Who was Stephen Foster?

Stephen Collins Foster: "America's Most Famous Folksong Writer"Foster

Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1826. Stephen was the youngest of ten brothers and sisters. He had some formal education, attending Athens Academy, then a brief period at Jefferson College, and he was at times privately tutored, as well. He seemed to like music better than studying, though. He liked to sing and he learned to play the flute, and may also have played the violin and piano.

He began composing his own songs as a teenager, but his family urged him to find work in a more secure profession. He went to work for his brother in Cincinnati, who took him on as a bookkeeper. He also continued composing. His compositions began to be published, and after three years of bookkeeping, Stephen Foster became a full-time songwriter.

Stephen Foster created his first songs for the minstrel shows that were popular in his day. Before he became well-known, he saw the minstrel stage as the place where he could attract an audience for his music. "Oh! Susanna" became a national hit in 1848, but Foster received little financial gain from its popularity. Likewise, he earned very little for many of his early songs that were written for the minstrel shows.

In 1849 he signed a contract with a New York music publisher that allowed him to be compensated for his work. As he became more well-known, he began to compose less specifically for the minstrel shows and more for the music of the family parlor.

In 1851 he published "Old Folks at Home", which became the most popular of all of his songs. When Foster was creating the lyrics for "Old Folks at Home", he could not come up with a suitable name for the river in his opening line until he heard of the Suwannee River. The Suwannee runs from the Okeefenokee Swamp in Georgia through Florida into the Gulf of Mexico. Although Foster had never seen the Suwannee, he liked the sound of it and it fit his lyrics. Taking poetic license, he transformed Suwannee into the two-syllable Swanee that we all recognize in "Way down upon the Swanee River...". In 1935 the state of Florida officially adopted Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" as Florida's State song. So although Stephen Foster never set foot in Florida, his music certainly did.

Foster's songs grew to such popularity that people all across the country knew his melodies and lyrics. Among his most enduring compositions are "Oh! Susanna", "Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home" (which the state of Kentucky adopted with modifications as its official state song in 1986), "Camptown Races", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", and "Beautiful Dreamer".

At the time of his death in New York in 1864, Stephen Collins Foster had composed some 285 songs and arrangements, many of them established as true American folk songs that are still enjoyed today.