Stephens Collins Foster was an American composer and songwriter who worked for 20 years and wrote 286 songs. Some of his songs became popular among middle-class families, and were performed by amateur singers in their parlors. Musical instruments such as pianos, which were valued belongings of a few well-to-do homes, accompanied the “parlor” tunes. He also composed a significant number of tunes that the minstrels performed while performing comedic skits and variety shows. Many schools’ music curricula feature some of his tunes, which are referred to as “childhood songs.” The most of his songs seems to be inspired by his own life experiences. His songs have compassionate lyrics and a captivating beat. The songs expressed his thoughts on family, temperament, politics, warfare, and plantation life. Even after more than 150 years after they were written, his songs are still popular. He is often regarded as the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century. In other parts of the world, he is undoubtedly the most well-known American composer.
Childhood and Adolescence
Stephens Collins Foster was born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pittsburg, to a middle-class family. Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster was his mother, and William Barclay Foster was his father. His father was the mayor of Allegheny City, a Pittsburg suburb, and a member of the Pennsylvania assembly.
Ann Eliza, Charlotte Susana, William Sr., William Jr., Henry, Henrietta, Dunning, Morrison, and James were his parents’ first nine children. Ann Eliza, William Jr., and James had all died while they were young, leaving him as the family’s “baby.”
He enrolled at the Allegheny Academy in 1840 but left shortly after to attend the Athens Academy and later the Towanda Academy. He left this institution the next year to attend Jefferson College, but only stayed for a week before returning to his home from 1841 to 1846.
Stephan Foster’s Career
He traveled to Cincinnati in 1846 to work as an accountant for Irwin & Foster Steamboat Agency, where he learned about the lifestyles of people from the Irish working class as well as the English and Scottish aristocracies.
He quit his work as a bookkeeper and devoted himself to songwriting. In 1848, he sold the rights to “Oh! Susanna” and “Old Uncle Ned” to W.C. Peters, a publisher.
In 1849, he reached an agreement with New York-based publishers Firth & Pond Co. to publish his songs.
Stephen Collins returned to Pittsburg in 1850 and stayed with his family for the following six years. He wrote almost 160 songs at this time.
During this time, I corresponded with the leader of one of the top minstrel swinger groups, the “Christy Minstrels.” Foster’s song would be purchased by E.P. Christy and sung first by the minstrels at every show, with the sheet music credit reading “As sung by the Christy Minstrels.” It was a long-term deal that benefited both parties.
The only snag in this relationship occurred in 1851 when E.P. Christy was attributed with the publication of the hymn “Old Folks At Home.”
Stephen Foster’s creative power waned in the late 1850s, and he was unable to produce much during that time.
Despite receiving large royalties from the New York publisher Firth & Pond Co. throughout the years, his contract with them terminated in 1860 with the song “Old Black Joe.”
Stephen Foster penned several songs on valor, patriotism, love, and homesickness when the Civil War broke out in 1861, but none of them could compare to his old tunes.
Foster’s Major Projects
At the age of fourteen, he wrote his first song, “The Tioga Waltz,” while attending the Athens Academy in 1840. It was only after his death that it was published.
His first song, “Open Thy Lattice Love,” was released in 1843, followed by “Louisiana Belle,” “Old Uncle Ned,” and “Oh! Susanna” in 1845, all while still living with his family.
Personal History and Legacy
Stephen Collins Foster married Jane Denny McDowell on July 22, 1850, and they resided in Pittsburg. Marion was their daughter from their marriage.
His alcoholism caused him to divorce his wife several times, only to reconcile again. During one of these separations, he wrote the song “Jeanne With the Light Brown Hair,” which was inspired by his wife. His wife agreed to another reconciliation, but it was only temporary.
Stephen Foster moved to New York in 1861 when his alcoholism broke up his marriage and left him bankrupt. Stephen Collins Foster sold all of his songwriting rights for cash while in New York.
He died in New York on January 13th, 1864, weighed down by debt, alcoholism, and loneliness. He left only 40 cents and a letter in his purse.
Only two weeks before his death, he wrote his final song, “Beautiful Dreamer,” which told of his escape from the harsh truths of life. After his death, the song was released.
He had always had a strong bond with his family and had spent the majority of his life with them. He was extremely sensitive to the world around him, and his songs reflected this.
His creativity was harmed by his frequent separations from his wife, and he was unable to write because of the loneliness he felt.
Estimated Net worth