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Stephen Foster-Born on the Fourth of July

June 30, 2008


America will celebrate her 232 birthday on July 4, 2008.

Stephen Collins Foster, who has been called "The Father of American Music," learned to play the flute at the young age of seven. Foster would go on to write over 200 songs during his much too short lifetime.

Did you know that both George M. Cohan, writer of "Yankee Doodle Dandy", and Stephen C. Foster were born on the 4th of July--Independence Day? These men are now legends and their songs are favorites throughout the USA and the world.

The University of Pittsburgh campus is the site of the Stephen Foster Memorial, a building that houses the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center for American Music and two theatres. There are other memorials to Stephen Foster in South Georgia, Florida, Kentucky and other states.

My Old Kentucky Home, probably the most loved and remembered of Fosters songs, has been included in American movies, including the 1955 classic "The Left Hand of God" with Humphrey Bogart. It is beautifully sung by Chinese children during and at the end of the movie in their native language.

"Oh, the sun shines bright in the Old Kentucky home, 'tis summer, the darkies are gay." These, the original words of Stephen Foster, have unfortunately been changed by some who say they do not believe in censorship. Are these the same people who do not believe in censoring vulgar language or the unflattering way the Lord God's name is used in vain in the movies?

Foster was born in a cottage overlooking the Allegheny River on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, which is now part of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the 9th of 10 children of William B. and Eliza T. Foster.

It is interesting that Foster moved in 1846 to Cincinnati, Ohio, the home state of Daniel Emmett who is credited for writing America's much loved song "Dixie." It is here Foster wrote his first hit songs that included "Oh! Susanna." It is written that this song became the anthem of the California Gold Rush of 1848-1849.

Foster later returned to his home in Pennsylvania where he signed a contract with Christy Minstrels. During the period of time Stephen Foster would write most of his best known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Old Folks at Home (Also known as Swanee River" (1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Hard Times Come Again No More" (1854) and "Jennie With The Light Brown Hair" (1854), that was written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.

Stephen Foster was a compassionate man who was close to Black people who were the inspiration for many of his songs. Some of his songs were also reflections of the folks of the Sunny South, which was remarkable for a man who had only visited "Dixie" once when he took a river-boat trip down the Mississippi to New Orleans on his honeymoon.

"I suspect that Stephen Foster owed something to this well, this mystery, this sorrow. 'My Old Kentucky Home' makes you think so, at any rate. Something there suggests close acquaintance with my people..."-- W.C. Handy, Father of the Blues (1941)

When I was a young boy fun songs like Camptown Races were sung from the school song book that begins with:

"The Camptown Ladies sing this song, Doo-da, Doo-da, The Camptown racetrack's five miles long Oh, de doo-day day."

Are Stephen Foster's songs still sung in America's public schools?

Fosters song "My Old Kentucky Home" is the official state song of Kentucky that was adopted by the state's General Assembly on March 19, 1928. It is written that Foster's ballad has been played every year by the University of Louisville Cardinal Marching Band since 1936, with few exceptions, as part of Derby Day at the Kentucky Derby.

In the 1950s "I Dream of Jennie," the movie about the life of Stephen Foster, delighted many movie goers. It can now be found on DVD by Digiview Productions. Bill Shirley played the role of Foster. It is void of vulgar language and nudity and probably would not be made today.

During these times of political correctness, few people understand Foster or the "Black Face" Minstrel shows that were performed with his songs. In the 1800s people of color were not allowed on the stage north or south. White people played the role of African-Americans but Stephen Foster instructed these actors to respect the Black people they portrayed.

Fosters last great hit was "Beautiful Dreamer," published after his death on January 13, 1864. Stephen Foster sadly did not make much money on his songs and his wife and son left him just before his death. He may have died a lonely man but his songs have thrilled millions of people throughout God's great earth.

Weep no more my lady, Oh! Weep no more today! We will sing one song for my old Kentucky Home, for my Old Kentucky home far away...They don't write songs like that anymore!

Stephen Collins Foster was inducted into the Song-writers Hall of Fame in 1970.

Copyright ©2008 Calvin Johnson

 


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