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Stephen Foster: Stephen Foster (b. Lawrenceville,4 July 1826; d. New York, 13 Jan 1864).
The story of Stephen Foster (Stephen Collins Foster) is basically one of an affluent upbringing, early success leading to international acclaim, to be followed by a sad decline, spiritual and physical disintegration and final tragedy. He was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, a town near Pittsburgh, in 1826. His boyhood was spent in this area and he attended local schools. His father, Colonel William Barclay Foster, was a typical rugged American pioneer who eventually made a successful career in a grocery and hardware firm as head of their shipping department, which often involved perilous journeys from New Orleans to New York either by sea or overland. His wife, Eliza Tomlinson, came from an aristocratic family. Their older children followed a predictable course in life; the eldest son becoming a famous engineer; others going into business. Stephen, who spent his time playing music and jotting down a continual stream of melodies that went through his head, was a puzzle. His father described it as 'a strange talent' but it was beyond the imagination of this highly respectable family to see music as a possible career.
However, Stephen Foster continued to write music, in spite of every effort to turn his steps elsewhere, and he had his first song published when he was sixteen - Open thy Lattice, Love. In 1846 he went to Cincinnati to work as book-keeper for one of his brothers and there he became friendly with a music publisher to whom he presented a number of songs including Uncle Ned and Oh! Susannah. This last song became a popular favourite with the 1849 gold-diggers on their way to California and the publisher is reputed to have made over $10,000 out of these songs. Stephen Foster didn't even get his name on the covers.
At this point he became a full-time composer and several songs were commissioned on which he now obtained a royalty agreement. In 1851 when the minstrel craze was growing, the famous minstrel show leader Edward P. Christy offered to publicise some of Stephen Foster's songs providing Christy's name was on the cover as composer. Stephen Foster kept the publishing rights and was paid a royalty. One of these was the famous Old Folks at Home. Others such as Camptown Races followed. Following a royalty agreement in 1853 with the firm of Firth, Pond, he published an anthology of tasteful dance arrangements called The Social Orchestra. Again, it was many years before Stephen Foster's name was given its due credit on these covers, but at least he was getting an income from them, small though it was by today's standards. Old Folks at Home earned him $1,647.46 in its first five and a quarter years (according to the composer's own account book) and My Old Kentucky Home earned $1,372.06 in three and a half years. In the eight years from 1849 onward he was averaging an income of just under $1,200 a year with most of it coming from a mere handful of songs. These monetary considerations are important in Stephen Foster's history because it deeply affected his output. In 1860 he sold his royalty interests to various publishers in exchange for an arrangement whereby he received a regular income of around $1,200. His weak character and the increasing reliance upon alcohol made it increasingly impossible for him to write to order. He was always overdrawing on his payments. The agreements fell through and in later life he was reduced to selling songs for anything he could get; perhaps just enough to keep him in food and drink for the day. He formed a partnership with a lyric writer called George Cooper but this was only a temporary encouragement.
Early in 1864 he was taken with a fever and had to stay in his bed at his lodgings in the Bowery. On the third day he was trying to wash himself when he fainted and fell across the wash-basin which broke and cut his neck and face. Cooper was called and found him lying naked on the floor. He told his friend that he was 'done for'. A doctor was called who rendered temporary assistance and then Stephen Foster was taken to the Bellevue Hospital where he was also discovered to be suffering from burns. The next day he was dead, the family hearing from Cooper too late to be able to lend any personal or financial assistance. One of his few possessions was a sketch for a song found in his pocket, the first line of which was 'Dear friends and gentle hearts'. In his purse was thirty-eight cents.
Although the last years had been a hand-to-mouth existence with drink taking an increasing hold, he had remained a prolific writer. His wife tried to help him and persuaded him to take several cures. She tried to get him away from New York. She left him briefly but returned when she was told the loneliness was driving him to despair. Finally when he could no longer support her and the children she left him for good. Curiously his last year was one of his most prolific, although most of the songs were insignificant potboilers. The last inspiration was Beautiful Dreamer, written a few days before his death and published a few months after.
It is curious too that the majority of the songs that maintain Stephen Foster's reputation as a kind of national folk writer are nearly all of the kind of which he was rather ashamed. Originally he wrote in a letter: 'I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs owing to the prejudice against them by some, which might injure my reputation as a writer of another style of music.' These included Old Folks at Home; My Old Kentucky Home; Old Black Joe; Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground; Oh! Susannah and Camp town Races. Having found, as he put it, that 'by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to songs of that order', he wanted to take full credit for his reputation as 'the best Ethiopian writer'. Christy's name continued to appear on Old Folks at Home until as late as 1873.
Beyond these Stephen Foster was always on the point of lapsing into sheer Victorian sentimentality and bathos. There were other good songs: Nelly was a Lady; Old Uncle Ned; Nelly Bligh; Old Dog Tray; Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair; Some Folks Do; Ring, Ring de Banjo; De Glendy Burke; Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming and Beautiful Dreamer. Some of his 'good time coming' sort of songs have stirring qualities, but there are many poor ones out of the total of around two hundred. It is apparent from what he himself said and from these facts that Stephen Foster had little idea of his true merits. Even his reputation as a composer of true 'black' songs is over-exaggerated. Of the thirty or so that he wrote in this idiom, many of the best were written before he had any real contact with the genuine item beyond the minstrel shows. In his brief and tragic life, Stephen Foster discovered a melodic vein of universal appeal, but the pressures and prejudices of society of the time led his weak steps astray. There should have been at least one folk opera from such a natural songwriter.
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