Composer Stephen Foster: Biography & Songs

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Mention Stephen Foster (1826-1864) and most people can easily name several of his songs. Read this lesson to learn about his life and how he became one of America's best-loved song writers.

Did You Know?

Have you ever sang the song 'Oh! Susanna' or maybe hummed 'Camptown Races?' Thousands of Americans have heard these upbeat songs, but fewer probably know about the life of their writer, Stephen Foster. For instance, many of Foster's songs are about southern plantation life, but did you know he never visited that part of the country? Did you know that an early version of 'Swanee River,' aka 'Old Folks at Home,' actually read 'Way down upon the Pedee River'? Or that 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' was probably about his wife, whose real name was Jane? You already know Foster's songs -- now learn his story.

Stephen Foster
Image of Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania -- what is now part of Pittsburgh. He was born into a large and prominent family. His early music training on flute and piano was probably self-taught or learned from other family members, and he began composing songs at an early age.

One of his first known works was 'Tioga Waltz', written at age 14. The inspiration for this early effort was Tioga Point, the scenic junction of the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers. The song was originally for flutes and was meant to be played at a church program in 1841, with Foster himself playing one the parts. It was later arranged for piano and published after his death. He went on to write other pieces for piano, such as 'Soiree Polka' (1850).

Minstrel Songs

From 1846-1850, Foster worked as a clerk for his brother's firm of steamboat agents in Cincinnati, Ohio. It was during this time he began writing songs in earnest. In a poorly conceived plan for self-promotion, he gave away copies to friends. An early example of one of these songs was the humorous 'Oh! Susanna' (1848). It was sung by a variety of minstrel groups and was then published in several cities without his consent. The song quickly spread across the country thanks to the gold rush. Despite the song's success, Foster earned nothing from his composition.

With the popularity of 'Oh! Susanna' and another song called 'Old Uncle Ned', Foster returned to Pittsburgh 1850 to fully devote himself to composition. The next six years were a highly productive period for him. Foster began an association with Edwin P. Christy, the leader of the Christy Minstrels. These were white musicians who would perform in blackface, imitating the music by slaves from the southern plantations. Foster arranged for Christy to introduce his pieces in return for a small stipend. In retrospect, this turned out to be a rather poor business arrangement for Foster.

The humorous 'Camptown Races' of 1850 was inspired by the horse races that were popular on the outskirts of the frontier towns populated by laborers and transients who lived in shanties or tents. 'Old Folks at Home' (1851), sometimes called 'Swanee River', had a first draft that read 'Way down upon the Pedee River'. The Pedee River was in South Carolina, a place that Foster had never visited. His brother actually suggested replacing Pedee with the Yazoo River in Mississippi. That didn't seem the right fit either, so they looked in an atlas and found the Suwannee River in Florida. Foster shortened the spelling to fit the two-syllable spot in the poem.

My Old Kentucky Home
Image of Foster sheet music cover

Since he wrote so many minstrel songs, it was assumed that Foster had spent much time in the South. Other than brief trips to Louisville (Kentucky), Baltimore (Maryland), New Orleans (Louisiana) and later New York, however, his entire life was spent in the Pittsburgh area, and he had little first-hand knowledge about life on the southern plantations. Many of his minstrel songs are no longer politically correct, so are rarely performed today.

In 1928, the Kentucky Legislature adopted 'My Old Kentucky Home' (1853) as its state song. The Florida Legislature made a similar move in 1935 with 'Old Folks at Home,' making Foster the only American composer credited with writing two state songs.

Difficulties

In 1850, Foster married Jane McDowell, the daughter of a Pittsburgh doctor. A year later their only child, a daughter named Marion, was born. The relationship with Jane was difficult. Foster was moody, careless with money, and became increasingly dependent on alcohol. He and Jane separated several times.

Foster wrote 'Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair' in 1854 during one of those periods of separation. He was in New York while Jane and daughter Marion were back in Pittsburgh. It is believed that the woman in the song title was Jane. Her real name was Jane Denny McDowell and went by the nickname 'Jennie'. Shortly after the song was composed, the couple was reunited.

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