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Stephen Foster

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Stephen Foster
Stephen Collins Foster
Stephen Collins Foster

(1826-07-04)July 4, 1826
Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, U.S.
DiedJanuary 13, 1864(1864-01-13) (aged 37)
Resting placeAllegheny Cemetery
SpouseJane Denny MacDowell
ChildrenMarion (daughter)
Parent(s)William Barclay Foster
Elisa Clayland [Tomlinson] Foster

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 - January 13, 1864) was an American composer. He was the first American composer to be paid for his music. He was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania which is now part of Pittsburgh. His parents were wealthy. His most well-known and successful song is "Oh! Susanna" which was first performed in the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1847.[1]

Foster married Jane Denny MacDowell in July 1850, They had one daughter named Marion. The marriage was troubled and the couple separated. Foster moved to New York City to do professional songwriting. He died in New York City on January 13, 1864 at the age of 37.

Foster wrote mainly in three musical genres: plantation songs ("Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races"), parlor songs ("Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair", "Beautiful Dreamer") and Civil War songs ("We Are Coming, Father Abraham").

Birth and family[change | change source]

Foster was born on July 4, 1826 to William Barclay Foster (September 7, 1779 - July 27, 1855) and Elisa Clayland [Tomlinson] Foster (January 1788 - January 1855). Stephen Collins was born in his father's home, "The White Cottage", at Lawrenceville. He was baptized on April 22, 1827 in Trinity Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of the Foster children, and was named for Stephen Collins, a child friend of the family who died at age 12, and for William Collins, a family friend and well known attorney.

The Fosters were married on November 14, 1807 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. William Barclay Foster was a leader on the western frontier of Pennsylvania. He had settled near Pittsburgh. The Fosters had several children: Charlotte Susanna (1809), Ann Eliza (1812), Henry Baldwin (1816), Henrietta Angelica (1818), Dunning McNair (1821), Morrison (1823), and Stephen Collins (1826). A son was born in 1829, but died in 1830.

William Barclay Foster had sired an illegitimate son before his marriage. This boy was raised in the Foster family. The Fosters lived in an elegant cottage high on a hillside above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh planned and developed by William Barclay Foster.

Ancestry[change | change source]

The White Cottage, birthplace of Stephen Foster near Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania

Stephen's great-grandfather, Alexander Foster, migrated from Londonderry, Northern Ireland to the American colonies in 1725. He settled in Little Britain Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.[2] His son, James Foster, married Ann Barclay and moved to Virginia. Their son, James, Jr. served in the American Revolution, and sired Stephen's father William Barclay Foster in 1779.

After the Revolution, many of the Scots-Irish families of Virginia (including the Fosters) migrated to western Pennsylvania. William Barclay Foster settled near Pittsburgh. He was a merchant who sometimes travelled as far away as Louisiana. He returned to Pittsburgh via New York City or Philadelphia after buying supplies for his Pittsburgh store.

He met his wife, Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, in Philadelphia. She was a Scots-Irish aristocrat of Wilmington, Delaware. The couple were married in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and travelled 300 miles overland to Pittsburgh. The couple were among the social elite of the frontier and associated with the best families.

Boyhood and youth[change | change source]

William Barclay Foster had serious financial troubles. In 1827, The White Cottage and other Foster properties were seized by the government when Foster failed to pay the mortgages. Stephen thereafter was moved about, sometimes living with relatives. His mother remembered him later in her life as a boy marching about with a feather in his cap and pounding on a drum while whistling "Auld Lang Syne". She noted that there was something "original" about the boy.

Stephen's eldest sister died in October 1829. The morbid sorrow that afflicted the Foster family at this time probably marked Stephen's view of dead young women for the rest of his life. Beautiful dead young women appear in some of his best songs including "Little Annie", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" and "Beautiful Dreamer".

Stephen was five when he attended an infant school. In 1833 he went to the Alleghany Academy, a school for the social elite founded by the Presbyterian clergyman Rev. Joseph Stockton. In 1834, Stephen went to a black church with Olivia Pise, a mulatto servant. In 1836, the family left The White Cottage for ever and moved to Allegheny City when Stephen's father was appointed Collector of the Pennsylvania Canal.

Family legends say Stephen played harmonies on a guitar at age two, and played a flageolet with perfection in a music store at age seven. At age nine, he sang and performed with other boys in their own neighborhood theatrical productions. African melodies were popular and Stephen sung these tunes with gusto.[3]

Minstrel songs[change | change source]

Thomas D. Rice in his blackface role (Cover to early edition of Jump Jim Crow sheet music, 1832)

The creation of the American minstrel show is credited to Thomas Dartmouth "Daddy" Rice, an actor whose performance of the song "Jump Jim Crow" in the dress of an aged African American created an overnight sensation in Pittsburgh. The tune was written down and given a piano accompaniment by W. C. Peters, a music shop owner in Pittsburgh.[4]

For many years, minstrels performed with circuses and traveling zoos. In the 1830s, they organized themselves into quartets, bands, and other ensembles and performed in theatres and other halls. One Nelson Kneass performed as a minstrel, but disbanded his group in Pittsburgh about 1845. He opened a hall with a stage at one end, and served refreshments for the price of a ticket. Prizes were offered for the best riddles, etc. and a silver cup for the best African song. Foster was living in Cinncinati in 1846 and 1847, but his brother Morrison wrote him asking for a song. Stephen sent him "Way Down South, Where the Cane Grows". The song did not win the contest but set Foster on the road to minstrel songwriting.

