Composer Stephen Foster was born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.
Stephen Foster had the unique ability to blend classical music with the popular music of the day. His friend, Dan Rice and his music teacher, Henry Kleber were influential in his achievement of this. Dan Rice, an entertainer, was a circus performer and black faced singer. Mr. Kleber, a German emigrant, was one of Foster’s few music teachers, from the classical tradition.
At 20, Foster worked for a time in Cincinnati as a bookkeeper for a steamship company owned by his brother, Dunning. A few years later, Foster and his wife Jane Denny McDowell took Dunning’s boat down to New Orleans for their honeymoon. Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair was written for Jane.
After that, he went back to Pennsylvania where he worked with the Christy Minstrels and wrote many of his most well known songs: “Camptown Races” (1850), “Nelly Bly” (1850), “Old Folks at Home” (known also as Swanee River, 1851), “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), “Old Dog Tray” (1853), and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” (1854).
Around 1860 he moved to New York City. We can assume to attempt to make a living as a composer. His wife and daughter left him shortly after that. In 1863 he began working with humor lyricist George Cooper. Scholars say these songs didn’t have the elegance nor depth of his earlier works. One year later he died, at the age of 37.
Mr. Foster was an extremely gifted composer of beautiful melodies with lyrics. His contributions to the musical world are vast, not only for his songs, but for paving the way for the next generations of musicians to receive the credit and royalties they deserve, and to support themselves with their art, talents and abilities.
Stephen Foster was a composer, but not a performing musician. His first song was published at the age of 18, “Open Thy Lattice Love.” His very famous song, “Oh, Susanna,” was sold to a publishing company for $100. The song became extremely popular, and although $100 was a lot of money in those days, the money didn’t sustain him for as long as the song sustained its popularity. At that time, without copyright laws, a song could be taken and arranged by anybody else without remuneration to the original composer, and this is what happened to the works of Stephen Foster. We musicians owe a great deal to Stephen Collins Foster. I have made an attempt to go through descriptions of books which contain his music and at least give him credit. Thank you Stephen Foster.
Works by Stephen Foster can be found on our web site in the categories of harp solo, or harp duo. The sub category is “American Historic and Patriotic”. Specifically, you can go to the search page here: Music of Foster found at Melody’s Traditional Music
Alphabetical listing of the works of Stephen Collins Foster may be found at http://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/Fostersongsalpha.html
Details of his life may be found at http://www.pitt.edu/~amerimus/foster.htm