Biography of American Songwriter Stephen Collins Foster Part 1

About the famous American songwriter Stephen Collins Foster, history and biography of the author of numerous hit songs including Beautiful Dreamer and Oh, Susanna.




One of the first of America's great songwriters, Stephen Collins Foster was born in Pittsburgh, Pa. His musical talent was natural and self-generated; he had no opportunity to hear serious music or to have formal training, and his parents did not encourage a talent that they were incapable of comprehending (his father called it "strange"). Young Stephen was a poor student and disliked the discipline of school; he much preferred to read and study on his own, take walks in the woods, and indulge in daydreaming. His penchant for personal study resulted in his learning to play the flute; his daydreaming led to the composition of a veritable cornucopia of melodious songs.

Stephen's first song was performed when he was 15, during a short-lived period of academic schooling at the Athens Academy in Tioga, Pa., and was titled "Tioga Waltz." He wrote it for commencement and played it himself on the flute. At 18 he had his first song published, "Open Thy Lattice, Love," written for a 10 year-old friend whose parents let him use their piano. When he was 19, he wrote songs for a group of young men who met twice a week at his home; during this period his bent for Negro music began to bear fruit. As a boy he had been exposed to Negro hymns, spirituals, and minstrel music. A "bound-girl" who worked for the Foster family (they had two black servants who, because Pennsylvania was a free state, worked in exchange for room and board) took the boy with her to church, where he heard the congregation's spontaneous, jubilant exultations. Shortly thereafter he started attending minstrel shows. From doing his own versions of minstrel music as the star of a youthful dramatic club, he progressed to the writing of such popular minstrel tunes as "Old Uncle Ned," "Lou'siana Belle," and one of his most popular compositions, "Oh, Susanna!" If the forty-miners didn't all strike gold, "Oh, Susanna!" did; it was adopted by the fortune seekers as their theme song, with appropriate revisions in the lyrics. Unfortunately, it reaped profits only for the publisher, not for the composer. With his usual casualness and lack of business acumen, Stephen gave the song away to a publisher he met while working as a bookkeeper for his brother, a commission merchant in Cincinnati. The song did, however, mark the beginning of Foster's enduring fame. It led him to Ed Christy and the Christy Minstrels, who bought and introduced many of his songs.

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