[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.
As one of America's principal and most influential songwriters, Stephen Foster shares his birthday with that of the nation. Born on 4 July 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, Foster revealed an early interest in music but received little formal training. Primarily self-taught, Foster displayed an affinity for "Ethiopian" and minstrel songs (he performed in minstrel shows as a boy), yet he also incorporated characteristics of Irish melodies, German songs, and Italian operas in his compositions. He was eighteen when his first song was published, "Open Thy Lattice, Love" (1844), set to a poem by George P. Morris; however, its title page erroneously credited the composer as "L. C. Foster." Subsequently, Foster served as both composer and lyricist to his songs, which numbered over two hundred.
Some of Foster's earliest songs were modeled on those he heard performed in minstrel shows. His first big hit, "Oh! Susanna" (1847), which launched Foster's career as a songwriter, became a favorite with minstrel troupes. The song also became associated with the California Gold Rush of 1849, as the forty-niners adapted a parodied version as their unofficial anthem. In 1850, Foster composed "De Camptown Races," which was introduced by the Christy Minstrels (founded by Edwin P. Christy), the most famous minstrel troupe of the day. Like "Susanna," "De Camptown Races" was also used by the forty-niners en route to California in a parody entitled "Sacramento." On 22 July 1850, Foster married Jane Denny McDowell; their daughter Marion was born nearly one year later. Foster's romantic ballad, "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), is perhaps the most famous of the songs he composed for his bride.
In 1851, Foster sent Christy a sentimental song, "Old Folks at Home," more commonly known as "Swanee River." By November 1854, the song had sold over 130,000 copies, making it one of Foster's most popular and successful compositions. The song's position in history was solidified when it became the official state song of Florida in 1935. Another of Foster's melodies, "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), was also adopted as an official state anthem. Foster's only melody to be inspired by his actual visit to the state, it became Kentucky's state song in 1928.
Even though by 1853 Foster had an exclusive contract with music publisher Firth, Pond, and Company, his financial situation became unstable, due in part to the lack of copyright protection for his songs. His personal life also suffered, and after numerous conflicts with his wife, the couple separated in 1854. Burdened with the loss of his parents the following year, as well as with his declining health and alcoholism, the quality of Foster's creative output greatly diminished. In the 1860s, he focused on sentimental ballads rather than minstrel songs, and of the many songs penned during his last years, only "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864) has achieved the status of his earlier works. Although penniless when he died on 10 January 1864, Foster bestowed on America a rich legacy of memorable songs.
Austin, William W. "Susanna", "Jeanie", and "The Old Folks at Home": The Songs of Stephen C. Foster from His Time to Ours. 2d ed. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988.