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Stephen Foster? American Songwriter

Before radio and television, movies and recordings, entertainment was often a family or community matter.

Someone in the family could play a musical instrument, or a neighbourhood musician would play for small gatherings.

In addition, there would be travelling groups of musicians, actors and clowns who would go from town to town. 

In nineteenth century United States, one of the most popular forms of entertainment was the minstrel show.

Black slavery was still permitted in the southern states until 1865.

Even after that date, the lives of many blacks working on large farms or plantations did not change much.

They did hard physical labour in the fields, had little control over their lives, and very little time to relax with their friends.

Foster, who was born in 1826, made this situation the background for many of his songs. 

White musicians would try to imagine the feelings of black men and women working on the plantations.

They would write songs in the dialect or speech patterns that they thought black slaves used.

In these songs, the black people would be talking about their hardships, falling in love, playing music and dancing, and finally growing old and dying.

White performers would blacken their faces and sing these songs to white audiences.

They would play musical instruments, like the banjo, a small four-stringed guitar, which black people played often. 

As a small boy, Stephen Foster had sometimes been taken to a black church by his family’s black servant, Olivia Pise.

Here he first heard the melodies that inspired his own songs.

Only a couple of Foster’s songs are based directly on “Negro spirituals;” but many of his songs have the natural simplicity and emotional power of folk songs. 

The youngest member of a large family, Foster showed his musical talent at an early age.

He played the flute, violin, and piano.

Growing up in an energetic business family, Stephen was expected to become a businessman.

And, for a while, he worked as a bookkeeper.

All his spare time, however, was spent writing songs. 

Foster attended minstrel shows and tried to get the performers to sing his songs.

Sometimes the performers would steal his songs and publish them under their own names.

Copyright laws were weak and rarely enforced, so some music publishers would just go ahead and publish a song without paying the songwriter.

Since Foster hoped to make a living as a songwriter, this was a problem. 

Foster’s first hit song was “Oh! Susanna” published in 1848.

It became popular with the thousands of men from all over the United States who were heading west to the Californian gold-rush of 1849.

Unfortunately, as an unknown song writer, Foster received no money from his early songs.

He seems to have given them outright to the music publishers, just to establish his reputation. 

Foster’s name, however, was soon widely known, and in 1849 he was able to afford to give up bookkeeping, and marry the daughter of a Pittsburgh physician.

During the next five years, he earned a moderately good income from songwriting.

In 1851, a daughter Marion was born.

Foster wrote many of his best-known songs at this time – “Old Folks at Home” in 1851; “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1853, and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” in 1854. 

Difficulties in Foster’s marriage began fairly soon.

These may have been partly due to his strange work habits.

He spent days locked in his room working on his songs.

Then he would rush out with his materials to the local music store, presumably to test out the songs on his friends.

He also became more and more addicted to alcohol.

Eventually, his wife and daughter left him.

Foster died alone in a rooming house in 1864. 

Immigrants to the United States brought their traditional folk songs with them. However, there were very few typically American songs.

Foster provided many songs that expressed the life of nineteenth century U.S.A.

His songs were easy to sing, and were popular with nearly everyone.

In a sense, Foster helped to create roots for American popular music.

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