Beautiful Dreamer: Stephen Foster, America’s First Professional Songwriter

The writer of “Oh! Susanna” was both the first professional songwriter in America, and the first to be exploited by music publishers

Stephen Foster was both America’s first professional songwriter, and, as such, the first songwriter to be unfairly exploited by music publishers. He wrote many of the most famous American songs from the era, such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Old Kentucky Home,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and “Old Folks at Home,” songs which have resonated through the generations. The essence of Americana, the songs of Stephen Foster are as fundamental and timeless a part of the American identity as The Gettysburg Address and Huckleberry Finn; songs so ingrained into our collective consciousness that many are considered folk songs, as if they were born with the earth, and not the creation of an actual songwriter.

Born on the 4th of July in 1826, more than three decades before the Civil War, he was a professional songwriter before there was any music business in America.

Of course, there was no radio or record industry yet, both of which compelled the formation of the music business as we know it in America. Sound recording wasn’t even invented until more than a decade past Foster’s death, and radio didn’t arrive for 66 years after that. There was no modern music publishing business, and no organizations to collect performance royalties.

Because of this, the only way Foster could earn money by writing songs was via sales of editions of his own sheet music to a publisher, for which he would receive scant royalties.

Either that or by simply selling a song outright for a small fee, thus forever relinquishing all of its rights. Had Foster worked within the modern system, he would have made many millions. Instead, he died at the age of 37 with only 38 cents in his pocket.

The life of Stephen Foster belongs to the ages now, and, as such, its facts tend to shift depending on their source. It’s true he was born on the 4th of July and in 1826. Past that, much of what is known seems to be the province of myth and fanciful storytelling. The truth of these stories seems to waver considerably, due to the source. With time and more complete methods of verifying the historical facts, it’s become evident that many of the so-called facts about him were distortions.

For example, it’s often assumed he was a Southerner, because he wrote so poignantly about the Swanee River and an old Kentucky home. In fact, he was born and raised in Philadelphia, in Lawrenceville, which is just outside of Pittsburgh.

The common portrayal of Foster as uneducated is also untrue. Because he grew up before the advent of public education,it is often stated that he was not schooled. It is true he did not attend public school ever because the public school system in America had yet to be established. But he was indeed schooled: he not only attended private school, he was also privately tutored.

It has also been long stated that he was musically gifted, but untrained as a musician and incapable of reading music, or reading anything at all.

Again, this was false. He was not illiterate. He could read. Nor was he musically uneducated. From an early age he took music lessons, and could read music, as well as write and arrange music, since he was a child.

Foster’s father was a politician and businessman whose hapless real estate speculations led the family to the brink of financial ruin. But unlike the prevalent portrayal of him as an impoverished Dickensian waif, his childhood seemed to be a mostly happy one.

As a teenager he joined a club along with his brother Morrison and his good friend Charles Shiras called the Knights of the S.T., which would meet periodically at the Foster home. The only available music, of course, was that which people made themselves, and the boys used to sing popular tunes of the day together, with Stephen always in the lead.

It’s then he started writing songs. His first were composed for the group, and it’s commonly believed that “Oh! Susanna” was among the first that he wrote.

At 18 his first song was published—which literally meant “published” in those days—as sheet music. It was called “Open Thy Lattice Love.”

He went to college, but dropped out after a week. He hoped to make a living from songwriting, but it was impossible. Royalties generated from the sales of sheet music then were nowhere sufficient to live on. So at the age of 20 he moved to Cincinnati to get a real job, and accepted his brother Dunning’s offer to work as a bookkeeper for his steamship firm.

He never stopped writing songs, however, and maintained his vision of someday making his living from songwriting alone. He succeeded in selling some of the new songs and instrumental piano pieces to a local publisher in Cincinnati, one of which was “Oh! Susanna.”

He figured that the best way to expose his songs to the largest possible audience was to get them into the minstrel shows circulating through the country. Instead of handing out taped demos as would a modern songwriter, he’d pass out sheet music of his songs to various minstrel shows as they passed through town.

The original Christy Minstrels, one of the most popular groups, adopted “Oh! Susanna” as their theme song in 1848. It soon became a hit song throughout the nation, even in those days long before radio.

But rather than earn Foster much income, the song was essentially bootlegged by many different music publishers, who sold the sheet music to the public and cashed in on its popularity without compensating the songwriter at all. This is the tradition on which the music industry was founded.

Foster’s publishers earned tens of thousands of dollars on the song, while he earned only a single payment of $100 from a Cincinnati publishing firm. In this way, he is forever remembered as being both America’s first professional songwriter, and the first to be cheated by unscrupulous businessmen.

This taught him an important lesson, however—that there was a lot of money that could be made in songwriting if he was able to protect his songs. It wasn’t easy to do, though, as existing copyright laws offered flimsy authorship protection.

