Songs From Stephen
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.