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Stephen Collins Foster: A Guide to Resources

Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864) was the most famous American song composer of the 19th century. This guide provides links to resources at the Library of Congress, including a large collection of published first editions.

Introduction

Photograph portrait of Stephen Collins Foster. 1920. Library of Congress Music Division.
From Stephen Collins Foster: A Biography of America's Folk-Song Composer, by Harold Vincent Milligan (New York: G. Schirmer, 1920).

One of America's most influential songwriters, Stephen Foster, was 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 wrote many popular minstrel songs and parlor songs that have become well-known to the point of being considered American folk music. His songs are extraordinary for using popular idioms combined with characteristics of Irish melodies, German lieder, and Italian operas. Although his songs contain musical quality, many of them also contain racist lyrics that exemplify the dehumanization of African-Americans common in the blackface minstrel shows of his time. Despite historical efforts among scholars to distance Foster from that tradition, his legacy remains marred by his willingness to profit from it. 

He was eighteen when George Willig 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. His first big hit, "Oh! Susanna" (1847), which launched Foster's career as a songwriter, became a favorite with blackface 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 blackface 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 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 in 1928. Although in 1986, the legislature added a caveat that when the original lyric uses the offensive term "darkies," it should be replaced with the word "people."

Even though by 1853, Foster had an exclusive contract with music publisher Firth, Pond, and Company, his financial situation became unstable due 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 by the loss of his parents the following year and 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 is still remembered for his enduring melodies.

About the Performing Arts Reading Room

The Performing Arts Reading Room is the access point for the collections in the custody of the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Numbering approximately 20.5 million items and spanning more than 1000 years of Western music history and practice, these holdings include the classified music and book collections, music and literary manuscripts, iconography, microforms, periodicals, musical instruments, published and unpublished copyright deposits, and close to 500 special collections in music, theater, and dance.