Stephen Collins Foster - Encyclopedia




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STEPHEN COLLINS FOSTER (1826-1864), American song and ballad writer, was born near Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, on the 4th of July 1826. He was the youngest child of a merchant of Irish descent who became a member of the state legislature and was related by marriage to President Buchanan. Stephen early showed talent for music, and played upon the flageolet, the guitar and the banjo; he also acquired a fair knowledge of French and German. He was sent to school in Towanda, Pennsylvania, and later to Athens, Pennsylvania, and when thirteen years old he wrote the song "Sadly to Mine Heart Appealing." At sixteen he wrote "Open thy Lattice, Love"; at seventeen he entered his brother's business house, Cincinnati, Ohio, where he remained about three years, composing meanwhile such popular pieces as "Old Uncle Ned," "O Susannah!" and others. He then adopted song-writing as a profession. His chief successes were songs written for the negro melodists or Christy minstrels. Besides those mentioned the following attained great popularity: "Nelly was a Lady," "Old Kentucky Home," "Old Folks at Home," "Massa's in de Cold, Cold Ground," &c. For these and other songs the composer received considerable sums, "Old Folks at Home" bringing him, it is said, 15,000 dollars. For most of his songs Foster wrote both songs and music: In 1850 he married and moved to New York, but soon returned to Pittsburg. His reputation rests chiefly on his negro melodies, many of which have been popular on both sides of the Atlantic and sung in many tongues. "Old Black Joe," the last of these negro melodies, appeared in 1861. His later songs were sentimental ballads. Among these are "Old Dog Tray," "Gentle Annie," "Willie, we have missed you," &c. His "Come where my Love lies Dreaming" is a well known vocal quartet. Although as a musician and composer Foster has little claim to high rank, his song-writing gives him a prominent place in the modern developments of popular music. He died at New York on the 13th of January 1864.

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