The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Composers and Songwriters
Stephen Foster

writer of over 200 songs

Stephen Foster

Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826, the ninth of ten children born to William B. and Eliza T. Foster; William also fathered a son prior to the marriage, and that son was later raised as the oldest child. Educated by a series of private tutors and at private academies, he was an avid reader but detested rote learning and recitation. He showed an interest in music from an early age and could play a variety of instruments, but it is unclear how much, if any, formal music training he received.

Foster wrote his first song, "Sadly to Mine Heart Appealing," at the age of 13, but there is no record of it ever being published. The distinction of being Foster's first published song goes to "Open Thy Lattice, Love," which was published in 1844. He sold a handful of songs over the next few years, but to make ends meet financially he worked as a bookkeeper for his brother's steamship company in Cincinnati.

Foster's first big hit was "Oh! Susanna," which was published in 1847 and first performed by the Christy Minstrels (the most famous minstrel troupe of the day) in 1848. The song was an almost immediate success, and even became an official anthem of "Forty-Niners" heading for the California gold fields. On December 3, 1849, Foster signed a contract with New York music publisher Firth, Pond & Co.; he left his bookkeeping job to become a full-time songwriter about the same time. Between 1849 and 1850 he published a total of eight songs, including "Uncle Ned" and "Nelly Was a Lady." His next major hit was "De Camptown Races," which was introduced to the public by the Christy Minstrels in 1850. By the time he moved back to Pittsburgh, sometime in 1850, he had published at least twelve compositions.

On July 22, 1850, Foster married Jane Denny McDowell. The couple's only child, Marion, was born the following year. It is assumed that "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), one of Foster's few sentimental ballads, was inspired by Jane.

One of Foster's best known, and most financially successful, songs, "Old Folks at Home" (Swanee River) was sent to the Christy Minstrels in 1851. Florida designated it as its Official State Song in 1935. Another popular Foster song, "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), was adopted by Kentucky in 1928.

Foster moved to New York City to be nearer his publisher in 1853; his wife and daughter joined him in Hoboken, New Jersey, the following year, but by then the marriage was in serious trouble and the couple separated soon after. The break-up of his marriage, followed by the deaths of both of his parents in 1855, had a dramatic impact on Foster, and his output diminished dramatically over the subsequent years. His last major project was "Social Orchestra" (1854), a compendium of 73 instrumental arrangements for flute, violin, piano, and other instruments that ranged from operatic and classical to popular that included pieces by Donizetti, Jullien, Abt, Mozart, and Schubert, as well as himself. Despite the collection being a very good seller, Foster only received a flat fee of $150 from the publisher, and, aside from a few piano pieces, he never wrote another instrumental arrangement. By the 1860's he had changed his focus from minstrels and celebratory songs to sentimental ballads, few of which enjoyed success; "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) was one of the few exceptions. In 1862 or 1863, he began collaborating with poet George Cooper, who supplied lyrics for Foster's music. "There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea" (1863), "Kissing in the Dark" (1863), "My Wife is a Most Knowing Woman" (1863), "If You've Only Got a Moustache" (1864), and "Mr. & Mrs. Brown" (1864) are some of the best known songs from this collaboration; none of them enjoyed the popularity Foster's earlier songs had, however.

Stephen Foster died in New York City on January 13, 1864, three days after falling in his hotel room and hitting his head on a washbasin, which had shattered on impact and left him with severe lacerations.

Although Foster received good money for most of his 200+ songs, his earnings never came close to reflecting how much money those songs earned for others. In his day most music publishers only paid for initial publication rights, but Foster made sure his contract with Firth, Pond & Co. included royalty payments for every copy of his music the publisher sold. Unfortunately, copyright laws at the time did not give songwriters the right to protect their music and lyrics from use by other songwriters, performers, publishers, etc. without permission, so Foster never received royalties for any of the hundreds of arrangements and public performances of his songs that undoubtedly made many other people a lot of money. At the time of his death, Foster had 38 cents in his pocket.

The Center for American Music
Songwriters Hall of Fame (complete song list)

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Composers and Songwriters

This page was last updated on 06/29/2018.