Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

1826 - 1864

Arguably America's most beloved and popular melodist, Stephen Foster became the nation's first truly great professional songwriter, managing to compose over 200 songs in his tragically short life. Many of his works ("Oh! Susanna," "Old Folks at Home," "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair") are so familiar and effortlessly crafted that they seem to be folk songs.


The audio recording of "Open Thy Lattice Love," provided in the audio player to the right, features Thomas Hampson, baritone, and Craig Rutenberg, piano. This song was recorded for Instant Encore as part of American Public Media's Performance Today series, presented by Classical Minnesota Public Radio. To listen, please click on the track name itself. You can download a recording of this entire recital for free through the Instant Encore website with the download code: THSOA2009.


Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1826, the same day that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Foster came from an educated and relatively affluent family of patriots, though a sharp reversal in his father's fortunes forced the family to abandon the composer's idyllic birthplace when Stephen was a boy.

Despite the urgings of his father and brothers to enter the world of commerce, Stephen's inclinations remained musical. Throughout his youth he delighted in playing the flute, guitar, and, to some degree, the piano; in attending theatrical entertainments, among them minstrel shows; and in composing songs for the Knights of the S.T., a thespian society he formed with his friends in 1844. That year also marked his first song publication, "Open Thy Lattice, Love," and for the next six years Foster's skill and fame as a songwriter steadily grew.

In 1850 he married Jane McDowell; their daughter Marion was born a year later. Determined to function as a full-fledged artistic and business professional, Foster rented an office for himself, but the next decade would prove a tumultuous one. There were incompatibilities in his marital situation that caused him to separate, reconcile and separate from Jane; his finances took a turn for the worse (owing largely to the lack of copyright protection), and his health also deteriorated, worsened in no small measure by his alcoholism. Saddened and conflicted by the outbreak of the Civil War, Foster spent his last years in New York City, living on the Bowery and writing songs for ready cash. When he died on January 13, 1864 at Bellevue Hospital, weakened by a severe shaving accident and fall, his purse contained thirty-eight cents and a scrap of paper with the scrawled inscription: "Dear friends and gentle hearts."

Foster can truly be termed the trunk of the tree of American song. His roots reach deep into the soil of three continents; his branches span two centuries and stretch out toward a third. The songs he composed between 1844 and 1864 gave America a body of melodies so popular that while one critic complained of their omnipresence on the lips of our citizens, Harper's New Monthly Magazine ventured to dub them our national music. Translated into countless languages, the tunes re-outfitted with new lyrics for different occasions, Foster's works made their way across the vast frontiers of 19th-century America and on to the far reaches of the globe, at the same time that they took an enduring hold in those most intimate of places: the home and the heart.

One of the ironies about the pervasiveness of Foster's music is that what were actually carefully structured and revised compositions, which melded word and melody with great sensitivity and purposefulness, were frequently perceived as simple folk songs. While the folk tradition was both a potent influence on, and a dynamic outgrowth from, Foster's melodies, the reason for this perception more likely rests on the composer's extraordinary--and seemingly effortless--gift for absorbing the sounds around him and transforming them into a voice that appeared to resonate from deep within the collective consciousness. Among the sounds which inspired Foster were the bel canto melodies of European opera, the ballads of the Anglo-Celtic tradition, the melodramas of the budding American concert song, and the music of African Americans brought to these shores as slaves. From each of these diverse traditions, Foster extracted an essence that contributed to the shaping of his own inimitable and indomitable talent as a poet and melodist. From Donizetti's and Bellini's graceful, melismatic arias, he created the languid romance of songs like "Linger in Blissful Repose" (1858) or "The Voice of Bygone Days" (1850), while from Robert Burns and Thomas Moore he distilled not only a haunting tunefulness, but also the deep strain of pathos that pervades the Celtic tradition.

