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Life and Works of Stephen C. Foster


From The Pittsburg Bulletin 9 March 1896.
A forthcoming work that must possess deep interest, not only for Pittsburgers, but for Americans in general, is the "Biography, Songs and Musical Compositions of Stephen C. Foster." This book has been written by the only surviving brother of the composer, the Hon. Morrison Foster, of "Olver Place," Edgeworth, on the Pittsburg, Ft. Wayne and Chicago Railway, and the publishing house is the Percy F. Smith Lithographing Company, of this city. The book, which will be a handsome and complete volume, well illustrated, will be ready for sale in about one month from the present time. From advance sheets, "The Bulletin" is able to present a condensation of this first, full and complete life of a man whose genius bestowed immortality upon his compositions; whose songs will be sung long after men high in other professions and notable in achievement have been forgotten. In giving to the world a life of his famous brother, Mr. Foster has yielded to a pressure long withstood, brought to bear by his friends, as well as to the conviction that no other living person was so well equipped with recollections and with material to produce a full and authentic life of Stephen C. Foster, and a narrative of the songs that have made his name familiar to the world.

Stephen Collins Foster was born July fourth, 1826, in what was then known as Lawrenceville, and which is now that portion of the city surrounding and adjacent to the United States Arsenal. His father, William Barclay Foster, was an enterprising and prominent merchant of Pittsburg, to which city he came at the age of sixteen. His wife was Miss Elizabeth Clayland Tomlinson, a native of Wilmington, Delaware. While Stephen C. was quite young, his parents removed to Allegheny, where the composer spent most of his life. At an early age he was sent to a school founded by the Rev. Joseph Stockton, and subsequently conducted by Mr. Kelly. At the age of thirteen he attended school at Athens, Pa. Before this he had manifested musical talent, and at the age of seven years he accidentally took up a flageolet in the music store of Smith & Mellor, in Pittsburg, and in a few minutes he had so mastered its stops and sounds that he played "Hail Columbia" in perfect time and accent. He had never before a handled either a flageolet or flute. Soon he became proficient with the flute and the piano, Mr. Henry Kleber being one of his instructors on the latter instrument. While at Athens he wrote his first composition, the "Tioga Waltz." At sixteen years of age he produced his first published song. It was called "Open Thy Lattice, Love." The music only was his. It was published by George Willig, of Baltimore. During, these years he was pursuing his studies in practical lines, and had no thought of devoting his time to musical composition and writing of poetry, as afterwards proved to be his destiny. After studying for some time at Jefferson College, Canonsburg, young Foster went to Cincinnati, and entered the office of his brother, Dunning Foster. In 1845 he wrote "Old Uncle Ned" and in 1846, at Cincinnati, "Oh! Susanna," was given to the world. These songs he presented to Mr. W. C. Peters, the proprietor of a music house in Cincinnati. From these songs Peters made ten thousand dollars. They were soon sung all over the world. Unknown to himself, the young composer had wrought a key of simple melody that unlocked the hearts of thousands. In 1848 he returned to Pittsburg from Cincinnati, and devoted himself to music. He wrote the words and music of "Nelly Was a Lady," which was published by Firth, Pond & Co., of New York.

While so many of his best songs are what are called plantation melodies, he had no preference for that style of composition His poetic fancy ran rather to sentimental songs. Many of these gained great popularity and sold in immense numbers--and, indeed, continue to sell largely at the present time--such as "Gentle Annie," "Laura Lee," "Willie, We Have Missed You," "Ellen Bayne," "Old Dog Tray," "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," "Ah, May the Red Rose Live Always," etc. Melodies appeared to dance through his brain continually. Often at night he would get out of bed, light a candle and jot down some notes of a melody on a piece of paper, then retire again to bed and to sleep. Firth, Pond & Co., of New York, were the first to make a regular arrangement with him for publishing his music, paying him a royalty of three cents for each copy printed.

In 1850 Foster married Miss Jane Denny McDowell, daughter of Dr. Andrew N. McDowell, the leading physician of Pittsburg. Dr. McDowell was the grandson of Professor McDowell, who was, in 1799, President of the College at Annapolis, Md. After his marriage he received very flattering offers from the publishers in New York, and strong inducements to make that city his home. He removed there and had every favorable prospect that a young man could hope for. He was paid a certain sum for every song he might choose to write, besides a royalty on the copies printed. He went to housekeeping and liked New York very much. But after a year the old fondness for home and mother began to be too strong for him to overcome. One day he suddenly proposed to his wife that they return to Pittsburg. He brought a dealer to the house, sold out everything in the way of furniture, and within twenty-four hours was on the road to the home of his father in Allegheny.

Regarding the naming of what is probably the most famous of Foster's songs, Mr. Morrison Foster gives this statement: "One day in 1851, Stephen came into my office, on the bank of the Monongahela, Pittsburg, and said to me: 'What is a good name of two syllables for a Southern river? I want to use it in this new song of "Old Folks at Home."' I asked him how Yazoo would do. 'Oh,' said he, 'that has been used before.' I then suggested Pedee. 'Oh, pshaw,' he replied, 'I won't have that.' I then took down an atlas from the top of my desk and opened the map of the United States. We both looked over it and my finger stopped at the 'Swanee,' a little river in Florida emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. 'That's it, that's it exactly,' exclaimed he, delighted, as he wrote the name down; and the song was finished, commencing, 'Way Down Upon de Swanee Ribber.' He left the office, as was his custom, abruptly, without saying another word, and I resumed my work. Just at that time he received a letter from E. P. Christy, of New York, who was conducting very popular Negro melody concerts, asking him if he would write a song for Christy which the latter might sing before it was published. Stephen showed me the letter and asked me what he should do. I said to him 'Don't let him do it unless he pays you.' At his request I drew up up a form of agreement for him to sign, stipulating to pay Stephen five hundred dollars for the privilege he asked. This was forwarded to Christy and return mail brought it back duly signed by the latter. The song sent happened to be the 'Old Folks at Home.' It was in this manner that Christy's name came to appear on the first edition of the 'Old Folks at Home.' Stephen sent the manuscript to his publishers, Firth, Pond & Co., who paid him and his heirs the royalty for forty-two years. The publishers furnished Christy an advance copy of the song before publication."

