Stephen Foster Collage

The Life and Music of Stephen Collins Foster

By Christopher Lynch

Stephen Foster (b. July 4, 1826, Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania; d. January 13, 1864, New York) was one of the first American songwriters to earn a living through composition alone. Many of his songs, most of which were for the parlor or minstrel stage, achieved great popularity during his lifetime and continue to be popular today. His songs depicting African Americans, however, have been controversial since they were written. 

Foster’s father, William Barclay Foster (1779–1855), moved to Pittsburgh in 1796 and quickly entered what Foster biographer John Tasker Howard refers to as the “pioneer aristocracy of Pittsburgh” (p. 4)—a relatively small group of the region’s wealthy “founding fathers.” As a merchant in the 1790s and first decade of the 1800s, William’s business travels took him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and to cities along the Gulf of Mexico and up the Eastern Seaboard. It was likely on one of his business trips that he met Eliza Clayland Tomlinson (1788–1855), whom he married in 1807. Together they had ten children, seven of whom lived beyond childhood: Ann Eliza (1808; died in infancy), Charlotte (1809–29), Ann Eliza (1812–91), William Jr. (1814–15), Henry (1816–70), Henrietta (1818–79), Dunning (1821–56), Morrison (1823–1904), Stephen, and James (1829–30). After the death of William Jr. in 1815, the family took in a child William Sr. had fathered years earlier outside of his marriage. Taking on the name of the deceased son, William Jr. became the eldest child in the family.

During the War of 1812 William Sr. entered into public service as Quartermaster and Commissary for the United States Army. He spent the rest of his career in various public service positions, including Pennsylvania state legislator, canal toll collector, and mayor of Allegheny City. After the War of 1812 he invested in land and established the borough of Lawrenceville (now a neighborhood within the City of Pittsburgh). From about 1815 to 1829 the Foster family lived in a Lawrenceville home they called the White Cottage. Stephen was born there on July 4, 1826.

Most of the years at the White Cottage were prosperous for the family, but in 1826 the Bank of the United States foreclosed on William’s land holdings, including the family home. This launched a period of unrest during which the family relocated several times over the following decades. Despite William Sr.’s financial difficulties, however, the family never permanently declined in social standing because William Jr., a prominent railroad engineer, was able to support them. Family letters in our collection reveal that William Jr. began providing for the family as early as 1828, when he bought them a piano, and 1829, when he assisted his sister Charlotte in traveling to Cincinnati. He later gave his father money to settle his debts and allowed the family to live in his Allegheny City properties in the 1840s and 1850s. 

Throughout Stephen’s childhood the family made use of white and black indentured servants. For most white servants in America, indentured servitude was temporary work that enabled them to emigrate from Europe or learn a trade. For most black servants, however, indentured servitude was enslavement in all but name. Evidence of this distinction is found in the Foster’s family papers. The birth of the white servant Thomas Hunter was recorded in the family Bible alongside the birthdates of family members, indicating that the Fosters considered him one of their own. However, William Sr. wrote to William Jr. on July 14, 1834, that “Mrs. Collins made your ma a present of an excellent coloured girl a few days ago, who had upwards of three years to serve. So much saved for girls hire.” This statement indicates that William viewed Kitty as an object to be given and received—a “present”—and that the Foster family benefited financially when she was given to them.

The Foster Hall Collection includes Eliza Foster’s memoir, titled Sketches and Incidents. In addition to providing a glimpse into the lives of the Pittsburgh elite, it reveals that servants for the Fosters chopped down trees, hauled milk pails, answered doors, saw guests in and out, and performed domestic chores, releasing Stephen and his siblings from these duties. The Fosters’ exploitation of those lower in social standing produced wealth and free time that they could spend attending school and making music. In a letter dated September 3, 1841, William Sr. wrote to William Jr. about Stephen: “His leisure hours are all devoted to musick, for which he possesses a strange talent.”

In the days before public schooling in Pittsburgh, only those with time and money were able to attend school. According to Stephen’s brother Morrison, Foster’s first schooling was with local teachers named Mrs. Harvey and Mrs. Morgan (p. 24). We learn from a letter dated July 14, 1834, that Stephen and his brother Morrison were then attending the Allegheny Academy in Allegheny City, and a letter from 1837 indicates that Stephen and Morrison were then studying with the Reverend Nathan Todd. In 1840 and ’41 Stephen lived with William Jr. and studied at the Athens Academy in Tioga Point, Pennsylvania, and the Towanda Academy in Towanda, Pennsylvania. William Sr. wrote in September 1841 that Stephen had decided not to attend college but was then studying with a Mr. Moody.

