He was America’s first professional songwriter. He was also the first songwriter to be unfairly exploited by music publishers. Although his songs never generated the fortune Stephen Foster deserved during his brief life span, many of them, such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Old Folks at Home,” have resonated through the generations. They are the essence of Americana, as fundamental and timeless a part of the American identity as The Gettysburg Address and Huckleberry Finn, so ingrained into our collective consciousness that many are considered today to be folk songs, as if they were born with the earth, and not the creation of an actual songwriter.
Born prior to the Civil War, Foster was in the music business before that business really existed in this country. There was certainly no record industry—sound recording wasn’t even invented until more than a decade past his death, and radio didn’t arrive for 66 years after that. There was no modern music publishing business, and no organizations to collect performance royalties. The only way he could earn any income from songwriting was by selling editions of his own sheet music to a publisher, for which he would receive scant royalties, or by simply selling a song outright for a small fee, thus forever relinquishing all of its rights. Had Foster worked within the modern system, he would have made many millions. Instead, he died at the age of 37 with only 38 cents in his pocket.
“Hard Times”: Mavis Staples recording for Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster, 2004
Foster’s life belongs to history now, and, as such, its facts tend to shift depending on who is relating it. Born on the 4th of July in 1826, innumerable myths about him which have been perpetuated through the ages have only been dispelled in recent years. It’s often assumed he was a Southerner, for example, because he wrote about the Swanee River and an old Kentucky home. In fact, he was born and raised in Lawrenceville, Pa, just outside of Pittsburgh. It’s been said he was uneducated, which is also untrue. Since he grew up before the advent of public education, he attended private school and was also privately tutored. It’s been said he was musically gifted but untrained and illiterate. This is far from the truth—he learned how to read, write and arrange music at an early age.
Foster’s father was a politician and businessman whose hapless real estate speculations led the family to the brink of financial ruin. But Foster’s childhood seemed to be a mostly happy one. As a teenager he joined a club along with his brother Morrison and his good friend Charles Shiras called the Knights of the S.T., which would meet periodically at the Foster home. The only available music, of course, was that which people made themselves, and the boys used to sing popular tunes of the day together, with Stephen always in the lead. He started composing his own songs for the group, and it’s commonly believed that “Oh! Susanna” was among the first that he wrote. At 18 his first song was published—which literally meant “published” in those days—as sheet music. It was called “Open Thy Lattice Love.”
He went to college, but dropped out after a week. He hoped to make a living from songwriting, but it was impossible. Royalties generated from the sales of sheet music then was nowhere near what he needed to live on. So at the age of 20 he moved to Cincinnati to get a “real job,” accepting his brother Dunning’s offer to work as a bookkeeper for his steamship firm. Foster never stopped writing songs, however, and maintained his vision of someday making his living from songwriting alone. He succeeded in selling some of the new songs and instrumental piano pieces to a local publisher in Cincinnati, one of which was “Oh! Susanna.”
“Oh! Susanna” performed by James Taylor and Johnny Cash, 1971
He surmised that the best way to expose his songs to the largest possible audience was to get them into the minstrel shows circulating through the country. Instead of handing out taped demos as would a modern songwriter, Foster instead distributed sheet music of his songs to various minstrel shows as they passed through town. One of the most popular of these, the original Christy Minstrels, adopted “Oh! Susanna” as their theme song in 1848, and it soon became a hit song throughout the still-new nation even in those days long before radio.
But rather than earn Foster much income, the song was essentially bootlegged by many different music publishers, who sold the sheet music to the public and cashed in on its popularity without compensating the songwriter at all. They earned tens of thousands of dollars on the song, while he earned only a single payment of $100 from a Cincinnati publishing firm. In this way, he is notable for not only being America’s first professional songwriter, but also for being America’s first professional songwriter to be exploited and cheated at the hands of unscrupulous businessmen.
This taught him an important lesson, however—that there was a lot of money that could be made in songwriting if he was able to protect his songs. It wasn’t easy to do, though, as existing copyright laws offered flimsy authorship protection.
