The Next Page: Stephen Foster's sad end

Aaron Skirboll pays tribute to the father of American music


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'Chilling." That was the word that Kathryn Miller Haines, associate director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music, used to describe the last days of composer Stephen Foster.

The word couldn't help but resonate with me, considering that as we stood inside the Stephen Foster Memorial in Oakland discussing the man, the hair on my arms stood at attention and chills indeed coursed over my spine.

Foster, a Lawrenceville native, died 150 years ago this year. The story is just so damn sad. Here was a man who decided to stay true to his art, to make his art his profession, despite the fact that his choice in careers didn't even exist then. He lived prior to sound recordings or performance rights. Copyright protection was weak, and the radio still was more than a half-century away.

Today, Foster, composer of some of America's best-known folk music and the nation's first professional songwriter, would be worth millions. In the mid-19th century, however, he couldn't even support his family. Notwithstanding, he plowed ahead. His devotion to his music never wavered.

Foster tried his hand at other trades, and he certainly was not averse to hard work -- not that his songwriting should be considered anything less, as he was studious and devoted to his craft. There were stints on the wharf in Pittsburgh checking bales of cotton, and he worked as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning's steamship company in Cincinnati. In both towns during the 1840s, he mixed with melting pot America: Irishmen, Germans, southerners, black men, river men and 49ers, picking up dialect and stories that influenced his music. Foster was uniquely American compared to other prominent composers steeped in European tradition.

Foster always returned to music, believing that songwriting and composition were his true talents. This decision led him to New York City in 1860, where he'd be in close proximity to the theater district and could sell his songs one at a time if necessary and for just enough dough to keep his 25-cent-a-night room in a Bowery Street boarding house.

Eventually, his wife left him and, with their daughter in tow, moved back to Western Pennsylvania, where she went to work for Andrew Carnegie at the Pennsylvania Railroad in Greensburg as a telegrapher. One early writer repeated amorous rumors, suggesting the young, soon-to-be baron had eyes for the pauper's wife, adding a final cosmic punch to the gut for Foster. As if he didn't have enough mountains to climb.

By the time Foster was 37, he was worn out. He was drinking and suffering from a fever and ill health when a fall in his room against a washbasin in January 1864 left him bleeding from his head and neck. He was all alone, naked on the floor. By the time a chambermaid and then a friend reached him, the great songwriter was drenched in blood, still oozing out of a gash in his throat.

It was a simple fall at his bedside, but Foster was a goner, and he knew it. He could only whisper to his friend, "I'm done for," and he begged for a sip of booze. He was taken to the dirty and rat-infested Bellevue Hospital, but it was too late. Sawbones couldn't put Foster together again. Cut off from his family, the musician died three days later. His brother, Morrison, received the telegram from New York. "Stephen is dead. Come on."

Bellevue records show his belongings: "Coat. Pants. Vest. Hat, Shoes, Overcoat." Besides his duds, there was a worn brown leather wallet containing 38 cents and a torn scrap of paper, the words "dear friends and gentle hearts" scribbled in pencil. A song never to be heard.

Two months later, a song written in Foster's last years, "Beautiful Dreamer," was published. It goes in part:

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world, heard in the day,
Lull'd by the moonlight have all pass'd away!
... Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Foster's mind was always on the dream, even though he walked through a nightmare of a life, fighting for his worth, struggling to get paid for his work. During his funeral at Trinity Church, Downtown, the choir sang, "Vital spark of heav'nly flame! Quit, oh quit this mortal frame!" No. 191 in the old Episcopal Hymnal.

A living memorial

Foster's brown leather wallet is preserved at the Memorial, which is a performance hall, museum and archive at Pitt.

Maybe it's seeing that sad scrap of paper with the pretty words or perhaps it is the Memorial itself that put me in such a touchy, reverent mood. The space is undoubtedly Gothic. There's a heavy, ecclesiastical feeling, a tingling reverence as you step inside the Memorial's vestibule and hear contemporary renderings of Foster's music summon you inside the 12-sided shrine with stone arches.

Rays of light stream through a window above. The eye follows one window to the next, 12 stained-glass panes in all, each offering a different Foster song and scene. The sun shines on "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming" in the morning and moves on to "My Old Kentucky Home" by afternoon.

