Stephen Foster Really Did Write Songs the Whole World Sang

By Behe, Rege | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, June 28, 2009 | Go to article overview

Stephen Foster Really Did Write Songs the Whole World Sang


Behe, Rege, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


The building sits in the perpetual shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, wrought from Indiana limestone, punctuated by stained- glass windows designed by Charles J. Connick. Dedicated in 1937, it is passed every day by thousands of commuters and students who give it little, if any, thought.

Little do they know of the wonders inside the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum: notebooks, sketches and instruments used to craft the most notable songs from a country less than a century old. Deane L. Root, director of the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, calls the music of Stephen Foster the United State's first great cultural export to the rest of the world.

"He was America's first superstar," says Root, who is also the curator of the Foster memorial.

Born on the Fourth of July in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, Foster wrote songs that are the bedrock of American music. From "Oh! Susanna" and "Beautiful Dreamer" to "Camptown Races" and "Old Folks at Home (Swanee River)," his work left an indelible imprint on the consciousness of all musicians who came after him..

"I am overwhelmed by what a great songwriter he is," says Ernie Hawkins, the blues musician from Point Breeze. "We take so much of what he did for granted. These songs are part of the air we breathe, and what do you take more for granted that? It's our skin."

Little-known celebrity

The man who wrote those songs is lesser known. An enigmatic figure with a singular devotion to songcraft, Foster began writing as a member of the Knights of the Square Table, an informal group he formed with his brother, Morrison, and a close friend, Charles Shiras, when he was a teenager. Foster wrote "Oh! Susanna" in this period, and published his first song, "Open Thy Lattice Love," when he was 18.

From then on, songwriting was the focus of his life.

"He would get very impatient with people who interrupted him," Root says. "He was notorious for having shouting fits if somebody tried to get his attention to do something while he was working. They didn't seem to understand this was work, and it took his whole concentration to write. He was supporting his family with his songs."

Foster's singular devotion to his craft did not yield much in terms of monetary rewards. In his lifetime, he earned between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 cents on the sales of sheet music of his songs -- after the costs of printing were covered. He was paid $15,091.08 in royalties for work that would be worth millions of dollars today.

"You write a song today, you get paid -- publishing rights, performing rights, mechanical rights," Root says. "But none of that existed for Foster. And what's more, he didn't own the copyright, it was his publisher's. ... There were 21 different publishers who put out 'Oh! Susanna.' One of them paid him $100 -- that's all he got. And the publisher bragged about making $10,000 that first year."

Carol Lee Espy, a singer and songwriter based in the North Hills, views Foster as setting a standard for future generations, even though he was poorly compensated.

"He actually made money as a songwriter and was one of the first to make publishing deals," Espy says, noting the little money Foster accrued from his talents during his lifetime. "He started something. It was like, you're going to remunerate me for my creative efforts. He was setting up the infrastructure of how we deal with intellectual property."

Staying in the shadows

Foster's fortunes would have been healthier if he had chosen to be a performer as well as a composer. Root says Foster was a competent singer with a light baritone, but was not operatic. People knew Foster's name from sheet music, but he was rarely recognized in public because of his inordinate shyness and refusal to perform in front of audiences.

Once, at a Halloween ball, his wife, Jane, searched in vain for her husband. …

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