The written records and family reminiscences do not indicate the extent to which music was part of Foster’s schooling, although records show that at the Athens Academy he wrote his first known composition, “Tioga Waltz” (now lost, but transcribed from memory by Morrison in 1896). Foster’s archives reveal more about his informal music education than his music studies in school. We know, for example, that the Fosters’ home was filled with music. In 1821 Eliza wrote a letter to Charlotte, then away at school, in which she mentioned that William Sr. spent evenings “drawing a few tunes on the violin.” Eliza’s Sketches and Incidents reveals that Stephen’s sisters, Charlotte, Ann Eliza, and Henrietta, played piano, guitar, and sang in the home. The music they sang undoubtedly included songs from Thomas Moore’s immensely popular Irish Melodies, ten volumes of which were published between 1808 and 1834. Musicologist Charles Hamm has demonstrated that many of Stephen’s compositions bear a striking resemblance to Moore’s music.

Morrison tells us that Olivia Pise, one of the Fosters’ black servants who worked at the White Cottage, brought Stephen to her church. Morrison writes,

“Lieve” … was a devout Christian and a member of a church of shouting colored people. The little boy [Stephen] was fond of their singing and boisterous devotions. She was permitted to often take Stephen to church with her. Here he stored up in his mind “many a gem of purest ray serene,” drawn from these caves of negro melody. A number of strains heard there, and which, he said to me, were too good to be lost, have been preserved by him, short scraps of which were incorporated in two of his songs, “Hard Times Come Again No More” and “Oh, Boys, Carry Me ’Long.” (pp. 49–50)

These claims are dubious. Stephen only a lived in the White Cottage until he was a toddler, and religious practices in Pittsburgh’s African American church at the time were not “boisterous.” Perhaps, then, Morrison invented or exaggerated this story to lend a sense of authenticity to his brother’s music, much of which is written to express an imagined black perspective. 

Foster’s understanding of African American music was predominantly shaped not through direct contact but rather through songs by white musicians that negatively caricatured blacks and their musical practices. According to Morrison, in 1835 the brothers and some of their friends formed an amateur group that performed such songs, then commonly referred to as Ethiopian songs. Morrison recalls,

[Stephen] was nine years old a Thespian company was formed, composed of boys of neighbor families, Robinsons, Cuddys, Kellys and Fosters. The theatre was fitted up in a carriage house. All were stockholders except Stephen. He was regarded as a star performer, and was guaranteed a certain sum weekly. It was a very small sum, but it was sufficient to mark his superiority over the rest of the company. “Zip Coon,” “Long-tailed Blue,” “Coal-Black Rose,” and “Jim Crow” were the only Ethiopian songs then known. His performance of these was so inimitable and true to nature that, child as he was, he was greeted with uproarious applause, and called back again and again every night the company gave an entertainment, which was three times a week. They generally cleared enough to enable the whole party to buy tickets to the old Pittsburgh Theatre on Saturday nights. (p. 25)

The songs that Morrison mentions were very popular among white Americans in the 1830s and fueled the development in the next decade of blackface minstrelsy. Foster’s minstrel songs, which he began to write in the mid-1840s, if not earlier, drew on the stereotypes of African Americans that he encountered in these early songs. Some of Foster’s other early songs—notably his first published song, “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844)—exhibit the influence of European opera, one of the genres he encountered at the Pittsburgh Theatre in the 1830s with the money he earned from performing Ethiopian songs.

In the summer of 1841 Foster began studying at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Withdrawing from the school after only about one month, he returned to Pittsburgh, where he pursued young women in the parlors of the city’s well-off families. His first published songs were sentimental ballads—known as parlor songs—written for these settings and dedicated to some of the women with whom he associated. “Open Thy Lattice, Love” is dedicated to Susan E. Pentland, and his second song, “There’s a Good Time Coming” (1846), to Mary D. Keller. In 1847 he dedicated “What Must a Fairy’s Dream Be!” to Mary Irwin and “Where Is Thy Spirit, Mary?” to Mary Keller, who had by then recently passed.

