Stephen Foster was an 18th century American poet and songwriter who was so popular that is referred to as “the father of American music”. He wrote songs over 150 years ago that are standards today, and are known and sung all over the world. So many of his songs have appeared in stage productions and American films. Almost anyone, young or old, who has ever seen or heard renditions of Beautiful Dreamer, Camptown Races and Oh Susanna will, almost certainly, be able to sing a line or two of each song. His songs generally belong to the “parlour” or “minstrel music” genre, though this is not so for all of his compositions.
He was born Stephen Collins Foster on the 4th July 1826 into a large family of nine children, Stephen being the youngest. He was educated privately at academies in Towanda, Pennsylvania, Athens and Allegheny. He studied English grammar, the Classics and mathematics. He was a remarkably talented musician, all self-taught, and he also taught himself to write music, although he did have a little help with this from a dealer in music living in Pittsburgh called Henry Kleber.
He started early as a songwriter with a piece called Tioga Waltz that was performed when he was only 14, but it was never published during his lifetime. Mid-19th century America was the time of so-called “black face” singers who performed in minstrel shows and circuses and Foster soon began writing songs for such performers. Possibly the most famous troupe of singers of this kind was the Christy Minstrels and Foster was contracted to write songs for them. They would generally take the form of an exaggerated negro-style dialect, a prime example being Camptown Races. Here is the first verse and chorus of this song, written in 1850:
It has been said that a lot of his compositions were autobiographical. The races in the above song were held about thirty miles from Athens, so it is possible that he will have experienced them. Oh! Susanna, written in 1846 became synonymous with the Californian Gold Rush which occurred a couple of years later. In contrast though, Foster also penned a number of hymns of the American Civil War era.
His genius was widely recognised during his lifetime, although some critics tempered that by calling him uneducated. If, indeed, he was then his achievements are all the more remarkable. Even into the 20th century his songs were sung by great names such as Nelson Eddy, in the 1940s, and much later by country music performers such as Randy Vanwarmer, Suzy Boguss and Alison Krauss. Bob Dylan covered Hard Times and, on his breakthrough album Sweet Baby James, James Taylor recorded a folk-style version of Oh Susanna.
The world was deprived of more of his poetic genius when he suffered a fall which brought on a fever which killed him within three days. He left a legacy of popular compositions but not all were of the “minstrel” variety. Shortly after his death his gentle, lilting serenade Beautiful Dreamer was published. Here are the first two verses:
Stephen Foster died on the 13 January 1864 at the age of 37.