The Father of American Music – Stephen Foster

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The history of music goes back thousands of years – there have been bone flutes discovered that date back over 40,000 years. The oldest document of a song is a hymn that dates to before 800 B.C.

As music evolved, and as America evolved, the idea of American Music took shape in the mid-1800s. A man named Stephen Foster is acknowledged by many as The Father of American Music. Here is a brief review of Foster.

He was born on July 4, 1826 of upper-class parents in what is now Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. He taught himself to play clarinet, guitar, piano and flute. By his early 20s, he was writing music, primarily for blackface minstrel shows. He signed a contract to write music for the Christy Minstrels, a very successful blackface group formed by Edwin Christy in 1843. By 1844, Foster published his first song – Open Thy Lattice Love. 

By 1849, he had published 14 songs, many with southern themes, although he never lived in the south, and he only visited the south once. One of these songs became one of the most popular American songs ever written – Oh! Susanna. He earned $100 for the song, but his publisher eventually agreed to pay him a royalty of two cents for each copy of the sheet music that was sold. This made Foster the first professional songwriter in the U.S. Before Oh! Susanna, no song had sold more than 5,000 copies, but Foster’s classic sold over 100,000 copies.

In 1850, his writing was prolific. Between 1850 and 1855, he published 60 songs, expanding his style to parlour music, which were songs meant to be performed in people’s homes rather than on a stage. The classic Americana songs published over these years included Camptown Races, Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home and Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair. 

The Christy Minstrels performed Camptown Races regularly during their performances, and it quickly became popular. The village of Camptown Pennsylvania was in the mountains of Northeast Pennsylvania, near where Foster attended school. The lyrics are mostly nonsense about a five-mile long racetrack, with the singer betting “on de bob-tail nag” while someone else “bet on de bay.”

Old Folks at Home was sold to Edwin Christy for the exclusive use by his minstrels. Foster struggled to come up with the name of the river mentioned in the first line of the song. He needed something with two syllables. He and his brother looked at an atlas, and found a small river in Florida named the Suwannee River, and Foster had his song, shortening it to Swanee. In 1935, it became the state song of Florida.

In 1852, Foster read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and it profoundly influenced Foster’s opinion on slavery. He began to write songs that were sympathetic to the enslaved. His most famous was originally titled Poor Old Uncle Tom, Good-Night. Before it was published, he changed the title to My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night. The popular, nostalgic theme about the loss of home was embraced by some in the abolitionist movement, including Frederick Douglass. It was beloved during the Civil War as soldiers were sentimental about their service away from home. By the turn of the century, the song title was reduced to My Old Kentucky Home. In 1928, it became the state song of Kentucky, and its first verse and chorus are recited each year at the Kentucky Derby.

Foster wrote Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair in 1854. Jeanie was actually Foster’s wife Jane. Their marriage was on rocky ground, and its lyrics about being separated from his love would prove to be prophetic – by 1860, Foster and Jane had separated, though they remained married.

After he separated from his wife, he moved to New York City. Foster died in 1864, at the age of 37. There is little known about his life after 1860, though he continued to publish music – over 100 songs were published between 1860 and his death. One of his last was another Americana classic – Beautiful Dreamer. 

I love these old classics. They remind me of childhood, when I first heard my sister singing them, or hearing them on Looney Tune cartoons. Later, I listened to them with my wife and kids as we traveled on long car rides to visit family. Now, I play them for my grandkids. Now, that’s nostalgia! Here is Tom Roush singing one of the classics, Camptown Races.





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