As Foster grew into adulthood his brothers helped him enter the business world. Morrison, who worked in the cotton industry, found Stephen a job at Hope Cotton Mill in 1846. According to Morrison’s daughter, Evelyn Foster Morneweck, Stephen’s job consisted of “checking cotton bales as they were rolled up the wharf directly from the steamboats into the building” (p. 282). By the end of the year Foster was working as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning’s shipping company in Cincinnati. Dunning shipped goods along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, profiting greatly from cotton picked by enslaved blacks in the South. Morrison supplied Dunning with many contracts to ship cotton to Pittsburgh’s cotton factories. Indeed, the Foster family generated significant wealth and status from the exploitation of enslaved laborers.

Alongside his first parlor songs, Foster wrote his first minstrel songs, including “Oh! Susanna” (1847) and other comic songs that disparaged blacks. The first written record of “Oh! Susanna” is an advertisement in the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial Journal on September 11, 1847. Promoting a competition that evening at the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, the advertisement indicated that the evening included the performance of “SUSANNA—A new song, never before given to the public.” Within a year the song was published by William C. Peters, then based in Louisville and Cincinnati. The title page announces the song as one of the “songs of the Sable Harmonists,” a minstrel troupe that included performer Nelson Kneass. It is possible Kneass premiered the song at the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon, for the advertisement listed him among the performers.

Whereas “Oh! Susanna” is squarely in the minstrel tradition, “Uncle Ned” (1848), also written during Foster’s Cincinnati period, points in a new direction. William W. Austin identifies three categories of Foster’s songs: “comic Ethiopian songs” in the minstrel style, “poetic songs” in the genteel parlor style, and “plantation songs” in the style of “Uncle Ned.” A fusion of the Ethiopian and poetic songs, plantation songs combine the pathos, sentimentality, and seriousness of the parlor songs with the personas—caricatures of African American slaves—of the minstrel tradition. Whereas minstrel songs dehumanize and mock enslaved blacks, plantation melodies portray them in a more sympathetic light.

By the late 1840s, Stephen had had a variety of musical experiences and had informally studied and experimented in composing with the various musical styles that were popular in the United States. As Steven Saunders and Deane Root write in The Music of Stephen C. Foster: A Critical Edition,

In contrast to the image of the unschooled tunesmith accorded by his early biographers, Foster studied the distinctive national styles of song circulating in America during the 1820s, ’30s, and ’40s: the American minstrel songs, German lieder, Irish melodies, Scottish ballads, English pleasure garden songs, Italian opera, and Afro-American religious music. With the intent of appealing to the widest possible audience, he selected their compatible elements to create a new syncretic or merged style of song, familiar enough that each cultural group could find it pleasant, yet altered enough to be considered different and, thus, American. (p. xii)

With these experiences, and encouraged by the success of his early publications, Foster entered into a contract (now lost) in 1849 with New York–based music publisher Firth, Pond & Co. (he signed new contracts with Firth, Pond & Co. in 1853, 1854, and 1858). That year witnessed the publication of Firth, Pond & Co.’s first Foster song, the plantation song “Nelly Was a Lady.” By early 1850 Foster had left Cincinnati and the steamboat business and returned to Allegheny City, where he lived with his parents in his brother William’s house, determined to make a career as a songwriter. 

Sometime after his return to western Pennsylvania, he began a romantic relationship with Jane McDowell. Unfortunately no documentation of their courtship survives. In fact the first record of their relationship is an announcement in the Pittsburgh Daily Commercial Journal stating that they were married on July 22, 1850. In 1851, Jane and Stephen welcomed their only child, Marion Foster (1851–1935).

In 1851 Stephen and Jane traveled by steamboat to New Orleans, Foster’s only known trip to the Deep South. It has long been rumored that on his return journey he and Jane stopped in Bardstown, Kentucky, where he supposedly wrote the plantation song “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night” (1853). There is no evidence, however, that Foster ever went to Bardstown, and his sketchbook of lyrics suggests that the song was written well after the Fosters’ trip. Howard writes, “The words of the song appear on pages 50 and 51 of Foster’s manuscript book, immediately following the several pages devoted to ‘Massa’s in de Cold Ground.’ ‘Laura Lee,’ which Stephen noted as sent to the publishers July 19 (1851), appear in its final form on page 11. It was probably early in 1852 that ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ was written” (p. 176).

