The Father of American Music
The music of early America, like its inhabitants, was a patchwork cultures and traditions. The musical intermingling of styles from around the world were produced new styles unique to regions of America. By the early nineteenth century, music in America was primarily a regional art form with no one national style. Some of the first songs to become popular throughout the continent came from the pen of a young man in western Pennsylvania.
Stephen Collins Foster was the ninth of ten children born to a middle class family in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh). Foster had little formal musical training; in fact he had little more than a grade school education, having left college after only one month. What little musical training he did have was provided by two very different sources. Henry Kleber, a German immigrant who owned a music store in Pittsburgh. Kleber was classically trained and taught Foster the popular parlor songs of the time. Foster’s other early musical influence was Dan Rice, a clown and blackface singer who traveled with the circus.
As a teen Stephen Foster was writing songs that were a blend of these two influences, a combination of popular parlor songs and the more risqué minstrel songs. By age eighteen he had written his first big hit. “Oh! Susanna” would become the anthem for the California Gold Rush.
Even though there were no standards for composer copyrights at the time, Stephen Foster was a pioneer in the fact that he attempted to make his living writing music. Although he received $100 for the publication of “Oh! Susanna”, many publishers printed their own copies of his songs without bothering to pay royalties.
No other pre-Civil War songwriter composed such a portfolio of songs that would typify American music and become standards in the national songbook. Many of Stephen Foster’s songs are interwoven with our national heritage. “Beautiful Dreamer”, “Camptown Races”, “Nelly Bly”, “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair”, and “Hard Times Come Again No More” are some of the songs known to school children across America. Two of his songs, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Old Folks At Home” (Suwannee River) were honored as official state songs.
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