Foster, Stephen

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Foster, Stephen Gender: M
Stephen Collins Foster
born on 4 July 1826 at 12:30 (= 12:30 PM )
Place Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 40n26, 80w0
Timezone LMT m80w0 (is local mean time)
Data source
Quoted BC/BR
Rodden Rating AA
Collector: Rodden
Astrology data s_su.18.gif s_cancol.18.gif 12°07' s_mo.18.gif s_cancol.18.gif 05°27 Asc.s_libcol.18.gif 15°39'

Stephen Foster


American composer and lyricist of popular music that serves as the standard for homespun sentimentality and American nostalgia. The man who wrote "Oh!, Susanna" and "Camptown Races" was the world's first professional songwriter to earn his living by composing popular songs that he did not perform and the first to be paid in royalties rather than flat fees.

Foster was one of four sons of William Barclay Foster, a prominent but unsuccessful merchant in Pittsburgh and Elizabeth Clayland Tomlinson of Wilmington, Delaware. When he was about five the family moved to a Pittsburgh suburb in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, where Foster spent most of his life. While browsing through the music store of Smith and Mellor in Pittsburgh, seven year old Foster idly picked up a tin whistle and suddenly demonstrated precocious musical skill by playing "Hail Columbia" within minutes in perfect time and meter without ever handling one before. Before long he was proficient in flute and piano, publishing his first song "Open Thy Lattice" at age 16. Throughout his youth his formal education focused on practical studies, with music serving only as a hobby.

After attending Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, Foster moved to Cincinnati in 1845 to work as a clerk in his brother's office. During this year Foster wrote "Uncle Ned" and in 1846 the publication of "Oh! Susanna" put Foster's lyrics on the lips of performers and everyday people all over the world. These two songs made music proprietor W.C. Peters of Cincinnati over ten thousand dollars and ensured financial success for the 20-year-old composer and lyricist. Returning to Allegheny in 1848, Foster devoted himself to music exclusively. While he was intrigued with the African American slave culture and what he referred to as Ethiopian music, his anti-abolitionist family did not share his sentiments.

In 1850 Foster married Jane Denny McDowell. After receiving attractive offers from music publishers in New York, Foster and his wife moved there soon after their wedding. He was paid a certain sum for every song he wrote, in addition to royalties on printed copies. His strong ties to home and mother called him back to Allegheny one year later, selling his home and furniture within 24 hours of making his decision to pull up stakes. Meanwhile, Foster's father, who had served as mayor of Allegheny, had fallen on hard times. Even renowned relative and lawyer James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, could not save him from bankruptcy as a result of his poor financial management.

Morrison Foster, in his memoirs on his brother in 1896, wrote an anecdote regarding the naming of what is probably Foster's most famous song. "One day in 1851, Stephen came into my office, on the banks of the Monongahela, Pittsburgh, and said to me: 'What is a good name of two syllables for a Southern river? I want to use it in this new song of "Old Folks at Home."' I asked him how Yazoo would do. 'Oh,' said he, 'that has been used before.' I then suggested Pedee. "Oh, pshaw' he replied, 'I won't have that." I then took down an atlas from the top of my desk and opened the map of the United States. We both looked over it and my finger stopped at the Swanee, a little river in Florida emptying into the Gulf of Mexico. 'That's it, that's it exactly,' exclaimed he, delighted, as he wrote the name down; and the song was finished, commencing, 'Way Down Upon the Swanee Ribber." It was this song that caught the attention of E. P. Christy of New York, who conducted popular black-face minstrel shows. Contacting Foster, Christy requested a song from Foster that Christy could sing before it was published. Foster agreed for the sum of $500, after which the song, "Old Folks At Home" was published by Firth, Pond & Company of New York. Foster and his heirs collected on the royalties for 42 years.

Although Foster commanded a princely income for his time, it was never commensurate with his fame.

Foster remained in Allegheny until 1860. During these years he and his wife had a daughter and then subsequently separated, apparently due to Foster's heavy drinking. His wife Jane (with the light brown hair), was to appear intermittently in Foster's life over the next four years.

Moving again to New York, Foster slipped into a shadow life of alcohol abuse and gradual decline. As improvident as his father, he often overdrew on his account with his publisher, selling several of his copyrights for a lump sum in order to support his wife and daughter. Dressed in his brother's cast-off clothing, he resided at the New England Hotel at the corner of Bayard Street and the Bowery. Spending his days in a bar in lower Manhattan, his diet consisted of homemade rum, concocted by the bartender of French spirits blended with brown sugar, and the occasional meal of raw turnips and apples. Lacking paper, he penned his songs on discarded wrapping material. His health began to deteriorate; his frequent bouts of fever and ague, although diagnosed as malaria, was more likely tuberculosis. Still capable of transforming a commonplace sentiment into a best-selling popular tune, he began writing "Beautiful Dreamer" during the wee hours of New Year's Day, 1864.

Ill health brought Foster back to his room early on the evening of 1/9/1864. The following morning, a maid delivering towels found him lying naked in a pool of blood. He had apparently collapsed while washing himself, with shards of glass from the shattered bowl gashing his throat and bruising his head. His friend George Cooper was summoned, who later claimed that when Foster spoke through his delirium, he said "I'm done for," and then asked for a drink. The doctor, who was stitching Foster's throat wound with sewing thread, ordered no alcohol be given, but Cooper took the matter into his own hands. "I decided this doctor was not much good," Cooper wrote "and I went downstairs and got Steve a big drink of rum, which I gave him and which seemed to help him a lot." Foster was taken to New York Bellevue Hospital where he told Cooper a few days later that nothing had been done for him and that he was unable to eat. Alone and destitute, Foster died at approximately 1:00 AM on 1/13/1864. Loyal friend George Cooper had to search for the body in the hospital morgue.

Link to Wikipedia biography


  • role played of/by Ameche, Don (born 31 May 1908). Notes: 1939 film "Swanee River"


  • Death by Disease 13 January 1864 (Alcohol, illness, age 37)
    chart Placidus Equal_H.

Source Notes

"Brotherhood of Light," Book XI, p.194, "recorded in the family Bible." Given as "on a family farm near Lawrenceville, which later became part of Pittsburgh"

Sy Scholfield quotes same in "Chronicles of Stephen Foster's family" by Evelyn Foster Morneweck (Published for the Foster Hall Collection by the University of Pittsburgh Press, 1944): "Stephen was born at 12:30 P.M."


  • Traits : Mind : Child prodigy (Musically precocious)
  • Traits : Mind : Education limited (Little musical education)
  • Diagnoses : Major Diseases : Tuberculosis (Probably TB)
  • Diagnoses : Psychological : Abuse Alcohol (Heavy addiction; fatal)
  • Family : Relationship : Number of Marriages (One)
  • Family : Parenting : Kids 1-3 (One daughter)
  • Lifestyle : Financial : On the edge (Poor businessman, poverty)
  • Vocation : Business : Clerk/ Typist (Clerk)
  • Vocation : Entertain/Music : Composer/ Arranger
  • Vocation : Entertain/Music : Song writer
  • Vocation : Writers : Poet
  • Notable : Extraordinary Talents : For Music (Wrote songs that endured in time)
  • Notable : Famous : First in Field (America's first fully professional songwriter)
  • Notable : Famous : Top 5% of Profession (Songwriter)
  • Notable : Book Collection : American Book