Stephen Foster ("father of American music")

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Stephen Collins Foster

Birthplace: Virginia, United States
Death: Died in New York, New York, United States
Place of Burial: Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, United States
Immediate Family:

Son of William Barclay Foster and Eliza Clayland Foster
Husband of Jane Denny Foster
Father of Marion Foster and Marian Welsh
Brother of Charlotte Susanna Foster; William Barclay Foster; Henry Baldwin Foster; Henrietta Angelica Thornton; Dunning McNair Foster and 3 others

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About Stephen Foster ("father of American music")

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music", was the pre-eminent songwriter in the United States of the 19th century. His songs — such as "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "Hard Times Come Again No More", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer" — remain popular over 150 years after their composition.

Foster attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens, and Towanda, Pennsylvania. He received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin and Greek, and mathematics. In 1839, his elder brother William was serving his apprenticeship as an engineer at nearby Towanda and thought Stephen would benefit from being under his supervision. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens, and 15 miles from Towanda. Stephen attended Athens Academy from 1839 to 1841. Stephen's first composition, Tioga Waltz, was written while he attended Athens Academy and was performed at the 1839 commencement exercises. He was 14. It was not published during the composer's life time, but it is included in the collection of published works by Morrison Foster. In 1842, Athens Academy was destroyed by fire.

His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, where his grandfather was once a trustee.[1] His tuition was paid, but Foster had little spending money.[1] Sources conflict on whether he left willingly or was dismissed;[2] but, either way, he left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and didn't return.[1]

During his teenage years, Foster was influenced greatly by two men. Henry Kleber (1816-97), one of Stephen’s few formal music instructors, was a classically trained musician who emigrated from Darmstadt, Germany, to Pittsburgh and opened a music store. Dan Rice was an entertainer, a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster would learn to blend the two genres to write some of his best work.


In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful songs, among them "Oh! Susanna" which would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848–1849. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels. A plaque marks the site of Foster's residence in Cincinnati, where the Guilford School building is now located.

Then he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (known also as "Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), and "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.

Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "build up taste ... among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." He instructed Caucasian performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.

Although many of his songs had Southern themes, Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, by river-boat voyage (on his brother Dunning's steam boat, the James Millinger) down the Mississippi to New Orleans, during his honeymoon in 1852. Foster is notable for popularizing the use of the "honky tonk" piano style and the use of the Swanee whistle for a mainstream audience.[citation needed]

Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little of the profits which his works generated for sheet music printers. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster's tunes, not paying Foster anything. For "Oh, Susanna", he received $100.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes decreased, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. Early in 1863, he began working with George Cooper, whose lyrics were often humorous and designed to appeal to musical theater audiences. The Civil War created a flurry of newly written music with patriotic war themes, but this did not benefit Foster.


He had become impoverished while living at the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York. His brother Henry described the accident that led to his death[citation needed]: Confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Foster tried to call a chambermaid, but collapsed, falling against the washbasin next to his bed and shattering it, which gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to Bellevue Hospital, and in an era before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed three days after his admittance at the age of thirty-seven.

In his worn leather wallet, there was found a scrap of paper that simply said "Dear friends and gentle hearts" along with 35 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.

Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. One of his most beloved works, "Beautiful Dreamer", was published shortly after his death.

According to eminent music scholar Lucas Li, Stephen Foster's musical influence has been spread throughout China in the early 1900s. Examples of his music have been found in Guangzhou.



Stephen Foster was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1970, and he was also inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.

"My Old Kentucky Home" is the official state song of Kentucky, adopted by the General Assembly on March 19, 1928. "Old Folks at Home" is the official state song of Florida, designated in 1935.

Eighteen of Foster's compositions were recorded and released on the Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster collection. Among the artists who are featured on the album are John Prine, Ron Sexsmith, Alison Krauss, Yo Yo Ma, Roger McGuinn, Mavis Staples, and Suzy Bogguss. The album won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album in 2005.

Douglas Jimerson, a tenor from Baltimore who has released CDs of music from the Civil War era, released Stephen Foster's America in 1998.

American singer-songwriter Chris Stuart penned and recorded "Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts", a mournful song about Foster's sad fate.

American classical composer Charles Ives freely quoted a wide variety of Foster's songs in many of his own works.

A Squirrel Nut Zippers song titled "The Ghost of Stephen Foster" features references to his most famous works, including "Camptown Races".

Just before his death in 2004, singer-songwriter Randy Vanwarmer completed an entire album of Stephen Foster songs. It was released posthumously as Sings Stephen Foster.

Foster is acknowledged as "father of American music".[3]

Other honors

Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburgh campus with the Stephen Foster Memorial, a landmark building that houses the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center for American Music, as well as two theaters: the Charity Randall Theatre and Henry Heymann Theatre, both performance spaces for Pitt's Department of Theater Arts. It is the largest repository for original Stephen Foster compositions, recordings, and other memorabilia his songs have inspired world-wide.

