Stephen C Foster’s Romantic Career

By Charles A. Ingraham

Comparatively few people are acquainted in any manner with the life of Stephen C. Foster, and fewer still would be willing to admit that he was more than a mere writer of popular songs, and hence esteem him entitled to not great consideration. The ingratitude of the public concerning their song writers is remarkable; the song lives on, but the composer is generally forgotten, living and dying without honor and generally in obscurity and poverty. Such was the experience of Foster, though he was preeminently the greatest of American song writers.

Though his art was simple in its poetic phrase and musical construction, it was profound in its psychological, unexplainable elements which the greatest of lyric geniuses might in vain attempt to imitate, and it ever exercises a masterful influence upon the race. It has been said that his melodies are adaptations of the old psalm and hymn tunes, perfectly moulded into simple words and brought into sentimental contact with the actual life of ordinary humanity. This accounts, if true, for the semi-religious atmosphere which inheres in the best and most lasting of his songs – an indefinably pure and sacred element which compels the attention and which soothes the mind and chastens the heart, universally.

Foster’s Birthday

From these considerations it is apparent that a song writer may become of real political significance and testify through his work for the saying, that the songs of a nation have a greater efficacy than its laws, and it requires but a brief study of Foster’s life and times to discover that though unconsciously, he was in his day an important factor in the fashioning of public policies and events.

In the hour of his nativity, at Allegheny, Pa., on July 4, 1826, a salute was fired at the arsenal celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, and those patriotic reverberations were among the first sounds which came to his infant ears. It was an appropriate demonstration to accompany the ushering into the world of a man who was destined with matchless beauty and pathos to appeal to the common heart of men in behalf of the oppressed in slavery. His influence was indirect, but the deep love and sympathy with which in exquisite song he depicted the homely joys and the tragic, lingering sorrows of the negro was a powerful aid to the anti-slavery movement.

The life of Stephen Foster covered practically the years occupied in the rise, development and decadence of that great diversory institution known as negro minstrelsy, and in these universally popular entertainments his songs were sung perennially throughout the country. Foster’s work should have a place alongside of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the appearance of which was contemporaneous with the publication of his great negro lyrics.

Stephen Collins Foster was of Irish or Scotch-Irish extraction, his grandfather having emigrated to this country from the north of Ireland. His father, William B. Foster, was a man of prominence not only in Allegheny, where he had served as mayor, but he had been a member of the Legislature and had occupied other places of trust and honor. Stephen’s mother, Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, was a descendant of the Claylands, a family of note, which had dwelt in Maryland from the earliest colonial times, and in that state she had been reared.

The boy grew up midst pleasant and affluent surroundings, the home having been a mansion in the suburbs of Pittsburgh opposite Allegheny, and commanding a view of the Allegheny Valley. Of a retiring disposition and lacking robustness of health, the youth avoided the sports and pastimes popular with boys of his age, and in the privacy of his home or in the woods and fields spent much of his time communing with his own thoughts and in the study of his favorite branches. He early evinced a taste and capacity for music, and at the age of seven years, for the first time seeing a flageolet, was able in a few moments to play the familiar melodies that he was acquainted with. While attending school at Athens, Ohio, he wrote his first musical composition, The Tioga Waltz, and arranged it for four flutes. The pieces was played at the public exercises of the seminary, the author having the first flute for his part. At this time Foster was but thirteen years of age.

Foster Largely Self-Taught

It was for the larger part to self-instruction that he owed his education, and in this manner he acquired a good knowledge of German and French, became proficient on the piano, flute, guitar and banjo and studied carefully the works of the great masters. Among his accomplishments was an ability as an artist in water colors, which he seems not to have much cultivated. An amusing story is told of him in this connection. When his song, Oh! Willie, We Have Missed You, was in course of publication, he drew a picture for the title page and submitted it to the printer, who, after examining it, exclaimed, “Oh! Another comic song.” This experience permanently dampened his aspirations as an artist.

As the age of 17 Foster went the Cincinnati and was employed three years in the office of his brother, rendering satisfactory service, but never forgetting his great passion and applying himself to musical composition in his leisure hours. But it was not until his return to Allegheny that he scored his first real success in his chosen art, though his first song, Open Thy Lattice, Love, had been brought out two years previous by a Baltimore publisher. About the year 1844 he composed a song entitled “Louisiana Belle,” which became immediately popular throughout Pittsburgh, and this pronounced success encouraged him to introduce the ballads, Uncle Ned and O Susanna! Both of which had an even greater appreciation, extending to distant places, until a publisher asked the privilege of printing and songs. O Susanna! Brought the author $100, and from this success and favorable introduction Foster embarked upon his successful career as a song writer.

Foster’s Personality

Foster was of an affectionate, tender-hearted disposition, deeply sentimental and with a capacity for strong and lasting attachments. Towards his father and mother he cherished an uncommon devotion, and the death of the latter cast upon his mind a shade of melancholy which is reflected in his later songs and from which he was never able to recover. He formed in his youthful years and undying attachment to Miss Jane D. McDowell, daughter of Dr. McDowell, of Pittsburgh, and they were married on the 22nd of July, 1850. He ever manifested a beautiful affection for his wife and his daughter Marian, his only child. In ten of his songs may be found the Christian name of his wife, “Jennie,” and in one of them she is but thinly disguised under the phrase, “Little Jennie Dow.” Foster averred that is was Jennie McDowell who awoke in his soul the latent voice of song, and his favorite among his many compositions was, “Jennie’s Coming O’er the Green,” as it reminded him of the happy days when he began to delight in her above all others. Their married life, though having a happy beginning, was sad in the closing period of Foster’s career, for during the last three years, which he spent in New York, he was without his family, a partial separation having taken place, though a correspondence was maintained between husband and wife. He never could be drawn into expressing himself upon this subject, but the cause of the alienation was probably his convivial habits, which grew upon him and led him at last into a semi-vagabond existence.

