Let's Learn From the Past: Stephen Foster
Share with others:
Known as the "Father of American Music," Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster composed dozens of classic songs including "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races."
Born on July 4, 1826, Foster was the youngest of 10 children and the son of William B. Foster, a prominent Pittsburgh merchant who established the city's Lawrenceville neighborhood in 1814.
Foster moved to Allegheny City -- today's North Side -- as a child and took an immediate interest in music. He received formal training from Henry Kleber, an influential North Side music store owner and classically trained composer. Foster began writing songs as a teenager and practiced daily with friends and family.
Heavily influenced by minstrel performer Dan Rice, a popular circus entertainer in the 19th century, Foster developed a unique musical style that blended classical and minstrel music.
At the age of 20 in 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, where he became a bookkeeper for his brother's steamboat company and penned his first hit song, "Oh! Susanna." The tune's national popularity convinced Foster to become a full-time professional song writer.
Foster returned to Pittsburgh in 1850 and signed an exclusive deal to pen songs for "Christy's Minstrels," a traveling show consisting of comic skits, variety acts, dancing and music -- typically performed by Caucasian actors in blackface.
Although many of his lyrics had southern themes, Foster never lived in the South and spent the majority of his life composing music in Pittsburgh and New York. Some of his best known songs include "Nelly Bly," "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Beautiful Dreamer."
Despite his trailblazing efforts to commercialize music, many of Foster's copyright deals went unenforced, and he eventually fell into poverty. Foster died at age 37 in Manhattan's Lower East Side and was buried in Pittsburgh's Allegheny Cemetery, near his birthplace in Lawrenceville.
Today, his songs are still widely celebrated in popular music and at festivals across the nation.
Visitors to the Heinz History Center can learn more about Stephen Foster and other Pittsburgh innovators as part of the long term exhibition "Pittsburgh: A Tradition of Innovation."
First Published August 30, 2012 12:00 am