Although Stephen Foster was a poor student academically, he had an early affinity for music and taught himself to play several instruments. He grew up in a northern middle-class family and learned spirituals and other songs from a household slave, Olivia Pise. Long before he reached his teens, Foster was performing for family and friends, his repertoire including many songs popularized by the minstrel shows of the time. Obliged to earn a living in commerce and prohibited from the formal study of music by his father, Foster's early manhood was a difficult time. However, he began writing songs and in 1841 abandoned all pretence at other activities, becoming a full-time songwriter. His first published song was a sentimental ballad, 'Open The Lattice, Love' (1844), his second a minstrel-type song, 'There's A Good Time Coming' (1846). These opening works marked the twin forms he would follow, ballads and minstrelsy, and as his work began attracting attention, his best songs were usually redolent of the imaginary joys of life in the Deep South under the shadow of slavery: 'Lou'siana Belle', 'Old Uncle Ned' and 'O Susannah'. The massive success of the latter song, which he sold for $100, did not change parental disapproval and he was briefly lured back into commerce by his father.
Foster returned to writing songs, and in 1850 published several, two of which, 'Nelly Bly' and 'Camptown Races', were hugely popular (the latter was used as a campaign song by Abraham Lincoln in 1860). Also in 1850 he married Jane Denny McDowell, who was known as Jeanie and inspired his song, 'Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair'. Despite this and other songs he wrote for his wife, and the birth of a daughter, the marriage was unhappy. The chief problems were Foster's irresponsibility and his growing drink problem. His songs continued to be successes, many of them now being featured by Ed Christy, leader of the Christy Minstrels, including 'Old Folks At Home' (1851). Foster's habits meant that he was always desperately in need of money and, although he was not blind to the long-term benefits of royalties, he frequently sold songs outright, or at best offered partial rights to Christy and others, in return for ready drinking money. In 1853 Foster wrote 'My Old Kentucky Home', and in 1855 'Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming'. In 1860, the year in which he and his wife and child moved to New York, he wrote 'Old Black Joe'.
The outbreak of the war between the states forced Foster to change direction as songs about the supposedly idyllic life led by slaves became justifiably unpopular. During the Civil War he produced many songs with a patriotic flavour, but the most lasting of this period was another wistful ballad, 'Beautiful Dreamer'. The shift of public taste had a detrimental effect upon Foster's career and his drinking habits worsened. His wife left him, taking their daughter with her, and he sank into severe ill health that was exacerbated by his continued drinking. Shortly after an abortive attempt at suicide, Foster was hospitalized and died in January 1864. He was 37 years of age, and he had less than that number of cents on him when he died.
There was a remarkable quality of durability about Foster's livelier pieces, which rose above their questionable minstrel show origins. His own favourites were his ballads, and if they were frequently sung by inadequate singers who delivered them with a sugary coating of sentimentality, the songs themselves have withstood the test of time. They remain a significant milestone in the development of popular song in nineteenth-century America. In 1993, The Stephen Foster Songbook, a nostalgic tribute to one of America's earliest songwriters by the Robert Shaw Chorale, was re-released.
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