AMERICAN HISTORY: One of America’s best composers – Stephen Collins Foster

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Foster, Stephen Collins — 1826-1864 (composer)Murphy, Lambert — 1885-1954 (performer)
Courtesy of Sony Music Entertainment and the National Jukebox Project


Stephen Collins Foster, one of the most significant songwriters in American history, died in 1864 with forty cents to his name. With over 200 songs to his credit, Foster penned tunes and lyrics that have stood the test of time: “Oh! Susanna,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home” are just a handful of those titles. One of his most beloved songs is the sentimental ballad “Beautiful Dreamer,” written shortly before Foster’s death.

The Performing Arts Encyclopedia holds a substantial amount of digitized Foster sheet music, and the Library’s National Jukebox features countless early 20th-century recordings of Foster’s songs. There is a bounty of information to search on the Library of Congress’ websites; for now, however, take just a moment out of your day to listen to a 1919 recording of operatic contralto Louise Homer performing Foster’s touching “Hard Times Come Again No More” with the Criterion Quartet and enjoy images of Foster available in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.

History in Photos: St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and Cardinal Gibbons Institute for Colored Students

Foster, Stephen Collins, Stephen Collins Foster, and Criterion Quartet. Oh! Susanna. Edison, Monographic. Audio.

From Favorites from the Song of America Tour with Thomas Hampson, baritone, and Wolfram Rieger, piano. Recorded in the Coolidge Auditorium, Washington, DC, October 28, 2010

Foster wrote music about the cultures that made up the blended city of Cincinnati where he worked as a bookkeeper for a steamboat company.

In 1840, Foster attended Allegheny Academy, the first of three failed scholarly attempts, followed by Athens Academy and Towanda Academy. At Athens, the fourteen-year old Foster wrote his first song “The Tioga Waltz” (not published until after his death). In July 1841, Foster enrolled in Jefferson College at Canonsburg, PA, however struck with desperate homesickness, his attendance lasted 1 week and from 1841 to 1846, he lived with his family in Pittsburgh doing private study. It was during this time that his musical genius began to unfold and in 1843, his first song was published “Open Thy Lattice Love” and in 1845, during a family concert at the Foster House, “Lou’siana Belle”, “Old Uncle Ned” and “Oh! Susanna” were introduced for the first time.

By 1846, Foster had moved to Cincinnati to work as a bookkeeper for the Irwin & Foster Steamboat Agency (brother Dunning was a partner). Cincinnati society was a convergence of the Industrial working class, Irish, English and Scottish aristocracy, plantation slaves and river life. Foster soon abandoned the pursuit of business and dedicated himself to writing songs inspired by the cultures that surrounded him. In 1848, he sold “Oh! Susana” and “Old Uncle Ned” to W.C. Peters and in 1849 negotiated a contract with New York publishers Firth & Pond Co.

He moved back to Pittsburgh in 1850 and in the following six years penned more than 160 songs. During this time, Foster began corresponding with E.P. Christy, leader of the Christy Minstrels, the most successful minstrel show of the time. An arrangement was made for the show to be the first to sing his songs, and the two agreed that in exchange for the introductory performances, which would bring the songs to popular attention, the sheet music credit would include “As sung by the Christy Minstrels”. There is no doubt the minstrel shows were great plugs for Foster’s work and the relationship was profitable for both parties. With the exception of the 1851 sale of “Old Folks At Home” to E.P. Christy and subsequent publication, which erroneously credited the songwriter as E.P. Christy, the association remained intact and beneficial for many years. See more from SONGHALL.COM

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