13 – My Lucky Number!

Whoa! – you say. You must be kidding, but be patient…… 

TODAY IS JANUARY THE 13th. In the musical world that brings up waves of emotion, especially in that part of it which remembers nostalgically the death anniversary of a famed composer who was known as the “father of American music.” I’m speaking of  none other than Stephen Foster, who in the nineteenth century was the preeminent songwriter in the United States.


Stephen died January 13, 1864 at the young age of 37, but his songs, such as  “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Old Black Joe,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” and “Old Folks at Home (Swanee River),” live on and remain ever popular over 150 years after they were composed.

Back in India, over the December holiday season, it was not unusual for my family members  to gather around our upright Bechstein piano in the drawing room, bring out our well-thumbed Community Songbook and sing such favorites as “Beautiful Dreamer” (sung here by one of my ideal singers, Marilyn Horne) and “Swanee River” among traditional Christmas music pieces.

Foster’s life has become part of American legend. He expressed a distaste for rote learning and recitation, but was an avid reader and eventually became a literate, well-educated person by the standards of his time. As a young boy, Stephen evinced more interest in music than in other subjects. As the child of a middle-class family in an era before tax-supported public education, he variously was privately tutored, then schooled at private academies in Pittsburgh and in north-central Pennsylvania.

Foster’s education included one month at college but little formal music training. Despite this, he published several songs before the age of twenty. Stephen was greatly influenced by two men during his teenage years. He probably received some formal musical training from a German immigrant, Henry Kleber (1816-1897), and from Dan Rice. The former was a classically trained musician who immigrated from the German city of Darmstadt and opened a music store in Pittsburgh, and was among Stephen Foster’s few formal music instructors. The latter was an entertainer—a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Henry Kleber, was an accomplished and versatile musician who eventually exerted a major influence on the city of Pittsburgh’s musical expansion as a performer, composer, music merchant, impresario, and teacher.

These two very different musical worlds created a tension for the teenage Foster. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best works.

As a teen, Foster enjoyed the friendship of young men and women from some of Pittsburgh’s most prosperous and respectable families. Stephen, his brother Morrison, and his close friend, Charles Shiras, were all members of an all-male secret club called Knights of the S.T. [probably Square Table] that met twice weekly at the Fosters’ home. One of their principal activities was singing, with Stephen acting first as song leader and then composer. Some of his earliest songs, perhaps including “Oh! Susanna,” were composed for the group. His first published song, “Open Thy Lattice Love,” appeared from a Philadelphia music publisher when Stephen was only 18.

In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother’s steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first hit songs, among them “Oh! Susanna.” It would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848 and 1849. Then, in 1949, he returned to Pennsylvania and during this period Foster would write most of his best-known songs: “Camptown Races” (1850), “Nelly Bly” (1850), “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River,” 1851), “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), “Old Dog Tray” (1853), “Hard Times Come Again No More” (1854) and “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair” (1854), written for his wife, Jane McDowall.

Foster spent much of his life in Pittsburgh where he worked consistently at his songwriting, keeping a thick sketchbook to draft ideas for song lyrics and melodies. As a professional songwriter of now unparalleled skill and technique—not an untutored musical genius—he had made it his business to study the various music and poetic styles circulating in the immigrant populations of the new United States. His intention was to write the people’s music, using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups. Foster worked very hard at writing, sometimes taking several months to craft and polish the words, melody, and accompaniment of a song before sending it off to a publisher. His sketchbook shows that he often labored over the smallest details, the right prepositions, even where to include or remove a comma from his lyrics.

  • Foster is buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of his best loved works, “Beautiful Dreamer” would be published shortly after his death.
  • His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.
  • Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1970.

Eighteen of Foster’s compositions were recorded and released on the Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster collection. Among the artists that are featured on the album are John Prine, Alison Krauss, and Yo Yo Ma. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.

References: New World Encyclopedia; Wikipedia

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