The years from 1850 to 1855 were Foster’s most profitable. In addition to penning some of his most beloved parlor songs—for example, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (1854) and “Hard Times Come Again No More” (1854)—Foster formed a lucrative relationship with Edwin P. Christy of the Christy Minstrels. Their relationship began in 1850 when Foster sent Christy two comic songs“Gwine to run all night” (more commonly known as “Camptown Races”) and “Dolly Day.” Christy was known for toning down the bawdy aspects of minstrelsy to broaden its appeal. It is not surprising, then, that most of the subsequent songs Foster wrote for Christy are sentimental plantation songs, rather than more offensive comic songs.

On several occasions Christy paid Foster $10 apiece for the right to premiere his songs, including such well-known plantation songs as “Nelly Was a Lady” and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” (1852) as well as poetic parlor songs such as “Ellen Bayne” (1854). A special case is “Old Folks at Home” (1851). John Tasker Howard has shown that Christy paid Foster $15—$5 more than the other songs—for the right to not only premiere the song but also list his name as composer. After the song became successful, The Social Orchestra, for Flute or Violin: A Collection of Popular Melodies Arranged as Solos, Duets, Trios, and Quartets (1854), an anthology of seventy-three arrangements. Stephen, Jane, and Marion returned to Allegheny City in 1854, taking up residence once again with his parents and Morrison in William Jr.’s home.

Many scholars have postulated that in the early 1850s Foster experienced a conversion from his family’s Democratic, pro-slavery politics to abolitionism, however the evidence is inconclusive at best. Scholars point to the fact that Foster composed fewer comic minstrel songs that explicitly denigrated African Americans and favored the more sympathetic plantation melody. Scholars often cite a letter that Foster wrote to Christy on May 25, 1852. Foster explained that he felt his songs “have done a great deal to build up a taste for Ethiopian songs among refined people, by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order.” As Steven Saunders points out, although this reveals that Foster consciously adjusted the language of his songs, it is a leap to conclude that this demonstrates his intention was to raise awareness about the plight of slaves and portray them in a humanizing way to further the cause of abolitionism. It seems more likely that Foster was concerned about writing songs with family-friendly language to maximize his sheet-music sales, much as Christy was doing in his minstrel shows (p. 279).

Although many find it tempting to interpret a subset of Foster’s songs as indirect evidence of Foster’s conversion to abolitionism, the fact remains that the only overtly political songs that Foster wrote prior to the Civil War are campaign songs supportive of anti-abolitionist, Democratic candidates. As indicated in his sketchbook, in 1851 Foster wrote lyrics to be sung to the tune of “Camptown Races” that supported the campaigns of William Bigler for Pennsylvania governor and his brother John Bigler for California governor. During the 1856 presidential election he wrote lyrics for a song called “The Abolition Show,” which excoriated Republicans and abolitionists. He also wrote “The White House Chair” to support the presidential campaign of his sister Ann Eliza’s brother-in-law James Buchanan. Further, the minutes of the Buchanan Glee Club, a group of men that performed campaign songs in the Pittsburgh region during the 1856 election, indicate that Foster served as musical director.

Regardless of Foster’s personal opinions, many abolitionists favorably viewed his songs and performed them to help persuade more people to support the abolition of enslavement. Such plantation songs as “Old Folks at Home,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Massa’s in de Cold Ground” were frequently included in theatrical productions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Moreover, the members of the Hutchinson family, renowned performers and abolitionists, included ""“Nelly Bly,” ""“Gentle Annie,” and “Old Folks at Home” in their activist concerts. Even Frederick Douglass celebrated plantation songs. In an 1855 address to the Ladies Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, he stated,

It would seem almost absurd to say it, considering the use that has been made of them, that we have allies in the Ethiopian songs; those songs that constitute our national music, and without which we have no national music. They are heart songs, and the finest feelings of human nature are expressed in them. “Lucy Neal,” “Old Kentucky Home,” and “Uncle Ned,” can make the heart sad as well as merry, and can call forth a tear as well as a smile. They awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root, grow and flourish. (p. 329)

