Stephen Foster: 9 Facts on America's First Pop Artist

January 13th marks Stephen Foster Memorial Day in honor of the man who wrote some of America's most beloved songs of the 19th century.
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Stephen Foster Photo

Stephen Foster (1826-1864) (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Tomorrow marks the U.S. federal observance of Stephen Foster Memorial Day. Stephen Who? you ask. Precisely. Foster, who's dubbed as the “Father of American Music,” is hardly recognizable by name, but his 19th century minstrel and parlor songs have famously lived on over 150 years after his death.

Among the 200-plus songs he penned in his career, some of his most famous are: "Oh! Susanna" (1848), "Camptown Races" (1850), "Old Folks at Home" (1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1852), "Old Black Joe" (1853), "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), and "Beautiful Dreamer" (1864).

Listen to "Oh! Susanna":

Listen to "Old Folks Home" (aka "Suwanee River"):

Foster was a professional songwriter before there was such a thing as sound recording and over half a century before radio came into existence. He was a pioneer in the music business before there was even a music business. Some even call him the first pop artist in America.

To honor Foster and his contribution to American music, we put together some interesting facts about his life and career, so you’ll be able to better appreciate this unsung hero the next time you sing his tunes.

1. Born on July 4, 1826 to a middle class family near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Foster was the second to the youngest of 10 children. When the tenth died as an infant, he became the designated baby of the family.

Stephen Foster Photo

Foster's "Camptown Races" was first sung by the Christy Minstrels. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Foster wasn’t a fan of school and its rote methodology, but he loved music and was an avid reader. In a world before tax-supported public school systems were in place, he was privately tutored and attended private academies. He most likely received some musical training by accomplished German musician Henry Kleber, who had a huge artistic influence in Pittsburgh.

3. When he was a teenager he was part of a secret male society called Knights of the S.T. (Square Table), which met multiple times a week and primarily sang songs. He most likely composed “Oh! Susanna” during this time.

4. At 18 he published his first song "Open Thy Lattice Love." Two years later “Oh! Susanna” was officially published and became his first real hit in Cincinnati, Ohio. At 24, and by now married, he launched his career as a professional songwriter.

5. Some consider Foster the first pop artist. He wanted his songs to have mass appeal and therefore studied poetry and music in various immigrant communities; he was painstakingly meticulous about his arrangement and melodies, sometimes taking months to publish one song.

Stephen Foster Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair Photo

Original sheet music cover for "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." New York: Firth, Pond & Co. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

6. Living during a time in which blackface minstrelsy was pervasive, Foster wrote songs that ushered in refinement and humanity, regardless of race. He created songs in which slave owners and slaves alike conveyed the desire for the same things (home, family, youth, happiness). He tried to forge compassion and understanding in his lyrics — his attitude being largely attributed to his childhood friendship with Pittsburgh abolitionist and artist Charles Shiras.

7. In 1855 hard times came Foster’s way, and he wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More,” out of response. It was in that year he separated from his wife and both his parents died, along with his good friend Charles Shiras. His song output decreased dramatically and his debts to his publishers increased.

8. Penniless and living in and out of hotels in New York City, he died at 37 on January 13, 1864 from a fever and a fall that gave him a gash to his head. In his wallet authorities found a scrap of paper that had scribbled on it: “Dear friends and gentle hearts.” He had 38 cents to his name. One of his most famous songs, “Beautiful Dreamer,” was published after his death.

9. With no extensive copyright laws to protect his work, he made a little over $15,000 in royalties in his lifetime. Today his songs would be worth millions.