Foster, Stephen Collins

Foster, Stephen Collins, 1826–64, American songwriter and composer, b. Lawrenceville, Pa. His pioneer family was aware of his talent for music, but not understanding it they provided him with little formal musical education. Foster's knowledge of African Americans was drawn from minstrel shows, particularly E. P. Christy's troupe, for which many of his songs were written. Because of their utter simplicity, his black dialect songs are often thought of as folk music. Feeling that prejudice against these “Ethiopian songs” existed, he was at first unwilling to risk his reputation by having his name appear on them. He had little aptitude for business, and his income was never commensurate with the popularity of his songs. Excessive drinking and extreme poverty ruined his last years. He died in Bellevue Hospital, New York City. Although his work was occasionally banal, the songs that have remained popular, such as Oh! Susannah (1848), Camptown Races (1850), Old Folks at Home (1851), My Old Kentucky Home (1853), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854), and Old Black Joe (1860), are unpretentious and genuine.

See biographies by J. T. Howard (rev. ed. 1962) and K. Emerson (1997); M. Foster, My Brother Stephen (1932); E. F. Morneweck, Chronicles of Stephen Foster's Family (2 vol., 1944, repr. 1973).

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