Foster wrote 28 songs for the minstrel stage. They differ substantially in subject matter and musical style from his household songs. They are written in a negro dialect and their accompaniments suggest banjo-picking. Their musical style is sourced to African American music and the traditional and folk music of British Americans. Many of these songs were written for minstrel groups of the period such as the Sable Harmonists and the Christy Minstrels.[5]

A typical minstrel song by Foster is set for solo voice with a four or five part chorus in the refrain and a short instrumental section intended for a dance on the stage. The best of these songs are "Oh! Susanna" (1848), "Nelly Bly" (1849), "Camptown Races" (1850), "Massa's in de Cold Ground" (1852), "Old Folks at Home" (1860), and "Old Black Joe" (1860).[5]

Marriage and children[change | change source]

Foster married Jane Denny McDowell (1829 - 1903) on July 22, 1850 in Trinity Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. She was the daughter of Andrew N. McDowell, a Pittsburgh physician, and Jane Denny Porter. The attraction between Foster and McDowell remains a mystery: Jane was on the edge of the Foster circle of friends, and had no special musical talents or interests. She may have broken an engagement to another man to marry Foster. The couple's only child Marion, a daughter, was born on April 18, 1850.

The marriage was troubled for unknown reasons, and the couple lived apart. They had separated for the first time by the spring of 1853. Jane took Marion to Lewistown, Pennsylvania, where her mother and sister lived. Stephen went to New York City to pursue songwriting. The couple reunited within a year, but separated again and again.

Jane and Marion returned to Pennsylvania by July 1861 after a stay in New York with Stephen. He was having money troubles, and his alcoholism was worsening. Jane moved to Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where she worked as a telegraph operator for the Pennsylvania Railroad. Her daughter was probably left with relatives elsewhere. Jane visited Stephen in New York City in September 1861,[6] and several times thereafter.

After Stephen's death in 1864, Jane married Matthew D. Wiley, a baggage handler and express agent. She worked as a telegraph operator at the Pennsylvania Railroad's Allegheny depot. She supported several relatives including her daughter, her mother, and her grandchildren. She died in 1903 of burns suffered when a spark set her clothing on fire while she dozed near a fireplace. By that date, she and her daughter had received more than $4,100 in royalties from Stephen's songs.[7] She is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery.

Marion Foster (1850 - 1935) married William Welsh and had three children. After living in St. Louis and Chicago, she moved in 1914 to a mansion (as caretaker) on the site of her grandparents' home in Lawrenceville. She was poor, gave piano lessons into her seventies, and battled the government unsuccessfully for repossession of a piece of land once belonging to her grandfather.[8]

Death[change | change source]

Statue by Moretti

In July 1863, the people of the United States saw the worst riots in the nation's history. In New York City, rioters protested America's first draft. They believed this draft was unfair. It weighed heavily against the poor and allowed the rich to buy their way out. Rioters destroyed several buildings, including the Colored Orphan Asylum, and lynched blacks from lamp posts. Between 105 and 128 people died during the four days of rioting.

Foster's songs had not been selling well in the months before the riots. His best days as a songwriter were over. His audience had divided itself along political, economic, and racial lines. On Saturday 9 January 1864, Foster felt sick and went to bed early. He was staying in a poor but decent hotel on the Bowery. On Sunday morning, he spoke to a maid at his door, then turned and fell, breaking a piece of crockery that gashed his neck. His comrade George Cooper (who lived only four blocks away) was sent for. He found Foster naked in a pool of blood. The songwriter whispered, "I'm done for" and asked for a drink.

A doctor arrived and the gash was sewn up. Foster was dressed, and taken to a ward for the poor at Bellevue Hospital. He was entered in the register as a "laborer".[9] He was uncomfortable and did not like the food. On 13 January, he was eating soup when he seemed to faint and then died. In his pocket was found a few coins and a scrap of paper reading, "Dear friends and gentle hearts".

Telegram from George Cooper to Morrison Foster reading "Stephen is Dead. Come on."

The cause of his death is not known. It was probably a combination of alcoholism, poor diet, and loss of blood, a heart attack, or a stroke. Jane Foster and Stephen's brothers Henry and Morrison claimed the body and took it Pennsylvania for burial. The funeral service was held in Trinity Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, on 21 January. Foster's coffin was met at the Allegheny Cemetery by a brass band playing his tunes. He was buried near his father and mother.

His death was not recorded in most newspapers. The New York Post however compared his melodies to those of Donizetti. The Round Table wrote that Foster was "an amateur writer" barely familiar with the rules of musical composition. The Table did praise his pathos and humor though.

Many songs were promoted after Foster's death as his very last songs. "The Voices That are Gone" (published in 1865) and "Kiss Me Mother Ere I Die" (1869) are probably his last works. In August 1864, a Prussian-born engineer bought The White Cottage and tore it down.[10]

Notes[change | change source]

  1. Emerson, p. 127
  2. Milligan, pp. 20–21.
  3. Milligan, p. 20.
  4. Milligan 1920, pp. 39–40.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Grove's 1980, p. 730.
  6. Emerson, p. 274.
  7. Emerson, p. 309.
  8. Emerson, pp. 310–311.
  9. Milligan, p. 100.
  10. Emerson, p. 307.

References[change | change source]

  • Emerson, Ken (1997), Doo-dah!: Stephen Foster and the rise of American popular culture, New York: Simon & Schuster, ISBN 0-684-81010-7
  • Howard, John Tasker (1934), Stephen Foster, America's troubadour, New York: Tudor Publishing Company
  • Milligan, Harold Vincent (1920), Stephen Collins Foster: a biography of America's folk-song composer, New York and Boston: G. Schirmer
  • Woodstra, Chris (2005), All Music Guide to Classical Music: the definitive guide to classical music, All Media Guide, LLC., ISBN 0-87930-865-6