FIREWORKS AND FREEDOM! AMERICAN SONGWRITER AND FATHER OF AMERICAN MUSIC STEPHEN FOSTER CELEBRATES THE FOURTH OF JULY
By Anne Destabelle
It was America’s 50th Birthday! Also on that day, Stephen Foster was born. Also on that very same day both former Presidents John Adams andThomas Jefferson died!
Stephen was born the 9th and last child to a prosperous Pennsylvania family. His songs were hugely popular in the years just before our Civil War. Most Americans don’t know he wrote them and that he is considered the Father of American music.
Only in 1970 was he inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Only in 2010 was he inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Stephen died penniless, abandoned by his family and alone at the age of 37 in Bellevue Hospital, New York. He left behind a massive musical legacy.
“WAY DOWN UPON THE SWANEE RIVER”
Most people identify Foster’s songs with the South. Stephen was a Northerner! But he could FEEL the South! Born and educated in Pennsylvania, he only visited the South once -- on his honeymoon!
While his mother’s family were well off plantation owners, his father was a politician and land speculator. He managed to lose the family fortune through bad investment and heavy drinking. The loss of the family home and their prosperous life when Stephen was very young had a huge effect on him. It is said he never recovered from his insecurities and such feelings are reflected in many of his songs.
Stephen found sadness and fragility in all families – Black AND White. That sadness inspired him to write “Way Down Upon The Yazoo River.” He subsequently changed the title to “Way Down Upon The Pedee River.” Nobody liked that either. In an atlas, he found the name “Suwanee” – a river stretching from Georgia to Florida. At the age of 18, he took a river he’d never seen and made it famous throughout the world. The song is the official state song of Florida.
By the age of 13, Stephen was a musical prodigy. He had two teachers: a classical German musician and an entertainer who made his living in traveling circuses as a clown and blackface singer! Both inspired him.
Blackface was the rock and roll of its day. Americans loved it. “Oh Susanna” became the greatest hit the world had ever known. Stephen became famous worldwide.
“Oh Susanna” is a song about two separated black lovers. In it a slave expresses his longing for a lost love. But Stephen had sold his song to the Christy Minstrels. He had no control over their portrayal of his songs – or how they manipulated the lyrics. Their interpretation was not his own.
“MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME”
Stephen wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” when his popularity was at its peak. The country’s debates about slavery were intense. This song fanned the flames for abolitionists, inspiring Harriet Beecher Stowe to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.
The song also outraged slaveholders – in the North and the South. It was President Lincoln’s favorite song. It later became the Kentucky state song in 1928. At the Kentucky Derby, this song is played as horses are led to the post parade at Churchill Downs.
“OLD BLACK JOE”
Joe was a real person, a favorite servant in his wife Jane’s Pennsylvania home. At her request, Stephen memorialized Joe in this song. I think of it as a secular hymn, praising the noble spirit of the laborer at the end of his life.
Nelly Bly was a servant in his own family’s household. She loved to hear Stephen sing it. He loved her name. The song later was adapted as a campaign song for Abraham Lincoln. It is a song of contentment and plenty. "Nelly Bly" anticipates the joys of marriage and housekeeping – something not all women can identify with! Imagine kitchen maids singing and playing their banjos as they sweep the floor, stoke the fire, and cook the meals.
“I DREAM OF JEANIE”
Stephen met and married Jane after a one-month courtship! Her widowed mother had six daughters to raise. Jane was eager to escape. At 20, she was practical, conventional, and not at all musical. Stephen was 23. His song writing was at its peak, publishing 16 songs in 1850 and 16 in 1851. However, he had given the rights to his songs away to support himself and family.
He spent his evenings out, playing music and drinking till early morning. Baby Marion’s arrival and their spiritual incompatibility caused Jane to flee with her baby back to her family. Stephen yearned for the middle-class life of respectability with wife and child but sought out the life of the Bohemian – the dreamer. Heartbroken, he wrote “I Dream of Jeanie”. He sold the rights to this song as well. Neither he nor his family ever saw any royalties from another of the world’s most famous songs.
“NELLIE WAS A LADY”
We know that Stephen’s songs were loved and sung by Blacks and Whites in the South. He was conflicted – he sympathized with the slaves, but he tolerated slavery as a way to preserve the Union.
Nellie was the wife of his family’s black boatman. No songwriter in America ever had called an African American woman a lady before. In this song, he portrays this lady with dignity and grace and conveys her husband’s grief at losing her.
“HARD TIMES COME AGAIN NO MORE”
Stephen’s handwritten music contracts were the very first between American music publishers and individual songwriters. There were no music lawyers to help him out back then. Stephen gave away his performance rights to his music, leaving him constantly impoverished.
Some people got rich, though: Edwin P. Christy, his benefactor, and the Christy Minstrels.
Stephen actually did write the first American song of political protest. There were raging economic debates in 1854 – the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In addition, Charles Dickens had just published his novel, Hard Times.
Stephen visited a Black church. It was a place where free Blacks and slaves worshipped. “Hard times” were upon him – and everyone -- in full force. He wrote the famous “Hard Times Come Again No More.”
Stephen moved to New York’s Tin Pan Alley. His songs were world famous. Not him, though. He had had no hit in seven years. He sold future rights to his songs to survive. His mother died of a stroke. Six months later, his father died, followed by his beloved brother William from TB. The Civil War was raging. At his death at age 37 in 1864 at Bellevue Hospital in NY, he had 38 cents in his pocket and a scribbled note with the words “dear friends and gentle hearts.” They were lyrics for a new song, never to be written.
After his death, his wife Jane found and published “Beautiful Dreamer.” In it, he escapes the bitter realities of his loneliness and his poverty. He had written what would become one of the most famous songs the world has known and loved.
Of his 286 works of music, “Beautiful Dreamer” best expresses his nature.
In my Pennyroyal musical tribute to Stephen Foster, www.pennyroyalplayers.org, we present Stephen’s life and songs in the context of the time in which he lived.
He was progressive, embracing universal human values concerning the sanctity of family, the comfort of friends and loved ones as one grows old, the necessity of determining one’s own future, the right to live in dignity and to die in peace.
My production honors the man and his music, with his life story told through his own eyes and those of his mother, his wife, his sisters, and his brothers. I hope to share these beautiful songs and his story with you one day!
You’ll find three Hollywood movies, Harmony Lane, Swanee River, and I Dream of Jeanie in tribute to him. His face is on the 1935 silver half dollar. You could visit My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Kentucky. There’s a lake, a museum, and a statue in Pennsylvania, along with an annual Stephen Foster music festival.