Copyright © 2016 John F. Oyler
November 10, 2016
Stephen Collins Foster
The October program meeting for the Bridgeville Area Historical Society was an extremely entertaining discussion of the life and works of Stephen Collins Foster by Kathryn Haines, Associate Director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh.
Foster was born in the Lawrenceville area of Pittsburgh on July 4, 1826, coincidentally the day on which both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died. Although his father was a prominent citizen of the city, by the time Stephen, the youngest of their ten children, was born, the family’s economic status was modest, at best.
He was a self-taught musical prodigy, who quickly became proficient playing the clarinet, violin, guitar, flute and piano. He was helped in his effort to become a composer by his contact with Henry Kleber, a classically trained musician who operated a local music store. He was educated at several local academies and at Jefferson College in Canonsburg.
In 1846, at the age of twenty, Foster moved to Cincinnati, where he took a job as a book-keeper at his brother’s steamship company. There he began to write successful songs, including “Oh Susannah”, which quickly became the theme song for the California Gold Rush. In 1849, one of his songs, "Nelly Was a Lady" was included in a collection he published entitled “Foster's Ethiopian Melodies”.
It had been popularized by the Christy Minstrels, the most successful touring minstrel show of the time. Foster returned to Pittsburgh in 1850 and signed a contract to provide songs for the Christy Minstrels, an effort that produced, among others, “Camptown Races”, “Old Folks at Home”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, “Old Dog Tray”, and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”.
In 1860 he moved to New York where he collaborated with lyricist George Cooper on a series of successful songs until his untimely death in 1864 at the age of thirty seven, from an unidentified fever. Nonetheless he is credited with 286 compositions, an impressive total for such a short career. “Beautiful Dreamer”, published posthumously, was one of his most beloved compositions.
As a youth Foster was influenced by the music of the Scots-Irish, German, and Italian residents of his Lawrenceville neighborhood. His first published song “Open Thy Lattice Love” was released in 1844, when he was eighteen years old. Unfortunately the lack of copyright protection made it very difficult for a songwriter to receive adequate reimbursement for his efforts. Included in the artifacts on display at the Foster Memorial Museum is the purse he was carrying when he died – it contained thirty eight cents!
His output was quite varied. At the same time he was writing drinking songs, he also turned out several supporting the temperance movement. In addition to the minstrel songs, he produced a large number of church hymns. Although his subject matter frequently dealt with life in the Deep South, the only time he ever visited the South was a honeymoon trip on one of his brother’s steamships to New Orleans.
Most remarkable is Foster’s legacy as the first American songwriter. His music has survived and continues to be popular today. In many foreign countries it is considered as America’s true folk music.
His music inspired major classical composers. When Antonin Dvorak made his well-known trip to this country, he was so impressed with “Old Folks at Home” that he wrote his own arrangement of it. Beloved American composer Charles Ives wove Foster melodies into many of his works.
The immortality of Foster’s work is well illustrated by the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” just prior to the running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs each year, an occasion that “brings tears to the eyes” of all present.
A curious revival of Foster’s music occurred in the first ten months of 1941 when NBC and CBS boycotted ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, following a dispute over royalties, and played only music that was in the public domain. Time Magazine reported that “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” was played so many times that “her hair turned grey!”
The speaker also discussed the Stephen Collins Foster Memorial and its history. In 1927 University of Pittsburgh Chancellor John Bowman and the Tuesday Musical Club, an organization of affluent female musicians, agreed to collaborate on the construction of a performance hall dedicated to Foster. It was to be located adjacent to the Cathedral of Learning, then in early stages of construction.
At that time retired pharmaceutical businessman, Josiah Kirby Lilly, was busy pursuing his passion – the collection of artifacts from Foster’s career. Learning of the University’s plans in 1932 he decided to house his collection in the new Memorial and provided substantial funding towards its construction. It was completed in 1937 and has been a significant cultural asset ever since.
Designed by Charles Klauder, the architect of the Cathedral of Learning, the memorial is a handsome complement to its famous neighbor. It too is steel-framed and faced with Indiana Limestone. It houses two performance theaters, the Stephen Collin Foster Memorial Museum, and the home for the University’s Center for American Music.
The centerpiece of the museum is the magnificent Lilly collection, which consists of over 10,000 items -- original manuscripts, copies of over 200 compositions, recordings, and several of Foster’s instruments, including his piano. Again we have been blessed with another remarkable historical asset in our area.
The Society’s November program meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016 at 7:30 PM in the Chartiers Room, Bridgeville Volunteer Fire Department, Commercial Street. The subject will be “Curtis Copeland, Sr., Favorite Son of Bridgeville”, presented by his son, Curtis Copeland, Jr.