Foster’s compositional output slowed in the second half of the 1850s. One factor was Christy’s retirement in 1855. Additionally, that year Foster lost both of his parents, and in 1856 his brother Dunning died. Many scholars have speculated that in this period of loss Foster became depressed. Between 1856 and 1859 he only published ten new songs and one arrangement. Of the ten, the two aforementioned campaign songs of 1856 (“The White House Chair” and “TheFoster’s compositional output Abolition Show”) were not widely distributed. The only song from these years that is well-known today is “Gentle Annie” (1856; arranged for voice and guitar in 1857). Moreover, Stephen’s life was further uprooted in 1857 when William Jr. sold the house where he had been living, leading to financial difficulties for the composer. To make ends meet he sold the rights to future royalties from his already-published songs in exchange for much-needed, one-time cash payments from Firth, Pond & Co. and received advance payments on future songs.

These payments and additional support from Morrison buttressed the family for a time as they boarded in various homes and hotels around Pittsburgh. But waiving royalties seriously undermined the family’s future financial security. Foster needed to write new music. Struggling, he decided to move to New York in 1860, presumably because he believed he would find more opportunities to sell his music to publishers and performers there than in Pittsburgh. Jane remained in Pennsylvania with Marion and took a job as a telegrapher in Greensburg.

In New York Foster produced music at an unprecedented rate. He continued to write sentimental parlor songs, including (1862) and “Beautiful Dreamer” (1862), and he returned to genres that he had abandoned years earlier. He churned out a few derogatory minstrel songs, including “The Glendy Burk” (1860), “Don’t Bet Your Money on de Shanghai” (1861), and “A Soldier in de Colored Brigade” (1863), as well as the plantation melody “Old Black Joe”(1860). He also composed in genres new to him. He wrote two collections of Sunday School music, Waters’ Golden Harp for Sunday Schools (1863) and The Athenaeum Collection of Hymns and Tunes for Church and Sunday School (1863), and comic songs (not blackface songs) with lyricist George Cooper—among them “My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman” (1863), “If You’ve Only Got a Moustache” (1864), and “Mr. and Mrs. Brown” (1864). During the Civil War, which began while Foster was in New York in 1861, such comic songs were featured in saloons in variety shows. These shows were quickly growing in popularity and would develop into vaudeville in the decades after the war.

Foster also wrote a large number of songs in response to the Civil War. Many of these songs make no explicit mention of the war but express common wartime feelings, such as heartache due to family separation, as in “Why Have My Loved Ones Gone?” (1861), or hope for better days, as in “Better Times Are Coming” (1862). Foster wrote several pro-Union songs, including “That’s What’s the Matter” (1862) and “We Are Coming Father Abraam, 300,000 More” (1862), yet he also wrote several antiwar songs, such as “A Soldier in de Colored Brigade” and “When This Dreadful War Is Ended” (1863), which could be interpreted as voicing a Democratic perspective. Although there is no extant documentation that confirms that Foster opposed the Civil War, Foster’s brother Morrison and his sister Henrietta were staunch antiwar Democrats.

In January of 1864 Foster grew ill and fell while using the bathroom in his hotel room, leaving serious wounds on his neck and face. On January 10 he was taken to Bellevue Hospital, where he died on January 13. Morrison traveled to New York to retrieve his body. His funeral and burial occurred on January 21. He is buried in Allegheny Cemetery.

Works Cited

Austin, William W. “Susanna,” “Jeanie,” and “The Old Folks at Home”: The Songs of Stephen C. Foster from His Time to Ours. 2nd ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Douglass, Frederick. “The Anti-Slavery Movement, Lecture Delivered before the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society, March 19, 1855.” In Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings. Philip S. Foner, ed. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2000.
Foster, Morrison. Biography, Songs and Musical Compositions of Stephen C. Foster. Pittsburgh: Percy F. Smith, 1896.
——. My Brother Stephen. Indianapolis, 1932.
Hamm, Charles. Yesterdays: Popular Song in America. New York: Norton, 1983.
Howard, John Tasker. Stephen Foster: America’s Troubadour. Apollo Edition. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1962.
Morneweck, Evelyn Foster. Chronicles of Stephen Foster’s Family. Vol. 1. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1944.
Saunders, Steven. “The Social Agenda of Stephen Foster’s Plantation Melodies.” American Music 30, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 275–89.
Saunders, Steven, and Deane Root. The Music of Stephen C. Foster: A Critical Edition. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990. 

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