Foster, Stephen Collins


One of America's most noted songwriters, chiefly remembered as the author of Old Folks at Home, better known as The Suwanee River, and My Old Kentucky Home. Foster was born at Lawrenceville, now a part of Pittsburg, Pa., and was the son of one of the oldest settlers of western Pennsylvania, a prosperous merchant and one time mayor of Pittsburg. Young Foster began his education at an academy in Allegheny, and also studied at Jefferson College, Canons- burg, and after finishing school became a bookkeeper for a brother in Cincinnati, spending all of his leisure moments in studying French, German, drawing and painting. He early in life showed a talent for music, playing the flageolet, flute and piano, while very young. He had a good singing voice, although not an especially strong one. He was urged to study music seriously, but hesitated on the ground that it would destroy his originality. Later in life he came to regret this and then spent much time studying the great masters. Foster's first composition, a waltz, arranged for four flutes, was written while he was at school, and was so well-received that it spurred him to greater efforts. He shortly afterwards began to write songs, most of them being submitted to   Henry Kleber, a musician of his native city, for criticism. His first published song, Open Thy Lattice, Love, appeared in 1842, and was one of the few whose words were not his own. Later he submitted his song, O Susanna, to a minstrel troupe which visited Pittsburg; it was accepted and sung with success and immediately became the vogue. Foster married in 1854, but six years later left his wife, and went to live in New York City, where he kept a small grocery, and where the best years of his life were dissipated in drink and folly. Some of his songs, written amid the most uncongenial surroundings, yet beautiful and full of melody, he was obliged to sell for the merest pittance. The publishers, knowing his need gave him little or nothing for them. He was preyed upon by so-called friends, who knew his frank, generous, unresisting nature, and used it to further their own aims. He died at Bellevue Hospital, New York, in abject poverty, the victim of his dissolute habits. Foster's  place among American songwriters is a unique one and his lyrics are unlike anything produced before or since his time. They have a charm and an appeal that has made them more enduring than many that have more real musical merit. He occupies a niche of his own as a composer; his compositions appealing directly to the heart. No songs have become so widely known. His Old Folks at Home has sold to the extent of hundreds of thousands of copies. Its history is interesting. It was written at Foster's Allegheny home in 1851, after his return from a prolonged visit, and was first published under the name of Edwin P. Christy, of Christy's Minstrels, who had bought the song on condition that he be allowed to claim the authorship of it. Like most of his other songs, the sum that Foster received for it was very small. For many years its real author was not known, and it is only in recent years that Foster's name has appeared in connection with it. For many of his songs, which had an  enormous success, previous to, during and after the Civil War, he wrote the  words as well as the music. Among his most popular lyrics were Marsa's in the Cold.Cold Ground; Old Dog Tray; Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming, a song for four voices; Ellen Bayne, which by some is said to have provided the theme for John Brown's Body; and many others. Says L. C. Elson: "Foster was like Robert Burns, a man who sang the purest poetry of humble life." He received the inspiration for many of his negro songs in the humble cabins of the darkies, and wove into his music many of the melodies which he heard in such places. Some one hundred and seventy-five songs are credited to him. His life was strangely like that of the Scotch poet, in that he was of an irresponsible, pleasureloving nature, too fond of drink, yet of a lovable disposition, and unusually gifted. And like the American poet, Poe, Foster's career was unfortunate and his talents unappreciated until long after his death.