Historical Markers
Stephen C. Foster Historical Marker
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Stephen C. Foster

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
3600 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville

Dedication Date:
July 4, 1976

Behind the Marker

The songs of Stephen Foster . . . have been a source of inspiration to every writer of popular songs. I think if you were to ask any one of the boys in Tin Pan Alley which song he would rather have written than any one of his own, he would pick one of Foster's.

                                                                       American songwriter Irving Berlin

Cover of Sheet music.
Sheet music cover, "Christy's Melodies, As Composed and Sung by Them at their...
In the early 1800s, American composers still mimicked British popular music, writing sentimental "parlor" ballads to be sung by women at home. But when Thomas "Daddy" Rice blacked his face and "jumped Jim Crow" on a New York stage in 1828, that all changed. Rice helped give birth to a new, uniquely American form of musical theater, the minstrel show, and the exciting new form of African-American derived popular music performed in them.

Oil on canvas of Foster, head and shoulders, wearing a black jacket, gold vest, and a white shirt with black tie.
Stephen Collins Foster, by Thomas Hicks, 1856.
Minstrel bands composed of blackface performers - white men who smeared cork on their faces - playing banjo, fiddle, bones (made of horse ribs), and tambourine became the musical pop stars of the day. Sheet music publication of their most popular songs, distributed by steamboat and railroad, brought new excitement and money to America's emerging popular music industry. And the most popular songwriter of the day, and some argue still the greatest of American popular songwriters, was Stephen Foster of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Born on July 4, 1826, Stephen Foster was a child when minstrel shows first arrived in Pittsburgh. Raised in a musical family, he never received formal music lessons, but mastered the flute as a child, and sang with friends and neighbors. After his father went broke when Stephen was a toddler, the family moved from place to place. (His transient upbringing may explain Foster's later musical preoccupation with the idea of "home.")

In the 1840s American popular music was dominated by parlor ballads, simple sentimental songs about unrequited love, nobler religious sentiments, and elevated emotions, targeted at women who entertained family and visitors in the privacy of the home. Minstrel songs were their opposite - the rock and roll of their day. Written in slang, with topical references to current events, this was exuberant music for young men.

Cover of Sheet Music for <i>Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,</i> by Stephen C. Foster
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"Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," by Stephen Foster, 1854.
In 1844, Foster, then just eighteen, had his first song published, a parlor ballad called "Open Thy Lattice Love." But Foster also was attracted to the raucous and energetic new music of the minstrel shows.In 1847, then a twenty-year-old college drop out, Foster became a bookkeeper in his brother's steamship firm in Cincinnati, a bustling river city and cultural crossroads. There, he wrote and sold his first blackface songs "Lou'siana Belle" (1847), "Uncle Ned" (1848), and "Oh, Susanna," (1848) - songs that would change his life.

Sung by the Christy Minstrels and other groups, Foster's songs spread like wildfire. As one contemporary noted, "one had hardly heard them in Pittsburgh when they were being whistled on the streets of New York or Cincinnati." Soon gold miners in California were making up their own verses to "Oh Susanna," and "Uncle Ned" was being performed in concert halls in England.

Cover of sheet music.
"Old Folks at Home," listing E. P. Christy as writer and composer. New York:...
Presented to the public as songs written by their performers-it was common practice for minstrels to put their names on the songs that they bought - or stole - Foster won little fame and even less money from his first hits. But they did convince him that he could make a living writing songs, something that no American had ever done before.

Back in Pittsburgh by 1850, Foster poured out a succession of compositions, most of them respectable parlor songs for the family market. Out of the close to 200 songs he wrote during his lifetime, only about twenty were blackface songs, but they include some of his most popular and best-selling compositions, including "Camptown Races" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (1851), and "My Old Kentucky Home, Goodnight!" (1853), the latter two of which later became the state songs of Florida and Kentucky.

Hand-colored Ambrotype of Stephen Foster and George Cooper standing and facing each other, circa 1863.
Hand-colored Ambrotype of Stephen Foster and George Cooper, circa 1863.
in blackface gave Foster and other songwriters a license for innuendo, slang, and daring unacceptable in the world of the sentimental parlor song. Neither an abolitionist nor a supporter of slavery, Foster did not always publicly admit authorship for his "Ethiopian" compositions. The marker original sheet music credited E. P. Christy, the leader of Christy's Minstrels, as the composer of "Old Folks At Home," an arrangement Foster had agreed to in exchange for royalties. Foster wanted credit, however, when the song became a national sensation. Foster's blackface songs had unprecedented appeal. Even African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass became a fan, writing that they "awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish." Having taken the rough and racist black-face song, and turned it into something refined, and in many ways noble, marker Foster now wanted credit as well as money for his work.

 In 1853 Foster moved to New York City, the center of the American sheet music publishing industry. The following year he wrote "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and made $1,400 - a respectable income - although a fraction of the $1,000 a night that P. T. Barnum guaranteed Jenny Lind on her blockbuster American tour in 1850. But it was not to last. The river of songs that had flowed from Foster's pen soon dried to a small trickle. Paralyzed by writer's block and beset by mounting debts, he in 1857 sold copyright to many of his most famous and best-selling songs for a fraction of their worth. In 1858 he lost his home and then became estranged from his wife and daughter.

The last years of Foster's life were difficult, and exacerbated by his problems with alcohol. Living alone in New York's Bowery during the early years of the Civil War, he wrote Sunday School hymns and temperance songs. Spurred on by George Cooper, a young songwriter who joined Foster as a writing partner, he also penned some unsuccessful war songs and music hall tunes. On January 13, 1864, Stephen Foster died penniless in New York's Bellevue Hospital. He was only thirty-seven years old.
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