A public sculpture by Giuseppe Moretti honoring Stephen Foster and commemorating his song "Uncle Ned" sits in close proximity to the Stephen Foster Memorial.

In My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky, a musical, called Stephen Foster-The Musical has been performed since 1958. There is also a statue of him next to the Federal Hill mansion, where he visited relatives and is the inspiration for "My Old Kentucky Home".

The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida is a Florida State Park named in his honor, as is Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia.

Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Park in Pennsylvania is named in his honor.

In Alms Park in Cincinnati, overlooking the Ohio River, there is a seated statue of him.

His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.

The Lawrenceville Historical Society, together with the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, hosts the annual Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival (Doo Dah Days!). Held the first weekend of July, Doo Dah Days! celebrates the life and music of one the most influential songwriters in America's history.

36 U.S.C. §140 designates January 13 as Stephen Foster Memorial Day, a United States National Observance. In 1936, Congress authorized the minting of a silver half dollar in honor of the Cincinnati Musical Center. Stephen Foster was featured on the obverse of the coin despite his tenuous links to the city.


Three Hollywood movies have been made of Foster's life: Harmony Lane (1935) with Douglass Montgomery, Swanee River (1939) with Don Ameche, and I Dream of Jeanie (1952), with Bill Shirley. The 1939 production was one of Twentieth Century Fox's more ambitious efforts, filmed in Technicolor. The other two were low budget affairs made by B film studios, but the 1952 film was in color.

References in popular culture

Lists of miscellaneous information should be avoided. Please relocate any relevant information into appropriate sections or articles. (July 2008) 

Stephen Foster's memory has been preserved in the following works, media and events:

Journalist Nellie Bly took her pseudonym from the title character of Foster's song "Nelly Bly".

"Stephen Foster Super Saturday" is a day of thoroughbred racing during the Spring/Summer meet at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. During the call to the post, selections of Stephen Foster songs are played by the track bugler, Steve Buttleman. The day is headlined by the Stephen Foster Handicap a Grade I dirt race for older horses at 9 furlongs.

In the New Zealand television show, Seven Periods with Mr Gormsby, the students sing Stephen Foster melodies at the school concert.

In the Silver Jews song, "Tennessee" from the album Bright Flight, singer Dave Berman notes that his lover's "doorbell plays a bar of Stephen Foster".[4]

Foster is referenced in a scene during the 1993 Western Movie "Tombstone".

The Squirrel Nut Zippers directly reference "Camptown Races" and Stephen Foster in their song "Ghost of Stephen Foster".

Composer. He was America's first great songwriter. Many of his songs are still well known more than 150 years after their composition. His first hit, Oh Susanna (1846), became the anthem of the California Gold Rush. Foster's other popular works include Camptown Races (1850), Nelly Bly (1850), Old Folks at Home (also known as Swanee River (1851), My Old Kentucky Home (1853), Old Dog Tray (1853), Hard Times Come Again No More (1854), Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair (1854), and Beautiful Dreamer (1862). Foster wrote in the minstrel tradition of the time, in which qwhite entertainers would blacken their faces to parody slaves. But ne hever stooped to racism, and his songs overcame their origins with their sincerity, empathy, and beguiling melodies. He produced over 200 songs, and wrote the lyrics for most of them. Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. A self-taught musician, he learned to play the clarinet by ear and published his first song, Open Thy Lattice, Love, When he was 18. In 1846 he moved to Cincinnati,, Ohio to work as a bookeeper for his brother, and brought out two collections of tunes Songs of the Sable Harmonists (1848) and Foster's Ethiopian Melodies (1849). He returned to Pittsburgh in 1859 and signed a long term contract to write songs for the Christy Minstrels company. Foster was a poor businessman. He sold his songs for little money and saw none of the hugh profits sheet music publishers made from his work. In 1860 he went to New York City, where he spent his last years struggling against increasing poverty, illness, and alcoholism. Foster died at 37, of head injuries from an accidental fall at his Bowery hotel room. At the time of his death he possessed exactly 38 cents. Out of respect for the composer, a transport company shipped his body back to Pittsburgh for free. Foster's songs are so deeply rooted in American folk tradition they are often viewed as folk music themselves. When composer Charles Ives, that homespun ccentric nationalist, wanted a real American flavor in his music, he quoted Fpster. His art even found its way into 20th century pop culture. Camptown Races is the tune ubiquitously hummed by the roosted Foshorn Leghorn in Warner Brothers cartoons, and was memorably parodied in the comic western Blazing Saddles (1974). And the 1960s TV comedy I Dream of Jeannie derived its title from a Foster Song. For all its quaintness and sentimentality, Foster's music remains a living part of America's cultural heritage.

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Stephen Foster ("father of American music")'s Timeline

July 4, 1826
Virginia, United States
April 18, 1851
Age 24
Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, United States
January 13, 1864
Age 37
New York, New York, United States
Pittsburgh, Allegheny, Pennsylvania, United States