Opening a letter, he was observed to be in tears, the cause having been the words of his wife and the picture, with the missive, of his little daughter, and in a broken voice he expressed his grief that he was so unworthy of those for whom he cherished so deep an affection. Foster struggled heroically with his besetting habit, but in vain, and with clouding genius and tarnished character he went the downward way.

His songs had enormous sales, those of “The Old Folks at Home” or “The Swanee River” having reached more than half million copies, with his royalties upon it amounting to $15,000, while E. P. Christy, of Christy’s Minstrels, gave him $500 for having his name appear on the title page of one edition of the song.

His other most popular songs enjoyed sales of from 75,000 to 150,000 copies. He was a prolific song writer, his compositions having aggregated 150 titles, about one-fourth of which were negro ballads. Not only did his songs spread to all parts of the world to be translated into the leading languages and to be cherished by the commonalty, but they have been rendered to delighted audiences of the highest culture by the master vocal artists from Jenny Lind to the present. Ole Bull and other musicians of distinction knew and loved him, and gladly taking his melodies elaborated and adorned them with their matchless art, while Washington Irving and other literary lights wrote him letters of commendation and congratulation.

The circumstances and surroundings connected with his death were sad and deplorable. He was rooming at the American House, a cheap hotel, and from a fall there sustained a wound which bled so freely that he died three days after the accident, on January 13, 1864. His wife and brother had been informed of his critical condition, but he died before their arrival. Having been under treatment in a common ward of Bellevue Hospital, and being unidentified, his body was taken to the morgue. But loving hands soon took his remains, and the devoted wife and the affectionate brother went with them to his native city. At Pittsburgh, in Trinity Church, appropriate and impressive services were held, and many came to look at the face of the former townsman, concerning whom it was said: “As he lay in the casket he was easily recognizable and there could be seen in him nothing but what was beautiful and good.” Several of his sweetest melodies were played as his body was laid to rest in the Allegheny Cemetery beside his father and mother.

Foster has been called “a wild briar rose of music,” a characterization which is not entirely correct; for while his songs are simple both as to words and melody – he wrote both for the larger part of his ballads – there is a deep and controlling art in the best of his work. This ability was, of course, a gift, a spontaneous, inspirational capacity, but it was governed and directed by an expert knowledge of music and was cultivated and developed by hard study and laborious effort in composition. In an upper room, isolated and heavily carpeted and with the passage leading to it treated in the same manner, alone with his piano he labored in fashioning and polishing his songs. They were not altogether the rapt outpourings of genius, but the result besides of intelligent and painstaking effort.

Foster’s Methods of Work

In person Foster was of slight build, below middle height, but well formed and proportioned; his face, with it high forehead and beautifully expressive eyes, was engaging. His manners were retiring, though he was interesting in conversation when once his confidence was gained. He was lacking in manly pride and dignity, stability of mind and decision of character, which deficiencies with his improvidence made of him the ready companion of undesirable and dissolute persons. Among the poets, he took the greatest delight in Poe and was able to recite much of his poetry without effort, so deeply had it impressed itself upon him.

It is possible that in Poe he recognized a kindred genius; at least, the similarity of their careers is evident to the close of Foster’s life. In order to obtain ideas for his songs he was in the habit of visiting camp meetings where, listening to the strange and fervent hymns, particularly those of the negroes, his poetic soul would be lifted into the realm of lyric invention.

Riding in the stages up and down Broadway, New York, was another and singular means which he employed to excite the flow of melodious numbers. During a portion of these years he had as a boon companion one George Cooper, having some moderate poetic gift, and in collaboration they would compose songs and from the proceeds of the sales gratify their convivial tastes, the work of composition, the sale and the squandering of the money having been in the case of some songs the experience of a single day. Foster’s last words, spoken to the nurse who was about to dress his wound, were: “Oh, wait till tomorrow.”

Though his songs, not only of themselves, but in transcriptions of almost endless variety are pulsating around the earth, the name of Stephen C. Foster is little known and honored. It is not to the credit of his countrymen that no monument stands to his memory, fitly inscribed. Like the career of many another genius, his was a sad, an erring one, but we should not neglect to hold in honorable remembrance a man who has done so much to entertain, soothe, sweeten and purify the life of the world.

Stephen Foster’s Death

The following letter from the Bellevue Hospital, New York, explains Stephen Foster’s death.

“June 5, 1916

The records of the hospital back in 1864 are very meagre. I find, however, that a Stephen Foster, 39 years of age, born in Pennsylvania, a laborer, was admitted to the hospital on January 8, 1864, the diagnosis being injuries, accidentally received. He died on January 13, 1864, and according to the register was buried by friends, the names not given.

This is all of the information that is available from the records of that time.

Very truly yours,

G. O. Hanlon
General Medical Superintendent