For the past two decades, Michael Hill has been driving to Pittsburgh from Canfield, Ohio, each Jan. 13 to honor the memory of Lawrenceville native Stephen Foster.
“All my life I’ve responded to his music,” Mr. Hill said Monday at the close of a service at Allegheny Cemetery to mark the 150th anniversary of the composer’s death. As a boy, Mr. Hill had copied down the words and music to a Foster tune from a borrowed song book and then practiced the composition on the family piano.
The Rev. Linda Miller-Pretz has similar warm memories of singing Foster songs in school when she was growing up in Millvale. That was one reason why she and her husband, Joel, came from their home in Butler County for the program.
Foster, the composer of “Old Folks at Home,” “Oh! Susanna” and more than 200 other songs, is buried in the historic graveyard. His passing, on Jan. 13, 1864, has been marked with a service at the cemetery every year since at least 1923.
About 80 people gathered in the cemetery’s Temple of Memories Mausoleum to hear children from St. Raphael School in Morningside sing a half-dozen of Foster’s compositions. Jazz guitarist Joe Negri played arrangements of other Foster songs, including “Ring, Ring the Banjo” and “Old Folks at Home.”
Mr. Negri, well known for his longtime collaboration with children’s television host Fred Rogers, said he first played Foster tunes on a banjo when he was a student growing up on Mount Washington.
Mr. Negri accompanied Deane L. Root, professor of music and director of the center, as he sang two of Foster’s love songs, “Katy Bell” and “Beautiful Dreamer.” Foster had sold the rights to “Beautiful Dreamer” shortly before his death and probably never heard the song performed, Mr. Root said.
Mr. Root, cemetery general manager Thomas J. Staresinic and local historian James Wudarczyk each briefly talked about Foster’s continuing influence on American culture in the century and a half since his passing. Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” had been recently recorded by rock star Bruce Springsteen.
The title of that song also provides the name for a new Off-Broadway musical set in New York’s Five Points neighborhood when Foster lived there.
The lyrics to some of Foster’s “minstrel songs” were written in a black dialect that affronts many 21st-century listeners, Mr. Root said in an interview. Foster himself came to view some of the words as “trashy” and offensive, he said.
The best of Foster’s songs, though, showed that their African-American subjects “had as much humanity, sense of beauty and desire to control their destinies as any white person,” Mr. Root said.
Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became a leader of the 19th century abolition and civil rights movements, ultimately changed his mind about Foster’s compositions. His songs “prepared white audiences to understand the troubles of black people … and to realize they faced similar problems,” Mr. Root said.
Foster is interred along with many members of his family in the cemetery’s Section 21, Lot 30-31. Following the musical program, a memorial wreath was placed at Foster’s grave.
Monday’s event was co-sponsored by the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association and the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music.
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184. First Published January 13, 2014 2:55 PM