March 17th, 2014
Just recently, January 13th to be exact, occurred the 150th anniversary of the death of Stephen Foster (1826-1864), who passed away in Bellevue Hospital, New York City. Even after the passage of more than 150 years, many of his songs are still well-known, so well-known in fact that they are characterized as folk music, and are considered a central part of America’s cultural heritage. They include such titles as “Oh Susanna” (1847), the unofficial theme song of the California Gold Rush, “Camptown Races” (1850), “Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair” (1854), and “Beautiful Dreamer” (1864).
Given the pervasiveness of his musical legacy, however, there is a tendency to take his music for granted, as though the “simplicity” of the songs suggests a corresponding transparency and simplicity in their origins, thus accounting for their artistic and commercial success. Yet on closer examination this success is remarkable, when one considers that the music had to appeal to a culturally diverse America, and to a people spread over the span of a continent. Pioneering scholar of American popular music Charles Hamm, and more recently Ken Emerson in his book Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture (1997), have done much to explain the phenomena, however, through analysis of the component musical traditions and influences that in aggregate make up the Foster style and sound.
Since Foster was a native of Pittsburgh, it’s only fitting that some of the celebrations honoring one of America’s greatest song writers took place in the “Steel City,” which includes the neighborhood of Lawrenceville, his boyhood home and the location of his grave. But outside his hometown, the story of Stephen Foster has roots in western Virginia.
His grandfather James Foster (1738-1814), a veteran of the Revolutionary War who served in a Virginia Regiment, moved to Berkeley County in 1766 where William Barclay Foster (1779-1855), Stephen’s father, was born. James then moved to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania in the early 1780s. Later, his son William started his career with a successful Pittsburgh mercantile firm whose business required him to travel far and wide. It was during one such trip that he met his future wife Eliza Clayland Tomlinson in Philadelphia. They married in 1807 when en route to Pittsburgh.
A recent acquisition of the West Virginia and Regional History Center:
A daguerreotype of Eliza Tomlinson Foster and William Barclay Foster, parents of Stephen Foster, ca. 1847-1851.
Although William Foster had some success in business and local politics, his tendency toward intemperance and to “overdraw on future expectations,” according to Ken Emerson, compromised the family’s fortunes. The resulting unsettled domestic life for the Fosters could explain why Stephen Foster wrote so many songs about home.
His brother Morrison supported his career, including arranging for performances of his music, providing material assistance to him during his final New York years, and writing a brief biography with a collection of his songs.
A recent acquisition of the History Center:
Morrison Foster, Stephen Foster’s brother, 1853.
Unfortunately, the “assistance” provided by Morrison also included burning most of his brother’s letters, apparently in an effort to avoid sharing with the world details of his brother’s difficulties, including his sorry end in New York. In the words of Emerson, “the ironic result is that the negligible lives of Stephen Foster’s parents and siblings are better documented than his own.”
In the end however, as Charles Hamm put it, the truth of Foster’s life is “more flattering than fiction”:
he was a professional songwriter “acquainted with the music of his contemporaries,”
a “composer of skill and technique,”
had “command of several national styles of song,”
“integrated aspects of each into a distinctive personal style,”
and “was the first American songwriter to support himself with his composition.”
First published in 1864, Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” had already achieved such popularity by 1865
that publishers were willing to bring out arrangements, such as this one for solo piano.
Image from International Music Score Library Project
Blog post by Michael Ridderbusch, Associate Curator, WVRHC.