Stephen Foster is considered by many to be America’s first professional songwriter. Born in 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, he began writing songs as a teenager and continued to do so throughout his life. Many of his songs were about the American South and its people, and he is credited with helping to shape the country’s musical identity.
Although Foster’s themes are well-known, little is known about the composer. [i] Tomaschewski’s quote summarizes Stephen Foster’s legacy nicely. SONGS such as “Oh, Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” and “Beautiful Dreamer” are quintessentially American songs that everyone can hum. However, most individuals are unable to tell you who wrote them. Stephen Foster was America’s first professional songwriter, and he composed many of these tunes as well as others (SONG)
Stephen Foster was born on July 4th, 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania to William Barclay and Eliza Clayland Tomlinson Foster. Stephen was the ninth of ten children and showed an aptitude for music from a young age. Stephen’s father disapproved of his son’s musical aspirations and instead wanted him to have a career in law. In 1837, Stephen was sent to live with his older brother Morrison in Cincinnati, Ohio where he attended day school and continued to pursue his love of music.
In Cincinnati, Stephen became friends with another aspiring musician by the name of Henry Probasco. The two friends would often play together at local venues. It was during this time that Stephen began to write his own songs. In 1846, Stephen’s first song “Oh! Susanna” was published and quickly became a hit. The success of “Oh! Susanna” led to Stephen quitting his job as a bookkeeper and becoming a professional songwriter.
Stephen Foster continued to write songs that were popular among both white and black audiences. His ability to capture the essence of American life in his music made him one of the most popular composers of his time.
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania to parents William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Foster. He had three sisters: Charlotte Susanna, Ann Eliza, and Henrietta; and four brothers: James Dunning McNair Morrison, and WIlliam[v].
Stephen was the youngest of his siblings and often teased for his effeminate nature and love of music, which set him apart from the rest of his family. Music always played an important role in Stephen’s life. As a child, he would often sing with his mother and play the clarinet with his father. Stephen’s first musical composition, “Oh! Susanna,” was written when he was just 19 years old. The song was an instant hit and brought Stephen his first taste of success.
Despite Stephen’s initial success, he struggled to make a living as a musician and composer. In 1855, Stephen moved to New York City in hopes of finding more work. He found a job as a music teacher, but it was not enough to support himself and his family. Stephen continued to write songs, but they were not as successful as “Oh! Susanna.” In 1858, Stephen’s wife Jane died of tuberculosis. Stephen was devastated by her death and took a break from songwriting.
In 1860, Stephen wrote what would become one of his most famous songs, “Beautiful Dreamer.” The song was inspired by his wife Jane and her dreams of a better life. Stephen continued to write songs about the Civil War, but none of them were as successful as “Beautiful Dreamer.”
By 1864, Stephen’s health was failing and he was in debt. He decided to move back to New York City in hopes of finding more work. Stephen’s health continued to decline and he died on January 13, 1864, at the age of 37.
Stephen Foster was one of the most important American composers of the 19th century. He is best known for his songs about the American South, such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Swanee River.” Stephen Foster was the first professional songwriter in America and his songs have had a lasting impact on American music.