Songs From Stephen

Spotlight



When Stephen Collins Foster died, he was carrying this wallet, which contained 38 cents and a scrap of paper reading “dear friends and gentle hearts.”

Photo courtesy of University of Pittsburgh

As the world discovered during the recent G-20 Summit hoopla, Pittsburgh has a lot to brag about: our cultural attractions, our green initiatives and our sports teams, to name a few. But don’t forget to put Stephen Collins Foster (1826-’64), the nation’s first professional songwriter, on the list too. Is there anyone who hasn’t heard “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Oh! Susanna” and “Swanee River” among his some 200 compositions?

At least one G-20 guest, Miyuki Hatoyama, wife of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama of Japan, checked out the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum at the University of Pittsburgh to explore the life of the Pittsburgh composer who is popular in her country (Japanese students learn his songs in school).

Anyone who’s popular here and clear across the world is worthy of a celebration or two, so the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh and the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association are organizing the annual Stephen Foster Day.

Because Foster was born in Lawrenceville on July 4, a day for fireworks and flag-waving, remembrances of his life fall on his death day: Jan. 13. This month, Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville will mark the 146th anniversary of Foster’s death on Wed., Jan. 13, at 10 a.m., in the Temple of Memories Mausoleum, 4715 Penn Ave., Lawrenceville. Weather permitting, students from St. John Neumann Regional Catholic School will sing a medley of the composer’s songs, and other guests will lay a wreath on Foster’s grave. The event is open to the public.

Continuing the observance on Fri., Jan. 15, at 9:30 a.m., student vocalists and instrumentalists from Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12 will perform some of Foster’s works, including “My Old Kentucky Home,” “Beautiful Dreamer” and “The Old Folks at Home,” at the school, 111 Ninth St., downtown. Deane L. Root, director of the Center for American Music, will speak at this free event.

So this brings us to an interesting question: How much do you know about Foster? Before the activities begin this month, be sure to brush up on your Foster facts. As Root notes, his life is often misrepresented in a number of myths.

Myths 1 and 2: With strains of the state songs of Kentucky—“My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!”—and Florida—“Swanee River”—floating through his work, many believe  that Foster was a Southerner (Myth 1) who got his ideas for his songs on-site (Myth 2). Wrong!

He was born in Lawrenceville, lived in Allegheny City (now the North Side) and took one trip south that we can verify, according to Root, who has stood beside the Suwannee (notice Foster spelled the name of the river wrong in his song) and listened to people tell their great-grandmother’s stories of Foster whistling “Swanee River” on the spot. “Never happened,” notes Root.

Myth 3: Some think Foster was an “idle dreamer, an untrained musical genius.” Root calls him a poet and a gifted flutist, who studied with German-born musician Henry Kleber.

Myth 4: Some think Foster was incapable of work. No, Root responds. He worked for years on some pieces and wanted “to make a name for himself as the very best American songwriter,” says Root.

Myth 5: He got his ideas from slaves or black churches. “This is fiction,” says Root. “His songs blend…national or ethnic styles then circulating in Pittsburgh…not only African-American but especially Irish, Scottish and English popular song.” Root attributes Foster’s genius to creating music appealing to “all these people.”

Myth 6:
Foster was a racist who glorified slavery and happy slaves in his songs. In fact, says Root, “His songs created more empathy for enslaved Americans than many preachers’, politicians’ and press journalists’ efforts combined.”

Foster did write music for the popular blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century. However, as Steven Saunders notes in the new book Stephen Collins Foster: Sixty Favorite Songs, later in his career, Foster wanted to separate himself from “the trashy and really offensive words” of minstrel shows, which mocked African-Americans. Foster removed black dialect from some of his songs, including from “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Myth 7: He earned a lot of money but couldn’t handle it. Not so. “He averaged $1,500 a year, about $40,000 in today’s money,” says Root. But the 19th century didn’t protect artists. His publishers owned his copyrights. Some two-dozen publishers issued “Oh! Susanna” in his lifetime. Only one paid him—$100.

Myth 8: He committed suicide. Nope. He suffered from a fever and dizziness and fell against a washbasin, cutting himself. He died from an infection three days later in Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

Myth 9: He was a drunk who died in the gutter. Negative. Yes, he drank, but Root says his “closest associate…wrote that he never saw him drunk.”

