Stephen Foster Memorial Day

This federal day of observance honors American songwriter Stephen Foster, best known for Oh! Susanna and My Kentucky Home. The day, honoring the “father of American music,” has been in observance since 1967, marking the day of his death. Foster has written more than 200 songs, specializing in parlour music.

Stephen Foster Biography

Stephen Foster was appropriately born on July 4, 1826. He attended private schools in Pennsylvania and Athens, performing his first composition as a 14 year-old at Athens Academy. After leaving Jefferson College, Foster became a bookkeeper in Cincinnati, where he wrote his first lucrative songs, including his most popular, Oh! Susannah, which became a theme song of sorts for the California Gold Rush. Foster is known for making a unique sound by combining the feelings of parlour and minstrel music. While in Ohio, published the collection Foster’s Ethiopian Melodies. Foster’s music kept with popular minstrel tradition, but Foster strayed from the offensive lyrics often found with the genre, hoping to create more appropriate music instead. Interestingly, even though much of Foster’s music features a southern feel, Foster only went to the South once, travelling down river on his honeymoon on a steamboat.

Sadly, Stephen Foster’s success came largely after his death, as he only made around $200 dollars each for songs like Oh! Susanna, and many of his songs were published posthumously. Foster struggled to support himself and his family with songwriting, as the niche was not as carved out as it would later be. After moving to New York in 1860, his wife and daughter returned to Pennsylvania, leaving him behind. Most of his work towards the end of his life included hymns. Foster passed away at age 37 while living at a hotel, hitting his head during a fall after lying in bed for days of a fever.

Legacy

Along with Oh! Susannah, Foster wrote the state song for Kentucky, My Old Kentucky Home, and Florida, Old Folks at Home. Foster’s songs have been included in many CD collections. Two parks along with Suwannee River were named after Stephen Foster, including the Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida, and Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia.

He is included in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and a number of statues, busts, and sculptures have been made in his memory, including his Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh and a statue at Alms Park in Ohio. Foster was featured on a silver dollar printed in 1936 to honor the Cincinnati Musical Center. During the first week in July, the Lawrenceville Historical Society puts on the Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival. Stephen Foster has even had three movies made about him, including Swanee River, I Dream of Jeanie, and Harmony Lane.

Traditions

Stephen Foster Memorial Day is typically commemorated by concerts, ceremonies, and other tributes to the great American songwriter, often performed at the parks named in his honor.

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