Popular song in America, part 6: Stephen Collins Foster

I can remember as a child reading of Stephen Foster as the “American Schubert.” That is absurd. His knowledge of musical composition was too scanty to deserve that comparison. But during his lifetime he was regarded as the best American songwriter ever. Not until the twentieth century did anyone surpass him.

He was the first full-time professional songwriter in American history. His predecessors had all earned most of their living from performing, publishing, or some other activity and could not have survived on their songs alone. Publishers usually bought songs outright, and if they sold well over a period of years, the song writers made no more money from them. Alone among  his contemporaries, Foster received royalties. Unfortunately, he could not manage  his money well and died deeply in debt.

Foster grew up in a music-loving family, who owned many of the most important and popular song collections. His brother reported that Stephen spent  hours studying the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Weber, and other masters, although he certainly did not learn much if anything about form or harmony from it. If he had any formal training, it took the form of a few lessons with Henry Kleber, a German-born musical jack-of-all-trades living in Pittsburgh.

His earliest songs, beginning with “Open Thy Lattice, Love” (1844)  most greatly resemble those of English composers such as Henry Rowley Bishop and Charles E Horn, who were already going out of style. In 1845, he made his first, tentative foray into “Ethiopian songs.” He wrote “Lou’siana Belle,” “Old Uncle Ned,” “Oh, Susannah,” and a few others strictly for the private entertainment of some of his friends in Pittsburgh.

The “wealthiest and best-educated classes” disapproved of minstrel shows and their low-brow humor and music, so Foster did not publish his immediately. “Oh, Susannah” actually appeared in 1848 attributed to E. P. Christy. In 1851, so did “Old Folks at  Home,” which quickly became his best-selling song. Not until 1852 did Foster notify Christy that he had decided to “pursue the Ethiopian business without fear or shame” so he could establish his own name as “the best Ethiopian song-writer.” By that time, it appears, he already had. His twelve “Ethiopian songs” were his most popular.

A previous article in this series described how typical minstrel songs evolved from demeaning “nigger songs” to “plantation songs” that fully humanized their African subjects. Foster, in fact, pioneered the latter. Even when his texts are at their most offensive to modern sensibilities, they are never mean-spirited. His black people are never the butt of racist jokes. At their best, Foster’s texts invest black people with the same range of emotion as white people, especially with the nostalgia that so characterized the Irish element in American song and many of Foster’s other songs.

Musically, melodies of minstrel songs partook of the same amalgam of English, Irish, and Italian styles (with some occasional elements from Scottish and German songs) as any other American song, except that they ended in refrain lines that could be sung by the entire company. Before Foster, these refrains were often sung in unison. Foster, having written three- and four-part harmony for his Pittsburgh friends, continued to do so. Working with Christy he knew that professional entertainers  would perform them.

Over the course of his career, Foster wrote about 135 domestic songs, mostly love songs or nostalgic reminiscences of past events. He could write this kind of respectable song “without fear or shame.”  He wrote only 28 plantation songs. And yet his reputation rests on them. The best of his domestic songs partake of some of the characteristics that made his “Ethiopian” songs so popular.

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