'First American composer' Stephen Foster honored
Leeann Parsi, Carlee Fettis and Mickey Gallagher, third-graders at St. Raphael School in Morningside, sing Friday at the memorial service honoring the 149th anniversary of Stephen Foster's death in the Temple of Memories at Allegheny Cemetery at Penn Avenue. The Stephen Foster Memorial Window is in the background.
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It was the big 1-4-9 at Allegheny Cemetery.
The Friday morning memorial service was too late to be a centennial, too early to be a bicentennial, and just short of being a ceremony to mark the passing of a century and a half. It was simply 149 years since Pittsburgh-born composer and songwriter Stephen Foster died.
That was reason enough.
"We do it every year," said Deane Root, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for American Music.
The annual ceremony, by now, means that commemoration of the Lawrenceville native's death has outlasted the actual span of his life by more than four times as many years. Foster, who composed songs such as "Oh! Susanna" and "Camptown Races," died Jan. 13, 1864, at age 37 and was buried in Allegheny Cemetery. This year's ceremony is a few days before the actual anniversary.
Since the early 1920s, the cemetery has held an annual event to honor its most visited resident with musical performances and the laying of a wreath on his gravesite. This year, a few of Foster's many melodies -- including "Beautiful Dreamer" and "Hard Times Come Again No More"-- were performed by Pittsburgh jazz guitarist Joe Negri and by third- and fourth-grade students from St. Raphael School in Morningside.
About 25 people -- parents and staff from the cemetery and Pitt -- sat watching an hour-long program in the basement of the Temple of Memories Mausoleum, the background a stained-glass window depicting Foster's life.
"If I had to pick one person, he would be my all-time favorite Pittsburgher," said Mr. Negri, who said he has been a fan of Foster's since he first heard of the composer as a young child.
The number of men and women whose lives are commemorated, year in and year out, more than a century after their death is few, said Thomas J. Staresinic, general manager of Allegheny Cemetery.
"He's really the first American composer, and the music has lived on for so many years," he said.
Mr. Foster was born July 4, 1826, the same day former presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died, and his songs are still played on television and at concerts and known the world over.
Still, many people -- even those who live in Pittsburgh -- don't recognize the name Stephen Foster if they hear it, said James Wudarczyk of the Lawrenceville Historical Society.
Mr. Root said the same, with a caveat.
"They don't know the name, but they know the sounds," Mr. Root said. "They know the songs."
His parting advice at the ceremony, 149 years after Foster parted from this world, was this: "Spread the word about Stephen Foster."
First Published January 12, 2013 12:00 am