Stephen Foster (1826 – 1864)
At primary school, for some unaccountable reason as it was situated in a county with a fine folk tradition, the songs we sang were mainly American. One particular favourite which we sang with gusto was Camptown Races which started off, “Camptown ladies, sing this song/ doo-da doo-da/ The Camptown racetrack’s five miles long/ Oh doo-da day.” It sounded better than it appears on paper. It was one of over two hundred songs written by the latest inductee into our illustrious Hall of Fame, Stephen Foster, not that I knew at the time nor, frankly, cared.
Foster has been called the father of American music and many of his songs are popular to this day. In his musical canon are ditties such as Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie with the light brown hair, Old Black Joe and Beautiful dreamer. As a youngster he joined a quasi-secret society known as the Knights of the Square Table who spent their evenings singing songs and was heavily influenced by a German musician, Henry Kleber, who ran a music store in Pittsburgh and Dan Rice, an itinerant entertainer. It was during this period that he wrote one of his most famous songs, Oh! Susanna, although the first song he published, at the age of eighteen, was Open Thy Lattice, Love.
When he was twenty-four and married, Foster decided to earn his living as a professional song-writer. The problem with being the first in your field, is that there are usually no rules of engagement. So whilst Foster would generally find someone who would pay him some money for the rights to publish his songs, there was no such thing as an established music royalty system. So Oh! Susanna, published in 1848 and the unofficial anthem of the Californian gold rush, earned him just $100 while his publisher raked in $10,000.
Returning to Pennsylvania in 1849 he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels and over the next five years or so wrote many of his most well-known songs, including Camptown Races in 1850. They were often in the blackface minstrel stylee which was popular at the time but with subtle changes, as Foster wrote, “to build up taste…among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order”. But instead of the millions that his works would have earned him these days, he received little more than $15,000 in total for all the songs which are now the staple of the American songbook.
Inevitably, Foster hit hard times. 1855 might well have been his annus horribilis – he separated from his wife and both his parents died. He reacted to his troubles in the only way he knew how – by writing another hit, Hard Times Come Again No More. What certainly did not come no more was money and he was reduced to living a rootless existence, dossing in hotels in New York.
His demise is worthy of our Hall of Fame. In January 1864 Foster contracted a fever and was severely weakened by it. He was found, naked, lying in a pool of blood, by his then writing partner, George Cooper, having hit his head on a wash basin. He died in Bellevue Hospital three days later, on February 13, aged just thirty-seven. In his wallet was found a scrap of paper with the words, “Dear friends and gentle hearts” and just 38 cents. Perhaps his most famous song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published posthumously.
Stephen Foster, for enriching the American song tradition and not enjoying your just desserts, you are a worthy inductee into our Hall of Fame.
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