It seems only appropriate that the birthday of Stephen Foster falls on the Fourth of July. After all, the man is considered the father of American music. He’s the mind — and hand — behind classic musical pieces, such as “Oh! Susanna,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Beautiful Dreamer”. Despite Foster’s premature death in 1864 — he was just 37 — his legacy lives on and, to this day, his music remains popular across the country and even around the world.
Born on July 4, 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, Stephen Foster was the youngest of nine children. Though many believe that Foster lived an impoverished life, that’s not necessarily the case. He attended a private school, Athens Academy, in Pennsylanvia, and had a brief stint at Jefferson College. Yes, he passed away with only 38 cents in his pocket, but he did manage to earn a meager living off of his published music. Of course, he lived in a time before recorded music, so he certainly would have been far more successful had he been born, well, now. But he succeeded in making money off of his sheet music. In fact, he published his first song — “Open Thy Lattice Love” — when he was just 18.
One of the most distinct aspects of Foster’s music was his attitude toward representing the hardships of slaves. He infused each of his musical works with a level of compassion that was generally absent from the typical minstrel shows of the time. Many believe this was due to his close personal relationship with Charles Shiras, who was heavily involved in the Pittsburgh abolitionist movement. And, despite having been to the South only twice, Foster’s music incorporates a rustic, American feel that encompasses both distinctly Southern and distinctly nationalistic values.
Even though Foster lived in an era inw hich music did not have the means to be appreciated to its fullest extent, he wrote more than 200 songs in his lifetime and his — to this day — considered the father of American music. Be sure to sing a round of “Oh! Susanna” at your Fourth of July barbeque tonight! And maybe even a round of “Happy Birthday” to the remarkable Stephen Foster.