He Died Penniless Before He Was 40, But His Songs Have Lived On

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Ever hear of Stephen Foster?

He’s known as the “father of American music.” And his birthday coincides with America’s birthday — July 4.

The songs Foster wrote seemed to reflect the land and the moods and the people of our country. And many of them are still popular today — more than 150 years later.

It’s likely you’ve heard one or more of his songs, such as “Oh, Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home” (better known as “Swanee River”), “Camptown Races,” “Beautiful Dreamer,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” to name a few.

In all, Foster penned 286 compositions in less than 20 years.

Born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), Foster wrote his first song when he was 18. A perfectionist, he sometimes took months to write and tweak the words, melody, and accompaniment before sending it to a publisher.

He often wrote songs about the South, though he’d only ever been there once, and then only briefly.

Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” is the official state song of Kentucky and his “Old Folks at Home” is the official state song of Florida. During the California Gold Rush, “Oh, Susanna” became the Forty-Niners’ theme song.

“Camptown Races,” another Foster hit when published, is used in football chants and was hummed by Looney Tunes’ cartoon character Foghorn J. Leghorn throughout most of the 28 cartoons he appeared in.

Foster tried to earn a living as a professional songwriter, something quite novel during his day. But since professional songwriting didn’t exist then as it does today (with music copyright and composer royalties), he made little money from his works.

For instance, he only received $100 (about $3,000 in 2015 dollars) for “Oh, Susanna” and barely made anything for the many other songs he wrote. Multiple publishers often printed their own competing editions of Foster’s tunes, for which he received nothing.

Foster moved to New York City in 1860. A year later, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh. Things got worse beginning in 1862 when his contracts with his publisher ended.

The Civil War didn’t help matters. Because of the shaky wartime economy, he couldn’t get another publishing contract. So, Foster was compelled to sell his songs outright to publishers with no hope of future payments.

In 1864, while living in a Manhattan hotel, Foster was forced to bed with a persistent fever. While trying to call a chambermaid, he fell, hitting his head against the washbasin next to his bed.

As the basin shattered, it cut his neck and face. The fever and loss of blood weakened Foster. He died in Bellevue Hospital three days later at age 37.

In his pocket were 38 cents and a penciled scrap of paper with the words “dear friends and gentle hearts.” Although he died virtually broke, in today’s music world, his songs would earn him millions of dollars annually.

In 1970, Foster was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and in 2010, he made the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

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