A place where you can learn more about the local songwriter is Pitt’s Foster Hall Collection, housed at the Center for American Music at the Stephen Foster Memorial. That site, Saunders says, is “the richest repository in the world for materials concerning Foster.” One notable piece in the collection is a manuscript dating back to 1851 with drafts of Foster’s popular songs and unpublished work. The museum is open Mon. through Fri., 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Guided tours, which must be arranged in advance, are $1.50 for adults and $1 for kids and seniors. Unguided tours are free. Info: 412/624-4100, pitt.edu/~amerimus/museum.htm.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

For a city only two centuries old, Pittsburgh has amassed a surprising amount of history. To assemble this collection of 50 of the region’s most fascinating historical artifacts, we hunted through museums, archives and private collections. We also looked for things many of us might pass each day without appreciating their significance.
The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.
In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

After making films focused on Pittsburgh, Sokolow is rising through the ranks of U.S. women documentarians.
Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Salem’s offers accessible and delicious meals for Pittsburghers of all stripes.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

The Fascinating History of the David McCullough Bridge

The Fascinating History of the David McCullough Bridge

More than 80 years after its demise was erroneously reported, the David McCullough Bridge still stands as an engineering and architectural highlight among the city’s many spans.
Gone Viral: Duquesne Students Score Big With Rat Slapshot

Gone Viral: Duquesne Students Score Big With Rat Slapshot

Their tic-tac-toe passing would impress Mike Sullivan.
1,000 Points Earns Crosby His Own Primanti Bros. Sandwich

1,000 Points Earns Crosby His Own Primanti Bros. Sandwich

Unlike previous Penguins-inspired sandwiches, Crosby’s “The Captain” could be on the menu for years to come.
Pittsburghers Get Fewer Robocalls Than The National Average

Pittsburghers Get Fewer Robocalls Than The National Average

Next time you get a call from a telemarketer, just be thankful you don’t live in Atlanta.
Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

A History of Pittsburgh, in 50 Artifacts

For a city only two centuries old, Pittsburgh has amassed a surprising amount of history. To assemble this collection of 50 of the region’s most fascinating historical artifacts, we hunted through museums, archives and private collections. We also looked for things many of us might pass each day without appreciating their significance.
The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

The Origins of Isaly’s: It's Not What You Think

Tracing the story of the chain back to its roots — which, surprisingly, are not in Pittsburgh.
In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

In the Frame: Julie Sokolow Sees the Future

After making films focused on Pittsburgh, Sokolow is rising through the ranks of U.S. women documentarians.
Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Restaurant Review: Salem's Market & Grill in the Strip District

Salem’s offers accessible and delicious meals for Pittsburghers of all stripes.
Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

Pittsburgh Penguins Share Tips for Parenting on Ice

In a year when youth-hockey participation is expected to increase, Pittsburgh Penguins players weigh in on the role of the hockey parent.
Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

Face the Frost: Go Daytripping on Winter Hikes in Pittsburgh

There’s a magical, snowy landscape right in your backyard.
Edit Module
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


The Fascinating History of the David McCullough Bridge

The Fascinating History of the David McCullough Bridge

More than 80 years after its demise was erroneously reported, the David McCullough Bridge still stands as an engineering and architectural highlight among the city’s many spans.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
CSA Day Reminds Pittsburghers (and Beyond) To Support Local Farms

CSA Day Reminds Pittsburghers (and Beyond) To Support Local Farms

It's the third year running for the concept, which was created by Simon Huntley of Pittsburgh's Small Farm Central.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

Five Inexpensive But Memorable Date Spots in Pittsburgh

These spots are tailored for couples who are looking for a simple, chill night out on Valentine’s Day (or any other day). If your significant other isn’t the type to be wooed by expensive wines and chocolates, this is the list for you.

Comments


Adventure Bingo Returns at the Ace Hotel

Adventure Bingo Returns at the Ace Hotel

The one-of-a-kind night of bingo, trivia and madcap monologues returns in a new spot.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Dave Hanson and the Enduring Legacy of Slap Shot

Dave Hanson and the Enduring Legacy of Slap Shot

The Hanson Brothers and other stars of the classic hockey film will return to Johnstown this weekend for a 40th anniversary celebration.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Tantalizing Textiles for the Table

Check out the chic decor from Pittsburgh-based artist and designer Janice Nelson.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Great Wall Crumbles, Fist Fight Whiffs

Reviews of "The Great Wall" and "Fist Fight," plus local movie news and notes.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

Our Favorite Unique Centerpiece (That’s Not Flowers)

This couple’s centerpiece from our Real Pittsburgh Weddings shines brighter than the traditional table bouquet.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Candle Lab Ready To Make Its Debut in Lawrenceville

The Columbus-based store, where you can customize your own candle fragrance, is expected to open in March.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

Get a Behind-the-Scenes Look at ‘Fences’

An art director from Warner Bros. Studios will visit La Roche College to talk about the Oscar-nominated film with ties to Pittsburgh.

Comments