Stephen Foster Collage

Frequently Asked Questions About Stephen Foster

Every year the Center for American Music is contacted with thousands of reference questions pertaining to Stephen Foster. Below are some of the most common questions we receive.

When and where was Stephen Foster born?

Foster was born in Lawrenceville, PA, on July 4, 1826.

When and how did Stephen Foster die?

Foster died in Bellevue Hospital in New York City on January 13, 1864. In his biography "My Brother Stephen", Morrison Foster describes his death as follows, "In January 1864, while at the American Hotel, he was taken with ague and fever. After two or three days he arose, and while washing himself fainted and fell across the wash basin, which broke and cut a gash in his neck and face. He lay there insensible and bleeding until discovered by the chambermaid who was bringing the towel he had asked for to the room. She called for assistance and he was placed in bed again. On recovering his senses he asked that he be sent to a hospital. Accordingly he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was so much weakened by fever and loss of blood that he did not rally. On 13th of January he died peacefully and quietly..."

Where is Stephen Foster buried?

His grave is in Allegheny Cemetery, in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh.

Where is his original house?

Stephen Foster was born in a "White Cottage" located at 3600 Penn Avenue in what is now the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh. The original house is no longer standing, but a historical marker is at the site.

Who were his parents? Did he have brothers and sisters?

Parents: William Barclay Foster, Sr. and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster Siblings: Ann Eliza (d. infancy), Charlotte Susanna, Ann Eliza, William, Jr. (d. infancy, replaced by William, Sr.'s, son of the same name), Henry, Henrietta, Dunning, Morrison, James (d. infancy).

Did Stephen Foster marry?

Yes, he married Jane Denny MacDowell (December 10, 1829 - January 3, 1903) on July 22, 1850.

Did Stephen Foster have any children?

Yes, one daughter, Marion (April 18, 1851 - July 9, 1935). Marion supported herself as a piano teacher in Pittsburgh.

How many songs did Foster write? Did he write...?

Foster wrote 286 works in less than 20 years: 156 songs with piano accompaniment, 27 hymns, 5 piano pieces, 74 instrumental works and arrangements, 19 resetting of his songs for guitar accompaniment, 2 translations (from French and German), and 3 new lyrics to pre-existing melodies. For a complete listing of Stephen Foster's songs go here or consult The Complete Works of Stephen C. Foster A Critical Edition (full bibliographic information for this book can be found here).

What books should I read to find out more about Foster? Where can I find them?

For the best written resources on Stephen Foster please visit our bibliography. While most of these books are out of print, many should be available through your local library or might be able to be purchased at our gift shop. Additionally, copies may be available through a used book dealer (search the Advanced Book Exchange by title to see if anyone in the U.S. is currently selling the book you are interested in) and, occasionally, a Foster biography or songbook will show up on ebay.com.

Were there any movies about Stephen Foster? Where can I find them?

Three major motion pictures about Stephen Foster have been made to date. Among them are "Swanee River" (Twentieth Century Fox, 1939) starring Don Ameche, Andrea Leeds, and Al Jolson; "Harmony Lane" (Mascot Pictures, 1935) starring Douglass Montgomery and Elizabeth Meehan; and "I Dream of Jeanie" (Republic Pictures, 1952) starring Bill Shirley and Eileen Christy.In addition to these fictional biopics, PBS's "American Experience" did a one hour program on Foster in 2001.

Where can I get recordings of Stephen Foster's music?

We sell some recordings of Foster's music at our Gift Shop. Most major music stores should also be able to order specific Foster recordings that are still in print.

Am I allowed to perform or record Foster's songs, or publish his lyrics?

All of Foster's songs, in his original arrangements, are considered public domain and thus may be performed, recorded, or published without permission. However, any other composer's arrangements of Foster's songs may still be under copyright. You would need to contact the last known publisher to find out for certain.

May I use photos from your website for my website/publication?

All photos are property of the Center for American Music and require written permission and fees in order to be used. For more information please visit our Rights and Reproductions page.

Was Stephen Foster an alcoholic?

Opinions vary as to what role alcohol played in Foster's life. While he did drink, he was not the mythic bum in a Bowery gutter some have portrayed him to be nor did he 'drink himself to death'. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster visit our Myths About Foster page.

Was Stephen Foster from the South?

No. Stephen Foster spent the majority of his adult life in Pittsburgh, PA. As a child he visited Ohio and Augusta, Kentucky, and he attended boarding school in Northern Pennsylvania. From 1847 to 1849/1850 he lived in Cincinnati and in 1853 to 1854 and 1860 to 1864 he lived in New York City. In February 1852 he took a month long Mississippi River cruise to New Orleans, his only trip to the deep south. He never visited the Suwannee River. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster please visit our Myths About Foster page.

Was Stephen Foster gay?

There is no evidence indicating that Foster was homosexual. For more information on common myths about Stephen Foster please visit our Myths About Foster page.

I have an old book/piece-of-sheet-music by/about Stephen Foster; how much is it worth?

The easiest way to find out the value of a piece of sheet music or a book is to search the Advanced Book Exchange to see what the average price is that a rare book dealer is offering the piece for (make sure you search under both title and year). Keep in mind that the condition of the piece is a major factor in determining its price; most sheet music in good condition is worth between $15 and $20.

