Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stephen Foster

I'll bet there's not a soul who reads this article who hasn't sung a Stephen Foster song. I grew up in a traditional farm community, so he figured in heavily when it came to Grange dances and activities. So who is this guy?

He wrote several hundred songs. He changed the face of music in America to give us our own style. He wrote songs that have endured for 150-plus years, and still going strong. You've heard of Oh, Susanna? He wrote it. How about My Old Kentucky Home? He wrote that. As well as Camptown Races, Old Folks at Home, and my favorite, Beautiful Dreamer. He gave America a new sound and a new respect in the music world.

He was trained as an engineer at Athens Academy in Pennsylvania where he wrote his first composition that was performed in public: Tioga Waltz, which was played at the 1839 graduation ceremony. Athens Academy was near a place familiar to Stephen Foster fans--Camptown Races.

He wrote a bunch of minstrel songs to get his career started. These songs were performed by singers and dancers in black-face, as was the popular comic style in the 1850s. But after ten years of that, he grew tired of the "Ethiopian" style and began to write songs that portrayed black people in a heartfelt, honest way. This is when he wrote Nelly Was a Lady, about a man's grief over his deceased woman. Heretofore, no one had written songs about black people (remember, slavery was still a way of life then) in a humanizing way.

While he was known for writing southern songs, Foster at no time lived in the south. He grew up in Pennsylvania, moved to Cincinnati for a while, and lived his later years in New York.

Very few musicians leave their fingerprints on a country the way Stephen Foster did, but he wasn't a performer so had to rely entirely on sheet music royalties for his income, and he died in poverty.

From Pitt.edu: "Foster's only real income was the royalty he earned on sheet-music sales. Altogether he made $15,091.08 in royalties during his lifetime and almost nothing in performing rights (yearly average was $1,371 for his 11 most productive years). His heirs, Jane and Marion equally, later earned $4,199 in royalties, so that the total known royalties on his songs amounted to $19,290. Today, it would be worth millions."

PBS: American Experience
PD Music

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