By 1849 he had eight of his songs in minstrel shows, including “Uncle Ned,” and “Nelly Was a Lady.” Though it was unlikely, he clung to the idea he could make his living entirely by writing and publishing songs. With this goal, he moved back to Pittsburgh, and in December of 1849 signed on with one of the few reputable music publishers then in business, Firth, Pond, & Co.

Again he hopefully dedicated himself to the life of a professional songwriter. The following year he got married to Jane Denny McDowell, with whom he had one child, a daughter named Marion, born later that year.

Though his success up to that point consisted of writing minstrel songs in black dialect, he aspired to write a more serious, universal kind of song. “Nelly Is A Lady,” written in 1849, was the first of his songs to break away from the common caricatures of black culture which he had help to promulgate.

Both “Angelina Baker” and “Ring, Ring De Banjo,” written in 1851, expressed a new level of human compassion for the lives of slaves on a plantation. Rather than be portrayed as objects of ridicule, they became instead symbols of perseverance.

He also wrote one of his most famous songs ever, “Old Folks At Home,” which, despite its use of the word “darkies,” did something no previous song had done: It showed the humanity of blacks longing for a return to the comforts of home and family.

He tried to persuade Christy that his minstrel show could perform a new kind of song, one that could appeal to all people and not only those who enjoy the use of “trashy and really offensive words.” He insisted that these new songs should not be performed comically, but in a “pathetic,” humane style.

His lyrics then, which had always been graceful, took on a new, almost Shakespearean elegance, and he started writing songs he felt were suitable to the parlor—where proper, refined men and women would sit around the piano and play the tunes of the day.

In further contradiction to the myth that he was an unschooled, street-level musician, he composed a surprising amount of instrumental music during his lifetime. In 1854 he completed a massive project called The Social Orchestra, an arrangement for flute, violin, piano and other instruments of some 73 different pieces combined, including his own music as well as music written by Mozart, Schubert and others.

It sold well, and, as he had hoped, became a popular item for informal piano gatherings. But the amount of time and energy he devoted to it far exceeded any income it generated (a pattern he inaugurated which would recur in the lives of composers throughout the decades). All that work amounted only to a one-time fee of $150. As could be expected, after its completion he returned to writing songs.

From the 1935 movie Harmony Lane about Foster. It’s one of the first films ever about a songwriter, who is portrayed as a heroically tragic character, as making money writing songs was then deemed to be somewhat insane. The film has two scenes which show songs being written.

By 1860 with the Civil War unstoppable on the horizon, he hit his lowest lows, struggling to write new songs as he sadly saw the division of his homeland into separate nations.

Always keeping hope alive, he forever worked to revive his career, and even returned to writing minstrel songs, which he now called “plantation songs.” He moved with his family that year to New York, but was soon alone again, living in a hotel in the theater district of Manhattan as his wife and daughter moved back to Pennsylvania. Unable to get a new writing contract, he had no choice but to accept the lowly amounts offered by publishers for the complete rights to his new songs.

He embarked on the first and only songwriting collaboration of his career in 1862 with the poet George Cooper, who wrote comic lyrics Foster felt were commercial enough to appeal to musical theater fans. They also wrote a couple of songs tailored specifically for the Civil War, including “Willie Has Gone to War.” None of the new songs could touch the ongoing popularity of his early songs, however, which remained beloved in both the North and the South throughout the war.

He also tried his hand at writing sacred songs intended for children, contributing the beautiful “Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread” and other songs to a Sunday school songbook.

Though he wrote more than 100 songs during his final years, most of them remained unpublished and are lost forever.

One of these, however, was saved from obscurity. The hauntingly poignant “Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in 1862, was discovered after his death, and published posthumously in 1864.

He died in New York City on January 13, 1864. He’d been ill for days in his hotel room when he tried to get out of bed and fell against the washbasin, splitting open his head. Several hours passed before he was brought to the Welfare Island hospital, coincidentally the same institution where another legendary American songwriter, Jerome Kern, would die in 1945.

Antibiotics and transfusions were unknown in Foster’s time, and he died after three days. He was only 37.

In his pocket were only pennies, and one mysterious, poetic message scrawled in pencil. It said only, “Dear friends and gentle hearts.”

It’s been estimated that during his lifetime he earned just over fifteen thousand dollars in royalties on sheet music from his entire catalog of songs, and no income at all from performance royalties. His wife and daughter earned a total of $4,199 after his death.

Today even one hit with the national magnitude of “Oh Susanna” would earn millions annually, and Foster wrote many.

Today his songs are often considered folk music, the songs of the people which emerged through the folk process with no known author. But although all of his famous songs and the others are in the public domain like folk songs, they were not folk songs, but the creation of a serious songwriter, and one seriously exploited always, Stephen Foster.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” like most of his songs, is evidence of his great talent with words and music, and his professionalism. Not only are its romantic words written with linguistic elegance, its melody is poignantly beautiful.

“Beautiful Dreamer.” Leslie Guinn, baritone; Gilbert Kalish, piano. Recorded on period instruments at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C.

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