Stephen Foster is known as “The Father of American Music”. He wrote over 200 songs in his lifetime, some were only published after his death. Some of his more popular songs include “Oh! Susana”, “hard times come again no more” and “My old Kentucky home”. Some of his songs have been adopted as state songs and some are included in early childhood music curriculums.
He was born on July 4th, 1826 to his parents William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson. He was the youngest of his nine siblings and attended private academies in Pennsylvania. Foster taught himself to play the clarinet, violin, guitar and flute. He was tutored by Henry Kleber in composition though.
From 1839-1841 Foster attended Athens Academy in Athens, Pennsylvania. The site of Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens and 15 miles from Towanda; where Foster lived at one point. While attending Athens, he composed his first piece, “Tioga Waltz”. It was performed during the 1841 commencement when he was 14 years old. This song was never published during his lifetime. In 1846, Foster was living in Cincinnati, Ohio. During this time around 1848/1849 he wrote “Oh! Susana” that became an anthem of the California gold rush. He published “Foster’s Ethiopian melodies” in 1849; it included “Nelly was a Lady” made famous by the Christy Minstrels.
When he returned to Pennsylvania around 1850, he signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. During this time he wrote his best known songs: “Camptown Races”(1850), “Nelly Bly”(1850), “Ring de banjo”(1851), “Old Folks at home” also known as “Swanee River”(1851), “My Old Kentucky Home”(1853), “Old Dog tray”(1853), and “Jeanie with the light Brown hair”(1854) for his wife.
It is interesting to note that many of Foster’s songs had southern themes yet Foster only had been to the south once during his honeymoon.
In 1862, Foster set the poem “We are coming Father Abra’ham” to music as did other composers of his day. He died two years later in 1864, he was only 37 years old.
Shortly after his death, the song “Beautiful Dreamer” was published, this is one of his best loved works. He wrote songs for drinking as well as temperance. He also published hymns and most were used in hymnals until 1910.
The song “My Old Kentucky Home” is the official state song of Kentucky adopted in 1928. “Old Folks at Home” or “Swannee River” is Florida’s official state song adopted in 1935.
During Foster’s lifetime he wrote over 200 songs. He is regarded as “the most famous songwriter of the 19th century”.