We are frequently contacted by people who believe they have a signed copy of Stephen Foster's sheet music in their possession. Many of Foster's songs were printed with a reproduction of Foster's signature etched on the plate. Unfortunately, this is merely a reproduction of his signature, and not considered an original signed copy.

We are always willing to examine purported Foster artifacts and manuscripts for authentication purposes. While we are always interested in acquiring things that are not currently held in our collections, we have a very limited acquisition budget and rely heavily on donations and gifts. If you are looking for a home for your collection of Foster or American sheet music, we would be thrilled to consider adding it to our collection or to help aid you in locating another library that would be an appropriate recipient for your gift. Unfortunately, it is against University policy for us to appraise items.

I think I might be related to Foster, how do I verify it?

The best resource for genealogical information on the Foster family is available in Evelyn Foster Morneweck's book "The Chronicles of Stephen Foster' s Family". The two volume book has been scanned and is available as part of the ULS Digital Collections.

How much money did Foster make from his songs?

Complete records of Foster’s income do not exist, but for the period between 1849 and 1860 he made $15,091.08, an average of $1,371.92 a year. That is the equivalent of around $40,000 a year in today’s dollars.

Why did he die so poor?

While in the late twentieth-century there are many legal safeguards in place and organizations, such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, to protect artists and their intellectual property, no such organizations or safeguards existed during Foster's time. There was no music business as we know it (sound recording was not invented until 13 years after Foster's death; radio, 66 years): no system of publishers and agents vying to sell new songs; no "performing rights" fees from restaurant singers or minstrels or theater musicians or concert recitalists; no way of earning money except through a 5-to-10 percent royalty on sheet-music sales of his own editions by his original music publisher, or through the outright purchase of a song by a publisher. He earned nothing for most other arrangers settings of his songs. There was no way to know whether he was being paid for all the copies his publisher sold; there were no attorneys specializing in authors' rights. Copyright law protected far less than it does today: Foster earned nothing for other arrangers' settings of his songs, for broadside printings of his lyrics, or other publishers' editions of his music. In today's music industry he would be worth millions of dollars a year, but on January 13, 1864, he died at age 37 with 38 cents in his pocket.

Was Stephen Foster a racist?

Foster benefited greatly from the racial hierarchy of his day. Wealthy and elite Americans structured society so that families like Foster’s generated wealth and power at the expense of others, and it was certainly the Foster family’s “high” status that enabled Stephen to become the first American to support himself through composition alone. Additionally, Foster wrote many songs for minstrel shows (“Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” are perhaps the most famous examples), which were musical theatrical productions in which white performers blackened their faces and ridiculed African Americans. A lifelong Democrat, Foster wrote campaign songs for politicians such as James Buchanan, who opposed abolitionism and supported allowing slave hunters to enter free states to capture African Americans believed to be escaped slaves.

On the other hand, many of Foster’s songs fanned the flames for abolition. In the 1850s “My Old Kentucky Home” and other songs appeared in stage adaptations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s abolitionist novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. In this and other songs (“Nelly Was a Lady,” “Old Folks at Home,” “Massa’s in de Cold Ground,” “Old Black Joe,” and others), Foster was far ahead of other songwriters of his day in bestowing a measure of dignity to black subjects. 

Why aren't Foster's songs sung in the schools anymore?

Foster’s songs are the product of a society that was shaped by enslavement, and many of his songs have contributed to prolonging the racial hierarchy that enslavement created. The offensive language and derogatory images in some of his songs emerged from a society in which songwriters like Foster enjoyed a privileged social status from which they could define those who were forced into a low position on the social ladder. By popularizing denigrating images of African Americans, these songs help prolong that social structure.

For these reasons, some schools and individual educators have ceased to perform Foster’s music altogether. Many educators, however, have their students perform the inoffensive songs by Foster while using Foster’s problematic songs in their classrooms to teach about racism in the cultural history of the United States.

What other Memorials are there to Stephen Foster?

For a complete listing of Memorials to Stephen Foster by state, see "Stephen Collins Foster: A Guide to Research" by Calvin Elliker (complete bibliographic info is available here). Included in Elliker's list are hundreds of sculptures, schools, library collections, bridges, state songs, commemorative days, hotels, dissertations, articles, state parks, House Resolutions, highways, streets, historic markers, buildings, bars, stained glass windows, art objects, stamps, pullman cars, commemorative medals, and flowers all named to honor Foster. In addition to the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh, there are also major Memorials at Bardstown, Kentucky (My Old Kentucky Home State Park) and White Springs, Florida (Stephen Foster State Folk Culture Center on the banks of the Suwanee River).

What has made Foster's music so popular?

In the introduction to "The Music of Stephen C. Foster: A Critical Edition", musicologists Steven Saunders and Deane Root explain how Foster learned to craft such widely appealing music:

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.

Foster never conducted formal music studies, but he absorbed much about the musics of nineteenth-century America in his boyhood home, church, and Pittsburgh’s theaters and music venues.

Although many people celebrate Foster’s music as a stylistic “melting pot,” many others counter that Foster and other white songwriters stole the right of African Americans to represent themselves. In this view, Foster’s “syncretic” style is not something to be celebrated.

Contact Us

Center for American Music
Stephen Foster Memorial
University of Pittsburgh
4301 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Hours

Starting August 24, 2020, the Center for American Music Library and Stephen Foster Museum will be open by appointment only. To request access, please send us a request.

You do not have to be affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh to use the Collection. 

Stephen Foster Memorial Museum and Center for American Music Library - Facebook Page