The source of another noted song is thus elucidated: "An old friend of ours, Col. Matthew I. Stewart, gave Stephen a handsome setter dog, which for a long time was his constant companion. We lived upon the East Common of Allegheny, a wide open space, now improved into a beautiful park. Stephen often watched this dog with much pleasure, playing with the children on the common. When he wrote of 'Old Dog Tray,' he put into verse and song the sentiments elicited by remembrances of this faithful dog. He was easily disturbed from sleep at night and used every precaution to be as quiet as possible. A strange dog got into one of the back buildings and howled at intervals. Stephen finally could endure it no longer, and sallying forth partly dressed, with a poker in his hand, he pounded the poor dog away from the neighborhood. The family had a good laugh at the author of 'Old Dog Tray' the next day."

During the years including and between 1853 and 1860, Mr. Foster remained at his home, and among the songs he composed at this time were "Willie, We Have Missed You," "Gentle Annie," and others. In personal appearance the composer was slender, in height not over five feet seven inches. His figure was handsome; exceedingly well proportioned. His feet were small, as were his hands, which were soft and delicate. His head was large and well proportioned. The features of his face were regular and striking. His nose was straight, inclined to aquiline; his nostrils full and dilated. His mouth was regular in form and the lips full. His most remarkable feature were his eyes. They were very dark and very large, and lit up with unusual intelligence. His hair was dark, nearly black. The color of his eyes and hair he inherited from his mother, some of whose remote ancestors were Italian, though she was directly of English descent. In conversation he was very interesting, but more suggestive than argumentative. He was an excellent listener, though well informed on every current topic.

Death came to Stephen C. Foster when he was still a comparatively young man, barely thirty-nine years of age. In 1860 he again received a profitable offer from Firth, Pond & Co., of New York, and it was during his residence there that the end came. In January, 1864, while at the American Hotel, he was taken with an ague and fever. After two or three days he arose, and while washing himself he fainted and fell across the washbasin, which broke and cut a gash in his neck and face. He lay there insensible and bleeding until discovered by the chambermaid who was bringing the towels he had asked for to the room. She called for assistance and he was placed in bed again. On recovering his senses he asked that he be sent to a hospital. Accordingly he was taken to Bellevue Hospital. He was so much weakened by fever and loss of blood that he did not rally. On the thirteenth of January he died peacefully and quietly. Under request of his family his body was immediately taken to an undertaker's, by direction of Col. William A. Pond, and placed in an iron coffin. On the arrival of his brothers Henry Baldwin Foster and Morrison Foster, his remains were taken by them to Pittsburg, accompanied by his widow. The sorrow felt at the composer's death found free expression in this, his native city, when, on January twentieth, old Trinity's doors opened to receive the remains and to admit the throngs that came to obtain a last look at the calm features. The officiating minister was the rector of Trinity, the Rev. E. C. Swope, and a special choir furnished appropriate music. Foster's old friend, Mr. Henry Kleber, sang an air from "Joseph in Egypt," adapted to the words of the beautiful hymn, "Vital Spark of Heavenly Flame." It was exquisitely sung, and will never be forgotten by those that were present. At the gate of Allegheny Cemetery the funeral cortege was met by a company of the best musicians in the two cities. At the grave these played "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming" and "Old Folks at Home" with thrilling effect. The loved remains were placed beside the father and mother he loved so well, and near the spot where he was born. A simple marble headstone marks his resting-place, and thereon is inscribed only his name and date of birth and death. Surviving Stephen C. Foster is his brother--and biographer, the Hon. Morrison Foster; his widow (now Mrs. Wylie, of Allegheny), and his only child, Mrs. Walter Welsh, of Chicago.

Foster's songs, whether ballads or Negro melodies, touch a chord in human hearts that, until the Pittsburger appeared, had lain dormant. He wedded to homely words, in the dialect of the Southern Negro, music full of simple pathos, peculiar to itself and winning a place not granted to the work of other composers.

The Foster homestead has long since disappeared. It stood near Penn avenue and not far from the intersection of that thoroughfare and Denny street. The old spring house shown in the illustration still remains, the only vestige of the old place as it existed when Foster was born. The original tract comprised three hundred acres of land, reaching from the shore of the Allegheny river, southward, across Butler street and Penn avenue to Two Mile Run. It was a noble expanse of forest and orchard. The house stood a half mile east of the "Forks of the Road" and commanded a beautiful view of the river and the western hills and the city. Here, at noon on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nation's birth Stephen C. Foster was born, and while the day was being celebrated appropriately in a grove near the house. Prominent citizens were the guests of Mr. and Mrs. Foster and a "Bowery dinner," as this al fresco feast was called, was in progress. In the Foster household hospitality and kindness reigned, and "open house" was kept, its generous board being free to the Fosters host of friends.

The "Biography, etc.," will contain all the compositions by Foster, from the "Tioga Waltz," produced in 1840, to "Beautiful Dreamer," written shortly before his death. The music of these compositions, and the words of the songs are given, and the total number is one hundred and sixty. The demand for the book is sure to be large. Mr. Andrew Carnegie has ordered one hundred copies and the subscriptions of prominent Pittsburgers range from one to fifty copies. It is to be sold by subscription only.


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