Stephen Foster was an American songwriter. His songs remain popular today, more than 150 years after they were composed.
Stephen Collins Foster was born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of 10 children born to William and Eliza Foster. As young child, Stephen showed more interest in music than other subjects. The middle–class family could afford to have Stephen tutored privately and later attend private academies in Pennsylvania. He was an avid reader and became a well-educated man.
Stephen received formal musical training from Henry Kleber, a German immigrant and accomplished musician. The young student published several songs before he was 20 years old. His first, "Open Thy Lattice Love," was published before he was 18.
On becoming a songwriter
When Stephen Foster was 20 years old, he was working as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning’s steamship firm in Cincinnati. He began to sell some of his songs and piano works to a local publisher. His first big hit was "Oh! Susanna." By 1850, he already had sold 12 compositions and was only 24 years old.
Foster returned to his home town and married Jane Denny MacDowell. The couple had a daughter in 1851. He also established his professional songwriting career.
A few of Foster's famous songs early in his career were: "Camptown Race" in 1850, "Nelly Bly" (1850), and "Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River") in 1851. In 1854, he wrote "Jennie with the Light Brown Hair" for his wife, Jane.
The couple took a belated honeymoon in 1852, a month-long steamship ride to New Orleans with some friends. Then couple then moved to New Jersey in 1854, to be close to his publisher. The couple had to return to Pittsburgh later that year because Stephen's parents' health was failing. Both of them died in 1855.
A decline begins
After 1855, Foster's publishing fell off, owing to the depression he suffered from the loss of his parents. As his debts increased, he took advances from his publishers. He had an increasingly difficult time supplying songs to repay his advances.
In 1860, the Foster family left Pittsburgh and moved to New York. Then Jane took their daughter back to Pennsylvania, leaving Stephen for good. He would live the remainder of his days alone, living in lodging houses and hotels close to theaters.
In 1862, Foster began to work with George Cooper, a young poet. They wrote music that appealed to music theater audiences. Some of those songs included "There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea," "Kissing in the Dark," and "My Wife is a Most Knowing Woman," all in 1863. During that era, writing music did not pay well compared to that of a singer/songwriter. However, today he would be paid a considerable amount of money for his songwriting.
Stephen Foster died on January 13, 1864, at the early age of 37. He was living in poverty with only 38 cents to his name. He is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"Beautiful Dreamer," released posthumously, is of Foster's best-loved songs. He was honored with a building on the University of Pittsburgh campus called Stephen Foster Memorial, the home of a museum.
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Stephen Foster Memorial
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American Experience | Stephen Foster | Teacher's Guide
(a) Why did some members of the Yale Glee Club refuse to sing Stephen Foster songs? (b) If you had been a member of the group, would you have voted to use the songs or to remove them from the program? Explain the reasons for youStephen Foster songs? (b) If you had been a member of the group, would you have voted to use the songs or to remove them from the program? Explain the reasons for your view. (c ...
Charles Foster only received a limited education because his father suffered from health problems and needed his son to help with the store. When Foster was only eighteen years old, he became a partner in his father's business. He soon had full ...