Foster, Stephen Collins

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Foster, Stephen Collins

Foster, Stephen Collins, 1826–64, American songwriter and composer, b. Lawrenceville, Pa. His pioneer family was aware of his talent for music, but not understanding it they provided him with little formal musical education. Foster's knowledge of African Americans was drawn from minstrel shows, particularly E. P. Christy's troupe, for which many of his songs were written. Because of their utter simplicity, his black dialect songs are often thought of as folk music. Feeling that prejudice against these “Ethiopian songs” existed, he was at first unwilling to risk his reputation by having his name appear on them. He had little aptitude for business, and his income was never commensurate with the popularity of his songs. Excessive drinking and extreme poverty ruined his last years. He died in Bellevue Hospital, New York City. Although his work was occasionally banal, the songs that have remained popular, such as Oh! Susannah (1848), Camptown Races (1850), Old Folks at Home (1851), My Old Kentucky Home (1853), Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair (1854), and Old Black Joe (1860), are unpretentious and genuine.


See biographies by J. T. Howard (rev. ed. 1962) and K. Emerson (1997); M. Foster, My Brother Stephen (1932); E. F. Morneweck, Chronicles of Stephen Foster's Family (2 vol., 1944, repr. 1973).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Foster, Stephen Collins


Born July 4, 1826, in Lawrence-ville, near Pittsburgh; died Jan. 13, 1864, in New York. American composer of popular songs.

Foster’s songs incorporated the traditions of family music making (the sentimental ballads “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Dog Tray,” and others), Negro spirituals and plantation songs (the hymnlike “Way Down Upon the Swanee River,” “Old Black Joe,” and “My Old Kentucky Home”), and the comic songs of the minstrel show (“Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” and “Old Uncle Ned”). Foster also wrote songs about the American Revolution (1775–83). Many of his songs became so widely known, even in other languages, that they came to be regarded as folk songs. They were used as “folkloric” material by C. Ives, A. Copland, and F. Poulenc.


Foster, M. Biography, Songs, and Musical Compositions of Stephen Foster, 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, 1896.
Milligan, H. V. S. C. Foster. New York, 1920.
Howard, J. T. Stephen Foster: America’s Troubadour, 4th ed. New York, 1953.
Austin, W. W. Susanna, Jeanie, and the Old Folks at Home: The Songs ofS. C. Foster From His Time to Ours. New York, 1975.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Foster, Stephen Collins

(1826–64) composer, lyricist; born in Lawrenceville, Pa. (now part of Pittsburgh). By the time he was eight he was teaching himself piano and flute, and he learned African-American spirituals from Olivia Pise, a household slave. At age nine he put on minstrel shows for family and friends. After only a week in college, he quit to devote himself to music, and published his first song in 1844. He wrote some of his first songs for a men's club that met at his home in 1845, including "Oh, Susanna," later popularized by blackface minstrel shows and pioneers heading west during the gold rush of 1849. Back in Pittsburgh in 1848, after having abandoned a bookkeeping job his father wanted him to take, he signed a contract with a prominent New York publishing house and within about a year he began living on royalties (although due to his poor business sense, he would never profit very much). The well-known blackface troupe, the Christy Minstrels, began performing such songs as "Camptown Races" (1850) and "Old Folks at Home" (also called "Swanee River") (1851), one of the most popular songs ever published (although it would be 1879 before he would get his own name on the sheet music). He also wrote such nonminstrel songs as "Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair" (1854), dedicated to his wife even though she had little liking for his heavy drinking and bohemian ways. Songs such as "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853) and "Old Black Joe" (1860) brought him further popularity and some financial reward; but during the Civil War his popularity waned, despite his steady output of sentimental and war songs. In 1860 he moved his family to New York City and he was soon reduced to writing imitative songs. When he began drinking heavily, his wife and daughter returned to Pittsburgh and he died alone and in squalor in 1864.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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