Pittsburgh commemorates Stephen Foster's legacy

The Lawrenceville native died 150 years ago today


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Whenever he walks his dog in Allegheny Commons, Pittsburgh musician Tom Roberts is reminded of Stephen Foster.

Foster wrote "Old Dog Tray" about "sporting" with his pet on that "village green" when he lived on what is now Pittsburgh's North Side. "Now I do the same things with my dog," Mr. Roberts said.

He also has a family link to "Old Dog Tray."

"My mother told me it also was my father's favorite song when he was a little kid," he said.

Foster, who was born in what was then the Pittsburgh suburb of Lawrenceville, died 150 years ago today. He was 37.

The composer's passing will be recognized with a musical program in the cemetery where he is buried and with a Pittsburgh City Council proclamation declaring Jan. 13 to be Stephen C. Foster Day in Pittsburgh.

A prolific composer and arranger, Foster is credited with writing more than 200 songs. Although some of his best known works deal with Southern themes and settings, he lived much of his life in Allegheny County. His father, William Barclay Foster, served as mayor of Allegheny City, which was until 1907 a separate municipality on the north side of the Allegheny River.

"The mortal remains of Mr. Stephen C. Foster, the well-known musical composer of this city, have arrived in Pittsburgh from New York and will be buried this afternoon in the Allegheny Cemetery," The Daily Pittsburgh Gazette reported on Jan. 21, 1864.

"We understand that in view of the talents of the deceased, and his valuable contributions to musical science and literature, that a number of his friends have concluded to have some appropriate musical services connected with the funeral ceremonies," the newspaper reported.

Foster's grave in Lawrenceville's Allegheny Cemetery remains a popular pilgrimage site with history buffs and music lovers.

"His is the grave that we get the most inquiries about," cemetery general manager Thomas J. Staresinic said. "People have come from all over the world, including a Japanese Public Television crew that spent several days here and at Pitt."

Foster also is remembered at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music, which operates the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum.

"His taste for music was early developed," the Gazette wrote of Foster in the next day's paper. He published his first song at about age 18, "and from that time until within the last two or three years, a flood of song music has flowed from his pen that has met with the popularity almost unrivaled."

The newspaper named, among others, "Uncle Ned," "Oh! Susanna," "Nelly Bly," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "most famous of all, his 'Old Folks at Home.' "

The popularity of that song extended well beyond national borders. "It was stated by a correspondent at the time of the Crimean War, that in the English camps around Sebastopol, that song and "Annie Laurie" were heard in every tent to the exclusion of almost all others," the Jan. 22 story said.

"Foster's beautiful melodies encompass everything that was American during his time," said Mr. Roberts, a pianist, performer and arranger. "There are influences of Southern black music combined with bits and pieces of Scots-Irish ballads. ... I adore Stephen Foster."

Mr. Roberts referred to what author David Wondrich, in his 2003 book "Stomp and Swerve," describes as "AfroCeltic Fusion." That mixing of musical styles and traditions resulted from Scots and Irish indentured servants living in close proximity to African slaves and their descendants.

"The cross-fertilization between these two cultures created something incredibly interesting," Mr. Roberts said.

Foster's well-attended funeral service was held Jan. 21 at Trinity Church, which stood on the site of the present Episcopal cathedral on Sixth Avenue, Downtown. The church choir and soloist Henry Kleber, who had taught Foster music theory, sang, but the story in the next day's paper makes no mention of any of Foster's songs being performed in the church.

After a final prayer by the pastor, the Rev. C.E. Swope, "the assemblage was dismissed and the remains of the deceased were slowly borne from the church, and followed to the grave by a large concourse of friends."

Foster's tunes were heard that day in Allegheny Cemetery, according to the Gazette. As the composer was laid to rest, a band played "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming" and "Old Folks at Home," "two of Mr. Foster's most pleasing and popular compositions."


Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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