The Life and Music of Stephen Foster


Stephen Foster was America s first professional songwriter, penning nearly 300 songs in a period of 20 years before his untimely death at the age of 37. Though his music did not bring him much financial security, it did earn him a place in American history as a writer of music for all Americans. His parlor songs, meant to emulate European music; minstrel songs, which reflected the current events of the age but have proved controversial; and plantation songs, which combined both styles, have all become part of the American landscape, and have influenced other renowned composers. In this Active Minds class, we will explore the life and music of the “Father of American Popular Music,” with many musical samples along the way.

Key Lecture Points

  • With a July 4 birthday, it seems inevitable that Stephen Foster would grow up to write music for all Americans. He combined the musical traditions of Europe and the African American population to create a new, yet familiar, style. The simplicity of his melodies and phrasing made his songs easy to perform and remember.
  • The heart of Foster’s legacy is his catalogue of parlor songs, or the poetic and romantic songs modeled after German Lieder and Anglo-Scots ballads and infused by European opera. These plaintive songs of love and longing for people and places lost resounded in Civil War era America.
  • Influenced by his wealthy family’s servants, the early 1800’s popularity of “Ethiopian songs,” and the black workers he encountered working on the docks as a young man, Foster began writing minstrel songs (comic songs performed by white musicians in blackface), primarily for the Christy Minstrels show. These songs unfortunately disparaged African Americans with their caricatures but earned Foster his first financial success, notably with “Oh Susannah!”
  • In his later career, Foster merged parlor and minstrel songs to create “plantation songs,” which tended to portray nostalgia for the old plantations but did depict slaves a bit more sympathetically. “My Old Kentucky Home” and “Old Folks at Home” are probably his most famous of these works and are now state songs, albeit with lyrical revisions.
  • While there is inconclusive evidence that Foster was pro-abolition, many abolitionists at the time viewed his songs favorably and thus his music gained further audiences and traction. His last few years were spent in New York City, composing a large volume of music including songs about the Civil War which began in 1861.
  • After his tragic death at age 37, Foster’s music remained embedded in the American lexicon. He always strove to create music that would unite the American people and allow escape into a more idealized view of the country at a time of great division. His work would later influence classical composers such as Ives and Copland, as well as folk singers in the 20th century.

Discussion Questions

  • How did Stephen Foster’s childhood and upbringing affect his music and career?
  • What was the primary market for Foster’s parlor songs and why?
  • Why do you think white Americans were so attracted to minstrel shows?
  • Do you think Foster and his music were racist? Why or why not?
  • What events of the time fueled Foster’s depression and illness in his last years?
  • It is said that at the heart of Foster’s music was a “nostalgia for lost innocence.” Which of his songs best represent this concept?