Foster's appreciation for Scots-Irish song was based not only on his Scottish ancestry, but also on the overwhelming popularity of three seminal song collections which were products of the European Folk Movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries: James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum (to which Robert Burns was a primary contributor), George Thomson's National Airs, and Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies. It was from these song books that Foster, as a child, heard his beloved sister Charlotte sing and accompany herself at the piano, and they exerted a potent visceral influence on him--an influence which was both literal (Foster quotes, for example, "Robin Adair" in "Sadly to Mine Heart Appealing," 1858) and spiritual. Not only did Foster aspire to emulate Burns's and Moore's tenderness of lyrical expression and passion for the common man, he also sought to absorb their sentiment-rich vocabulary, their unerring instinct for capturing the rhythms of their native dialects, and their belief that poetry consisted of words meant to be sung, not read! "There is blood on every page that Burns writes," Walt Whitman once declared. The same could have been said of Moore, whose unabashed Irish patriotism turned the drawing rooms of which he was an idol into salons of subtle subversiveness.

The same blood--the passion and suffering of a race of people--finds eloquent expression in the song tradition which African Americans developed in America. Intermingling the rhythms and chant structures of their lost homeland with the strains of white hymnody and Anglo ballads, blacks produced a rich treasure trove of spirituals, gospel songs, and work tunes. Foster's access to this music may have begun, as his brother asserts, with hearing the family's black servant, Olivia Pise, sing, but his fascination must also have stemmed from the popularity of the minstrel show and of the hybrid genre euphemistically termed "Ethiopian song"--northern white impressions of plantation life that derived musically as much from the British folk song tradition as they did from black idioms.

Though these songs present difficulties for a modern audience that spurns their minstrel dialect, their over-simplification of feelings and politics, and their connection to the exploitative treatment of African Americans, it is important to note that within the context of Foster's period they represented a popular source of entertainment for both races. Moreover, to Foster's credit it must be remembered that while his early songs used conventions of the Ethiopian style, he subsequently eschewed dialect, forbade caricatures to be published on the covers of his sheet music, and sought, to the best of his abilities and within the temper of his times, to refine, humanize, and transform this genre into what he preferred to call "plantation song." In works like "Nelly Was a Lady" (1849) and "Old Black Joe" ("Poor Old Joe") (1860), Foster endowed his African-American protagonists with a color-blind dignity and humanity, just as in "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853) (whose universality is especially evident in a foreign-language translation) he sang less about the longing of slaves for their "home" plantation than he did about the yearning of all weary wandering souls for a physical and spiritual dwelling.

Foster's hugely popular "Oh! Susanna" (1848) not only launched the composer on his successful career as a songwriter, it also influenced a wide range of subsequent compositions in both the folk and art song genres. Foster's Ethiopian and plantation songs were popularized by both black and white performing groups from the Christy Minstrels to the Hutchinsons, the Hamptons, and later the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and their influence can be felt in far-reaching forms: from the white song sermons of YMCA founder Philip Bliss, who blended the revivalist tradition of the Salvation Army with his own love of African-American music and Stephen Foster; to the spirituals of Henry Thacker Burleigh; to the art song adaptations of Aaron Copland (Old American Songs, A Lincoln Portrait), Charles Ives (Symphony No. 2, Three Places in New England, "The Things Our Fathers Loved," "Thoreau"), John Carpenter, and John Jacob Niles; to the ballad makers of the American frontier; and to the much later renditions of Ray Charles ("Old Folks at Home" as "Swanee River Rock").

For all the impact of his plantation songs, however, the heart of Foster's legacy lies in the 135 ballads or romantic parlor songs he composed. These lilting melodies of home and hearth, love and longing, owe as much to the musico-poetic language of Burns, Moore, and the Victorian ethos as they do to the unique socio-political circumstances of America in the mid-19th century. In an age of insecurity, with a nation cleft in two, families rent apart, and the idyll of a wilderness paradise gradually transforming itself into a nightmare of carnage and industrial trauma, Foster's delicate images of transience--his wilting flowers, mists, and frail, pure, ethereal women who vanish into death or dreams--are all part of the ever-present nostalgia for a lost innocence. The same lonesome longing permeates the poetry of one of Foster's favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe, as it does the music of his contemporaries, like George Frederick Root and Henry Russell.

