Little Bits of History

He Wrote the Songs

Posted in History by patriciahysell on September 11, 2015
Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster

September 11, 1847: The minstrel song, “Oh! Susanna,” is first performed. Stephen Foster is sometimes called the father of American music. He was born on July 4, 1826 in Pennsylvania. He attended private schools and received an extensive education. In 1839, his older brother William thought it would be a good idea if Stephen joined him while he was apprenticed as an engineer in Towanda. The younger brother moved and attended the Athens Academy from 1839-41. In 1841 he performed a song he wrote at the commencement exercises. His first public performance of one of his own works, “Tioga Waltz” took place when he was just 14. The song wasn’t published until after his death. The Academy was destroyed by fire in 1842. His education went on elsewhere and he was given a chance to meet two wonderful musicians during his teens.

In 1846, Stephen moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper for his brother’s steamship company. While there, he wrote “Oh! Susanna” which was first performed by a local quintet at a concert in Andrews’ Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on this date. It was Stephen’s first successful song. It was published by WC Peters & Co. in Cincinnati in 1848. The song became an anthem for the California Gold Rush in 1848-49. At the time, it was possible for other minstrel troupes to register a song they performed and as such, the song was copyrighted and published at least 21 times. Foster himself received only $100 for the song (about $2,700 today). But as the song gained in popularity, Firth, Pond & Company (Foster’s publishers) offered him a royalty rate of two cents per copy of sheet music sold. It led to his becoming America’s first fully professional songwriter.

Foster returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels, a blackface group formed by Edwin Christy who was already a famous ballad singer. The group formed in 1843 and helped to make Foster’s “Nelly Was a Lady” a popular tune. Together, they would create memorable music with Foster writing “Camptown Races”, “Nelly Bly”, “Old Folks at Home” (also known as “Swanee River”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” (written for his wife) all during the 1850s.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860 but a year later, his wife and daughter left him to return to Pennsylvania. By that time, his alcoholism was out of control. He not only lost his family, but was having difficulty writing music. The US Civil War arrived. His ability to write music was lost, there were riots in New York City streets, he was sick and fell at home striking his head. Foster was taken hours later to a Bellevue Hospital, but there were no transfusions or antibiotics at that time. He died three days later at the age of 37. He had written over 200 songs, some of which remain popular even today, 150 years after they were written. He didn’t make much money during his lifetime, but his songs have lived on to entertain thousands.

Oh I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee, / I’m going to Louisiana, my true love for to see / It rained all night the day I left, the weather it was dry / The sun so hot I froze to death; Susanna, don’t you cry. / Oh, Susanna, don’t you cry for me / For I come from Alabama, / With my banjo on my knee.

All up and down the whole creation, / Sadly I roam, / Still longing for the old plantation, / And for the old folks at home.

Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me, / Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee; / Sounds of the rude world heard in the day, / Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away.

Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay, / Gone are my friends from the cotton  fields away, / Gone from the earth to a better land I know, / I hear their gentle voices calling “Old Black Joe.” – all from Stephen Foster

Also on this day: There She Is, Miss America – In 1954, the Miss America pageant was televised for the first time.
Milwaukee Mile – In 1903, the first race was held at the Wisconsin speedway.
World Religions – In 1893, the Parliament of the World’s Religions opened.
Treasury – In 1789, Alexander Hamilton became the 1st US Secretary of the Treasury.
Hope For the Crown Jewels – In 1792, most of the French Crown Jewels were stolen.

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