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Stephen Foster
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Stephen Collins Foster
Born
Stephen Collins Foster

(1826-07-04)July 4, 1826
Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died January 13, 1864(1864-01-13) (agedĀ 37)
Resting place Allegheny Cemetery
Residence New York City, (at death)
Nationality American
Occupation Songwriter
Spouse(s) Jane Denny MacDowell
Children Marion (daughter)
Parent(s) William Barclay Foster
Elisa Clayland [Tomlinson] Foster

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 - January 13, 1864) was the United States first composer who was paid for his songs. The publishers paid him for being able to publish his music. He was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania which is now part of Pittsburgh. His parents were more wealthy than others in the city. His most well-known and successful song is "Oh! Susanna". It was first performed in the Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1847.

In July 1850, Foster married Jane Denny MacDowell. They had one daughter, Marion. The marriage was troubled and the couple separated. Foster moved to New York City to pursue professional songwriting. He died in New York City on January 13, 1864, aged 37.

Foster wrote mainly in three musical genres: plantation songs ("Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races"), parlor songs ("Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair", "Beautiful Dreamer") and Civil War songs ("We Are Coming, Father Abraham").

Birth and family

Stephen Collins Foster was born on July 4, 1826 to William Barclay Foster (September 7, 1779 - July 27, 1855) and Elisa Clayland [Tomlinson] Foster (January 1788 - January 1855). Stephen Collins was born in his father's home, "The White Cottage", at Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh.

He was the youngest of the Foster children.

The Fosters were married on November 14, 1807 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

William Barclay Foster was a leader on the western frontier of Pennsylvania. He had settled near Pittsburgh. The Fosters had several children: Charlotte Susanna (1809), Ann Eliza (1812), Henry Baldwin (1816), Henrietta Angelica (1818), Dunning McNair (1821), Morrison (1823), and Stephen Collins (1826). A son was born in 1829, but died in 1830.

The Fosters lived in an elegant cottage high on a hillside above the Allegheny River in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh planned and developed by William Barclay Foster.

Ancestry

White Cottage 1820
The White Cottage, birthplace of Stephen Foster near Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania

Stephen's great-grandfather, Alexander Foster, migrated from Londonderry, Northern Ireland to the American colonies in 1725. He settled in Little Britain Township, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. His son, James Foster, married Ann Barclay and moved to Virginia. Their son, James, Jr. served in the American Revolution, and sired Stephen's father William Barclay Foster in 1779.

After the Revolution, many of the Scots-Irish families of Virginia (including the Fosters) migrated to western Pennsylvania. William Barclay Foster settled near Pittsburgh. He was a merchant who sometimes traveled as far away as Louisiana. He returned to Pittsburgh via New York City or Philadelphia after buying supplies for his Pittsburgh store.

He met his wife, Eliza Clayland Tomlinson, in Philadelphia. She was a Scots-Irish aristocrat of Wilmington, Delaware. The couple were married in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, and traveled 300 miles overland to Pittsburgh. The couple were among the social elite of the frontier and associated with the best families.

Boyhood and youth

Stephen was five when he attended an "infant school". In 1833 he went to the Alleghany Academy, a school for the social elite founded by the Presbyterian clergyman Rev. Joseph Stockton. In 1834, Stephen went to a black church with Olivia Pise, a mulatto servant. In 1836, the family left The White Cottage for ever and moved to Allegheny City when Stephen's father was appointed Collector of the Pennsylvania Canal.

Family legends say Stephen picked out harmonies on a guitar at age two, and played a flageolet with perfection in a music store at age seven. At age nine, he sang and performed with other boys in their own neighborhood theatrical productions.

Minstrel songs

Foster wrote 28 songs for the minstrel stage.

A typical minstrel song by Foster is set for solo voice with a four or five part chorus in the refrain and a short instrumental section intended for a dance on the stage. The best of these songs are "Oh! Susanna" (1848), "Nelly Bly" (1849), "Camptown Races" (1850), "Massa's in de Cold Ground" (1852), "Old Folks at Home" (1860), and "Old Black Joe" (1860).

Marriage and children

Foster married Jane Denny McDowell (1829 - 1903) on July 22, 1850 in Trinity Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh. She was the daughter of Andrew N. McDowell, a Pittsburgh physician, and Jane Denny Porter. The couple's only child Marion, a daughter, was born on April 18, 1850.

Marion Foster (1850 - 1935) married William Welsh and had three children. After living in St. Louis and Chicago, she moved in 1914 to a mansion (as caretaker) on the site of her grandparents' home in Lawrenceville. She was poor, gave piano lessons into her seventies, and battled the government unsuccessfully for repossession of a piece of land once belonging to her grandfather.

Death

Stephen Foster Monument - Pittsburgh - IMG 0791
Statue by Moretti

On Saturday 9 January 1864, Foster felt sick and went to bed early. He was staying in a poor but decent hotel on the Bowery. On Sunday morning, he spoke to a maid at his door, then turned and fell, breaking a piece of crockery that gashed his neck.

A doctor arrived and the gash was sewn up. Foster was dressed, and taken to a ward for the poor at Bellevue Hospital. He was entered in the register as a "laborer". He was uncomfortable and did not like the food. On 13 January, he was eating soup when he died.

Telegram announcing Stephen Foster's death in 1864
Telegram from George Cooper to Morrison Foster reading "Stephen is Dead. Come on."

The funeral service was held in Trinity Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, on 21 January. Foster's coffin was met at the Allegheny Cemetery by a brass band playing his tunes. He was buried near his father and mother.

His death was not recorded in most newspapers.

Many songs were promoted after Foster's death as his very last songs. "The Voices That are Gone" (published in 1865) and "Kiss Me Mother Ere I Die" (1869) are probably, indeed, his last works.

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