh! Susanna' in 1848. The last especially was sung by minstrel companies all over the country, and became a favourite during the California gold rush. It may have been Foster's biggest hit, but he had sold it outright; only in 1849 did he sign contracts with two publishers and become a full-time songwriter. Eight more minstrel songs were published in 1850, including 'Gwine to Run All Night' (also known as 'Camptown Racetrack'); fifteen more in 1852 show him at his peak, among them 'Old Folks At Home' (or 'Way Down Upon the Swanee River'), 'My Old Kentucky Home', 'Massa's in the Cold Ground' and 'Old Dog Tray'.
      He wrote a few more minstrel songs, and other fine period songs based on Italian, German and Irish models. His most famous later songs are 'Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair' (1854), which could not have been written without the influence of the Irish composer Thomas Moore, yet is immediately and convincingly Foster, and 'Beautiful Dreamer', which has a fine Italianate melody and was published after his death. He had a streak of melancholy, and his songs are often nostalgic for a remembered past that is happier than the flawed present. But the minstrel songs written around 1850 made him famous.
      It is not true, as nineteenth-century biographers claimed, that Foster had visited 'negro camp meetings' or that he imitated 'the melodic forms and tonal characteristics of the songs of the colored slaves'. He did not need to steal his material, having a natural sympathy for it, and his best songs can stand on their own considerable merits. The melodies have proved to be deathless. More interestingly, every one of the minstrel songs has a chorus, to be sung in three- and four-part harmony, making them more complete and satisfying compositions, while none of his earlier songs have choruses at all. 'Oh! Susanna' is simply a delightful nonsense song, and is not obviously a 'plantation melody', as some of the later songs were called. Although many of these were written in dialect, which was later rejected for reasons of taste, they were a considerable advance on the songs of the period.
      Nostalgia for a half-remembered past was not just a propensity of Foster's, but the most popular sentiment of the time; homesickness is another familiar emotion. 'Massa's in the Cold Ground' may seem to be a clear attempt to sentimentalize slavery, but many slaves must have loved their masters, on whom they depended for everything. 'Uncle Ned' emerges through the dialect as a kindly human being who was loved; in 'Nelly Was a Lady' (1850) the black man mourns the death of his own wife. The slaves experience, in all these songs, ordinary human feelings; they are people as real as the characters in Shakespeare. And because these were good songs, they must have had a consciousness-raising effect, intended or not.
      A lot of people thought Foster had written 'Home, Sweet Home', and there are other huge hits of the era that he did not write. A traditional English tune called 'Willikens and His Dinah' was well known in New England in the 1840s, but suddenly become 'Sweet Betsy from Pike' when it was sung by miners in the California gold rush, and was first published in 1853. Foster did use the tune for 'The Great Baby Show, or The Abolition Show' during the 1856 presidential campaign; and the miners also sang a parody of 'Camptown Racetrack' called 'Sacramento'.