Among Foster's most influential and poignant compositions in this vein are "Ah! May the Red Rose Live Alway"(1850), inspired by Burns's "A Red, Red Rose;" "Gentle Annie" (1856), one of his most refined lyrics, prompted by witnessing the death of a young girl in a carriage accident; "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), whose lilting ballad form with its lullaby recalls the idyllic period of reconciliation in his marriage when he lived with Jane and his daughter in Hoboken, New Jersey, at the height of his fame; the lesser-known gem, "Molly, Do You Love Me?" (1850); the gracefully ornamented harmonies of the quartet "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming" (1855); and what may have been his last song, "Beautiful Dreamer" (published posthumously in 1864), with its sublime evocation of a gossamer world where imagination takes flight and harmonious beauty drives out the rude realities of the world.

On more than one occasion, however, Foster could abandon the wishful reverie that characterizes his most popular works and carol in a voice marked by irony, parody, and social consciousness. Periodically throughout his career Foster indulged in political satire, composing songs like "The Abolition Show" (1856) or "The Great Baby Show," where he mocks the fanaticism of a rally that employs even infants, or "That's What's the Matter," where he bolsters Union spirits with a rollicking tune about drubbing the Confederates. Wry humor also surfaces in the boyishly risqué "Kissing in the Dark" and the atypically funny "My Wife is a Most Knowin' Woman" (1863), set to lyrics by George Cooper, a New Yorker who befriended Foster in his last days and helped him eke out a living composing saleable theatrical songs for the vaudeville houses. In this latter song, however, a jarring pathos pierces the transparent mask of mockery that Foster dons: his failing health, aggravated by drink, was to precipitate his death a few months later. The same ability to confront a sensitive theme with touching honesty is heard in "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me" (1855), written for the myriad Temperance Movements of the time (which even his father had embraced), though it is not without its own confessional subtext. The plaintive strings heard in the Gaelic-sounding melody bring to mind Thomas Moore's drinking songs with their blend of mournful camaraderie, while the sentimental moralizing is virtually Dickensian and not without the great author's ability to rouse emotions. Dickens's Hard Times certainly inspired the title of another of Foster's socially conscious songs, though in "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) he was, his brother noted, also making reference to the nationwide wave of empathy for the oppressed that Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin had created.

In these genres Foster served as a powerful role model for other American composers of "the people's music." This long line stems directly from Foster to Root; to Henry Clay Work and Walter Kittredge with his poignant "Tenting Tonight on the Old Campground;" to Harriet Tubman, who began the process of using Foster tunes to set freedom lyrics. It continues with a long line of 20th-century troubadours: Woody Guthrie, whose gritty Dust Bowl Ballads complement his grimly affirmative paean, "This Land is Your Land;" his son Arlo; Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul, and Mary; and, of course, Pete Seeger, who, like Burns, Moore, and the other folk collector-composers before him, borrowed tunes from Foster and other traditional sources ("We Shall Overcome" is based on an old Sicilian air) as the settings of new, politically relevant, lyrics. In their simplicity and gentle melancholy, Seeger's own compositions, such as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," also echo the spirit of Burns, Moore, and Foster.

The ability to mirror the temper of the times, at the same time transforming these reflections into timeless emotions that speak to the heart of the people--this has been the genius of this long line of folk-inspired composers from Burns to Moore to Foster and his descendants. With his spontaneous eclecticism and unabashed heart-on-sleeve naiveté and romanticism, Stephen Collins Foster came to be the standard bearer of what poet Walt Whitman called heart singing: the kind of music-making in which word elevates music and music buoys up the spirit. His poems are the narrations of an American dreamer, his melodies the voices of the heart.

--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing

Photo: [Photograph portrait of Stephen Collins Foster], taken from Stephen Collins Foster: A Biography of America's Folk-Song Composer, by Harold Vincent Milligan (New York: G. Schirmer, 1920). Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

POETS & Writers Set BY Foster (entered to date)

Audio PLaylist


CD / DVD / MP3