Stephen Foster stands as the first great American composer of popular songs. It is often difficult to classify his style, as it contains folk, popular, and classical elements, yet remains a product of none of these entirely. My Old Kentucky Home, Oh! Susanna, Old Folks at Home, and many of his other songs have become so popular and familiar they are often viewed as folk music. Foster's instrumental music, which included Santa Anna's Retreat from Buena Vista (1848) and The Social Orchestra (1854), was far less successful. He also wrote hymns and Sunday school songs for children. Foster was probably the first American composer who attempted to support himself by writing songs. In this endeavor he failed, earning $15,000 over his 11-year career and turning increasingly to alcohol. One cannot help but notice the similarities between his tragically short life and that of his near contemporary in American literature, Edgar Allan Poe.
Foster was born on July 4, 1826, a fateful independence day — the fiftieth — that some will say cursed him, since this was the very same day on which Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Foster was the youngest of nine surviving children — ten, actually, since a son fathered by Foster's father also lived with the family. Young Stephen's education was varied, coming from both tutors and private schools. It is generally believed that he received instruction in music from Henry Kleber, a German-born musician who was a merchant, impresario, composer, and performer, and also a prominent figure on the Pittsburgh cultural scene.
While in his teens, Foster formed a club with his brother Morrison and a friend, whose activities included singing. It is thought that Oh! Susanna may have been composed for this group. Foster published his first song, Open Thy Lattice Love, when he was just 18.
Two years later, he took a bookkeeping position with his brother Dunning's Cincinnati-based steamship business. Shortly afterward, he sold Oh! Susanna to a Cincinnati publisher for a mere $100. After its appearance, over twenty other editions were issued by other publishers, yielding not a dime to Foster owing to the lack of strong copyright laws. In about 1849 he signed a contract with the Firth, Pond, & Co. publishing house of New York, preparing a career in songwriting.
In 1850 Foster left his brother's employ and married Jane Denny MacDowell. Ironically, his only exposure to the deep South would come in 1852 with a belated honeymoon excursion by steamship to New Orleans.
In 1854, Foster, his wife, and daughter Marion (b. 1852) settled in Pittsburgh, where the composer struggled to support them on his scant royalties. He may have developed ties to the growing abolitionist movement now, owing to his relationship with boyhood friend, Charles Shiras, an abolitionist with whom he collaborated to write a song around this time. When his parents died in 1855, Foster sank into a deep depression from which he never fully recovered.
Foster and his family lived in boarding houses for a time, since their finances were continually scarce. The composer's addiction to alcohol and their mediocre living conditions contributed to the deterioration of the marriage. Foster and his family traveled to New York in 1860, but his wife returned to Pittsburgh with Marion a year later. The composer stayed on in New York and continued to drink heavily. Sick with a fever in January 1864, he fell and struck his head on a wash basin, and died three days later.