By 1849 he’d landed eight different songs in minstrel shows, including “Uncle Ned,” and “Nelly Was a Lady.” Though it was unprecedented, he felt he could make his living entirely by writing and publishing songs, and returned to Pittsburgh with that goal. In December of 1849 he signed on with one of the few reputable music publishers then in business, Firth, Pond, & Co., and dedicated himself to the life of a professional songwriter. The following year he married Jane Denny McDowell, with whom he had one child, a daughter named Marion, born later that year.
Though his success up to that point consisted of writing minstrel songs in black dialect, he aspired to write a more serious, universal kind of song. “Nelly Is A Lady,” written in 1849, was the first of his songs to break away from the common caricatures of black culture which he had help to promulgate. Both “Angelina Baker” and “Ring, Ring De Banjo,” written in 1851, expressed a new level of human compassion for the lives of slaves on a plantation. Rather than be portrayed as objects of ridicule, they became instead symbols of perseverance. He also wrote one of his most famous songs ever, “Old Folks At Home,” which, despite its use of the word “darkies,” did something no previous song had done: It showed the humanity of blacks longing for a return to the comforts of home and family.
“Old Folks at Home” – Deanna Durbin
Foster tried to persuade Christy that his minstrel show could perform a new kind of song, one that could appeal to all people and not only those who enjoy the use of “trashy and really offensive words.” He insisted that these new songs should not be performed comically, but in a “pathetic,” humane style. His lyrics, which had always been graceful, took on a new, almost Shakespearean elegance, and he started writing songs he felt were suitable to the parlor—where proper, refined men and women would sit around the piano and play the tunes of the day.
In direct contradiction to the myth that he was an unschooled, street-level musician, Foster composed a surprising amount of instrumental music during his lifetime. In 1854 he completed a massive project called The Social Orchestra, an arrangement for flute, violin, piano and other instruments of some 73 different pieces combined, including his own music as well as music written by Mozart, Schubert and others. It sold well, and, as he had hoped, became a popular item for informal piano gatherings. But the amount of time and energy he devoted to it far exceeded any income it generated, which amounted only to a one-time fee of $150. As could be expected, after its completion he returned to writing songs.
Randy Newman’s 1970 song referencing Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home”
By 1860 with the Civil War unstoppable on the horizon, Foster hit his lowest lows, struggling to write new songs as he sadly saw the division of his homeland into separate nations. With the hope of reviving his career, he returned to writing minstrel songs, which he now called “plantation songs.” He moved with his family that year to New York, but was soon alone again, living in a hotel in the theater district of Manhattan as his wife and daughter moved back to Pennsylvania. Unable to get a new writing contract, he had no choice but to accept the lowly amounts offered by publishers for the complete rights to his new songs.
He embarked on the first and only songwriting collaboration of his career in 1862 with the poet George Cooper, who wrote comic lyrics Foster felt were commercial enough to appeal to musical theater fans. They also wrote a couple of songs tailored specifically for the Civil War, including “Willie Has Gone to War.” None of the new songs could touch the ongoing popularity of his early songs, however, which remained beloved in both the North and the South throughout the war.
He also tried his hand at writing sacred songs intended for children, contributing the beautiful “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” and other songs to a Sunday school songbook.
Though he wrote more than 100 songs during his final years, most of them remained unpublished and are lost forever. The haunting “Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in 1862, was found and published posthumously in 1864.
“Beautiful Dreamer” – Beatles’ Adapted Version
He died in New York City on January 13, 1864. He’d been ill for days in his hotel room when he tried to get out of bed and fell against the washbasin, splitting open his head. Several hours passed before he was brought to the Welfare Island hospital, coincidentally the same institution where another legendary American songwriter, Jerome Kern, would die in 1945. Antibiotics and transfusions were unknown in Foster’s time, and he died after three days, leaving behind only the pennies in his pocket and a mysterious but poetic message scrawled in pencil: “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” He was 37 years old.
It’s been estimated that during Foster’s lifetime he earned just over fifteen thousand dollars in royalties on sheet music from his entire catalog of songs, and no income at all from performance royalties. His wife and daughter earned a total of $4,199 after his death. Today even one hit with the national magnitude of “Oh Susanna” would earn millions annually, and Foster wrote many. Today, however, like the traditional folk songs people think they are, the songs of Stephen Foster are all in the public domain.
—By Paul Zollo