Stephen Foster: America’s First Professional Songwriter

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  • Topic: Stephen Foster, Minstrel show, Blackface
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10/16/12
MU 202-02 - History of Music: American
Professor King
Stephen Foster: America’s First Professional Songwriter
“Although Foster’s melodies are very familiar, amazingly little is known about the composer.”[i] This quote from Tomaschewski is an appropriate summarization of Stephen Foster’s legacy. Famous songs such as “Oh! Susanna”, “Camptown Races”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, and “Beautiful Dreamer” are quintessentially American songs that can be hummed by most people. However, most people cannot tell you who wrote them. These songs, as well as many more, were composed by Stephen Foster, America’s first professional songwriter[ii].

It is quite fitting that the father of the most definitive American folk songs was born on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence[iii]. Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania to parents William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Foster[iv]. He had three sisters, Charlotte Susanna, Ann Eliza, and Henrietta, and four brothers, James, Dunning McNair, Morrison, and WIlliam[v]. Foster’s father was a seller of land and an aspiring socialite in the town. However, he had a drinking problem which ruined his career as well as his family’s lifestyle[vi]. Because of his father’s failed business and personal problems, the family was forced to move away from their “idyllic residence situated on a bluff overlooking the river” (Tomaschewski) in 1830. Stephen was four at the time.

This event, along with his father’s drinking habits, had a huge impact on Foster. Losing his childhood home and feeling neglected by his father forced Stephen to “escape into a fantasy world” (Tomaschewski). This led to him seeking enjoyment and enlightenment in the company of poets and journalists[vii]. In the same vein, Foster found enjoyment in reading; mostly the works of Charles Dickens. In particular, he was impressed with Dickens’ novel Hard Times which dealt with the “industrialization and the technological progress” of America which presented the “danger that the individual becomes a sacrifice of the superficiality” (Tomaschewski). This notion drove Stephen to distinguish himself as a unique musician and songwriter but, ironically, became the case for him later in his life.

Another escape for young Stephen was playing instruments, which was commonplace in the Foster household. As a boy, “Stephen was entrusted early with the music of Thomas Moore and Robert Burns, both of whom were representatives of the romantic” and the “nostalgic melancholy of the Irish poet Thomas Moore held an immediate appeal for Foster.” (Tomaschewski) This played a major role in the development of his musical tastes and, later, the music he wrote. His first published song, titled “Open Thy Lattice Love”, was a ballad that he “dedicated to his friend Susan Pentland from Allegheny” in 1844 when he was only 18[viii]. Foster wrote the music for the piece and used a poem by George Pope Morris for the lyrics[ix]. Morris had written the lyrics “in the tradition of the romantic ballad for many popular songs [...] which Foster would later make so much his own.” (Tomaschewski)

In addition to “Open Thy Lattice Love”, Foster’s first ballads and waltzes were written between 1893 and 1846. Foster wrote his first composition, “The Tioga Waltz”, in 1839 but it was not published until 1896; 32 years after his death[x]. In the first recorded public performance of this piece (April 1, 1841) Stephen played flute, along with two other student flutists and a student pianist, in a Presbyterian Church at Athens, Pennsylvania[xi]. Foster wrote one of his more known ballads, titled “There’s A Good Time Coming”, in 1846[xii] as well as a waltz titled “Autumn Waltz” in the same year[xiii]. However, he would gain greater attention two years later with a song written for a popular spectacle at the time; the minstrel show.

The minstrel...
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