The Memorial, at the base of the Cathedral of Learning, was dedicated to Foster on June 2, 1937. It was constructed of steel and gray Indiana limestone. The space was conceived by the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh and its president, Birdelle Earhart.

The half-million-dollar structure was designed by some of the country's greatest artists. Hand-wrought ironwork was done by master blacksmith Samuel Yellin of Philadelphia, and the stone carvings crafted by Edward Ardolino of New York. The stained-glass windows are the work of Charles Connick, the renowned American artist who also grew up in Pittsburgh and took his first employment as an illustrator for the Pittsburgh Press. It is Connick who is to thank for the design of the neighboring Heinz Chapel's 23 stained-glass windows, as well as the rose window at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

The structure succeeded in its intended design "to harmonize with the ever-soaring lines of the lofty Cathedral of Learning, which rises above it," wrote Foster Memorial curator Fletcher Hodges Jr. in 1937. Hodges commended the city for not forgetting "her gifted son," and called the Memorial "Pittsburgh's tribute to the modest, unassuming poet and musician whose melodies have become the heart songs of the American people."

Relics from Foster's life fill the haunting space, including his piano and a pair of melodeons, one of which Foster used for his Pittsburgh serenades. Traces of his musical story are everywhere, with sheet music for more than 200 songs displayed on the walls. The evolution of the "Swanee River" in "Old Folks at Home" is traced from the original "Pedee Ribber" in the first draft to the moment he and brother Morrison were flipping through an atlas for the name of a river with the right timbre. Poetic license transformed the "Suwanee River" of Georgia and Florida to "Swanee."

The song has been reinvented through the years from its original minstrel roots, to opera with the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind, to Al Jolson in the 1920s and Glenn Miller's big band in the 1940s before finally rocking with Ray Charles in the '50s with "Swanee River Rock."

Present as well are the contributions to minstrelsy, the degrading, condescending, yet sadly popular entertainment form in the country during this unevolved racial period.

The Foster Memorial is not a gravestone, however, but a living place of education. It is a continuance of Foster's work. The museum comes alive with Ms. Haines' tales on Foster, breathing life into the composer's life. In a vault at the University of Pittsburgh is Foster's original sketchbook, which includes drafts of 64 songs along with scribbles and doodles in Foster's hand. The sketchbook has been digitized, while digitizing the other remnants of Foster's life, such as correspondence, photographs, maps and manuscripts, continues.

A common theme in the letters is Foster's concern over money as well as a sweet homesickness for Pittsburgh. On Dec. 6, 1862, two years prior to his death, he wrote his brother, Henry, "My dear brother, Send the money for the picture to care of John J. Daly . . . When you write, tell me all the news you can think of. You must remember it is nearly three years since I was in Pittsburgh. I am very well and have been working quite industriously, but pay, these times, especially in music, is very poor. Your affect. bro. S. C. Foster."

Still a leading figure

Today, Foster's songs remain relevant. Each year musicians fiddle with the chords-- tweaking and adapting Foster's songs into their own. Songs such as "Oh! Susanna," and "Hard Times Come Again No More" are continuously reinvented. Artists from The Beatles to Mavis Staples to Johnny Cash have performed his tunes through the years. In 2005, an album of Foster's songs, performed by current artists, won a Grammy.

Foster's Memorial draws visitors from around the country and the world. In the guest book, visitors from Maryland, New York, California, Kentucky and north of the border in Canada are the latest to sign their names. On a day I dropped by the Memorial, I ran into a 21-year-old fiddler from Alaska who spent nearly 45 minutes perusing the shrine's offerings. She hadn't planned a visit but just happened by the site. Warm memories greeted her, recollections of days and nights spent playing Foster's songs in her Alaskan home with family and friends. "I'm really impressed," she said of the collection.

From the casual musician to the nation's top performers, Stephen Foster is not forgotten by the songwriters of today. It was Foster's pioneering first steps that paved the way for an art form to sprout in America. His first strokes brought us Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie, Dylan and Springsteen.

It turns out Foster was right all along. It's not easy, but there is money to be made in the music business.


Aaron Skirboll (aaron.skirboll@gmail.com) is an independent journalist from Blairsville and author of "The Thief Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created Scandal Journalism," to be published this fall by Lyons Press.

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