Stephen C. Foster: Troubled Troubadour

By Timko, Michael | The World and I, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Stephen C. Foster: Troubled Troubadour


Timko, Michael, The World and I


If one simply listens to the gay, sometimes sentimental ballads and songs of Stephen Collins Foster, one could easily believe that he led a pleasurable and satisfying life, one filled with pleasant memories of "Jeannie with the light brown hair" and "the old folks at home." It is only when Foster's entire musical repertory is brought into focus, and especially his love of "Ethiopian" songs, a euphemism for music that many at that time called by more derogatory names, that the tragic circumstances of his life come into view.

Torn between his parents' and friends' urging to concentrate on going into some kind of business or, if necessary, writing classical music instead of those ballads and minstrel songs he insisted on composing, Foster gradually came to realize that he could exist only by shutting out the rest of the world and live in his own dream world, a world supported by the addiction to alcohol that led to his early tragic death. From this dream world, one that W. E. DuBois called "foster land," emerged a complex continuity from the songs of slaves to Negro spirituals to minstrel songs various kinds of musical fashions: the "cakewalk" of the 1880s, the "coon song" of the 1890s, the "ragtime" of 1900, the "blues" of 1910, and "jazz" of the 1920s.

"Though each new fashion met forms of resistance that exalted Foster and the spirituals in order to condemn modern vulgarity," the musicologist William W. Austin writes, "yet at last there was an inescapable recognition as a strand of continuity, from Foster and other minstrels of his time, to whatever was the latest fad." His influence is found today in the music of popular and classical musicians, including Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Francis Poulenc, and Lucas Foss.

Even the date of his birth seemed to predict success. Stephen Collins Foster was born on the fourth of July. 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, a town just east of Pittsburgh. The ninth of ten children, indulged and pampered by his parents and siblings, Stephen, who evidently disliked school, had little formal education, attending for brief periods Athens Academy and Jefferson College, both near home. Showing more interest in music than in any other subject, he was instead privately tutored.

While his parents and siblings seemed to appreciate Stephen's great interest in music, they also seemed a bit apprehensive about the amount of time he devoted to it and about the kind of music he seemed to enjoy most. This pressure to have Stephen forsake his "strange talent" for something more solid and "respectable" is a theme that runs through the rest of Foster's life. His family was always suggesting ways that he might earn a living that had nothing to do with music. Foster clearly had no desire to do anything else but write the kind of music that made him famous, his minstrel songs.

In spite of perfunctory attempts to appease his parents, Foster became more and more devoted to his "strange talent," especially employing it in minstrelsy. One can guess what his family thought of this interest in what could only be regarded by them and others of their social standing as something to be ashamed of.

Foster's name is inextricably linked to what Carl Wittke, author of Tambo and Bones, calls "the Negro minstrel show." While there were many blackface performers in the United States before 1830, the minstrel show or "Ethiopian opera" was at its zenith between 1840 to 1870, reaching its greatest popularity in the late 1850s when the this genre which so fascinated Foster became connected with the "Uncle Tom shows," the many dramatizations of Mrs. Stowe's popular novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. What one critic calls the "pandemic craze" for these shows reached its zenith at the end of the century when 500 Tom companies were touring the United States, and many actors spent their entire professional lives playing in Uncle Tom.

In his biography of Foster, John Tasker Howard emphasizes the conflict in Foster, a conflict that can be seen in Foster's approach towards these Ethiopian songs. …

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