Study Unit Progress

0% Complete
0/4 Steps

Ch. 05: The Importance of Stephen Foster (Demo)


The musical genius of Stephen Foster was in his ability to craft a melody and make a song that was accessible to the public. Certainly, much of this was an innate talent, but the exposure to several styles of music in his early years helped shape his musical thinking. The early studies of classical musicians like Mozart and Beethoven was important; so also was his exposure to the crop of syrup ballads in the 1830s and ’40s.

But perhaps the most influential musical source was the performances of free African-American entertainers in variety stage performances called minstrel shows. The minstrel songs Stephen Foster heard while in his early years shaped his thinking about creating melodies that appealed to the public. Later, songs like “Oh Susanna” and “Camptown Races” were patterned after the syncopated rhythms of the minstrel shows.

But, far from being racially prejudiced, Foster had great respect for African-Americans. One of his best friends from Pittsburgh was a leading abolitionist leader and publisher. Foster’s songs went beyond the simplistic caricature of black performers and acknowledged the emotions and depth of feeling they possessed. One such song, “Nelly Was a Lady” (1849) was a lament of a black man for his deceased wife. It was the first example of a white composer writing a song for a white audience about the deep love between a black man and woman. In it, Foster repeatedly referred to the man’s wife as a “lady,” which in the past had been a term reserved for well-bred white women. His respect for African-Americans must be understood as part of his minstrel songs.

Although known primarily as a song writer, Foster did compose for other instruments, primarily the piano. One collection of 73 songs arranged for piano, violin, flute, and other instruments netted him only $150, a paltry sum for all his effort.

Early Foster songs followed the ballad pattern with some parlor songs and minstrel songs mixed in. In the last two years of his life, he collaborated with a lyricist gifted in writing novelty verse, suitable for the musical theatre shows. Lighthearted songs like “If You’ve Only Got a Mustache” and “There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea” masked the personal anxiety and pain that the composer was experiencing.

In spite of the impact that he had on American popular music, Stephen Foster’s lifetime earnings for his music was barely $15,000, an average of just over $1,300 a year. If today’s copyright laws, royalty payments and performance fees had been in affect, Foster would have been America’s first musical millionaire.

Stephen Foster’s unique ability to craft melodies and lyrics that were sensuous without being silly, energetic without being giddy, and emotional without being sentimental brought popular music in America into the modern era. The tremendous financial success of his songs moved the music publishing industry to a new level of importance. His treatment of the parlor song form helped prepare the stage for the Tin Pan Alley songs of the early 1900s. Finally, his incorporation of the rhythmic syncopation of minstrel songs into popular music paved the way for the evolution of ragtime and the appearance of Scott Joplin.

In his simplicity, Foster was great. Because of his limited musical training, his natural, simple melodies were unencumbered by over-ornamentation. There is no doubt that the modern era of American popular music began with Stephen Foster, the “Father of American Popular Music.”

Scroll to Top
Watch and Learn

Audio/Video Room


Study Units

An Overview

Ch. 1: Understanding Pitch

Ch. 2: Understanding Musical Pulse

Ch. 3: Understanding Volume

Ch. 4: Understanding Tone

Ch. 5: Understanding Melody

Ch. 6: Understanding Harmony

Ch. 7: Understanding Rhythm

Ch. 8: Understanding Bass

Ch. 9: Understanding Countermelody

Ch. 10: Understanding Structure

Ch. 11: Understanding Instrumentation

Ch. 12: Understanding Tempo

An Overview

Ch. 1: 19th Century: Pre-Foster

Ch. 2: Folk Music by the People

Ch. 3: Popular Music in its Infancy

Ch. 4: Stephen Foster – “Father of American Popular Music”

Ch. 5: The Importance of Stephen Foster

Ch. 6: Scott Joplin – “King of Ragtime”

Ch. 7: The Player Piano – Automated Music

Ch. 8: John Philip Sousa – “The March King”

Ch. 9: John Philip Sousa – Recording Artist and Activist

An Overview

Ch. 1: John Lomax – Recording American Roots Music

Ch. 2: Woody Guthrie – “Father of Modern American Folk Music”

Ch. 3: Leadbelly & Pete Seeger: End of the First Wave

Ch. 4: The Kingston Trio – Beginning of the Second Wave

Ch. 5: Joan Baez – “First Lady of Folk Music”

Ch. 6: Peter, Paul & Mary – Balancing the Message

Ch. 7: Robert Zimmerman – The Beginning of an American Icon

Ch. 8: Dylan in New York City

Ch. 9: Dylan after Newport

Ch. 10: The Importance of Dylan

Ch. 11: Folk Music in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: The Roots of Country

Ch. 2: Bristol Beginnings

Ch. 3: The Grand Ole Opry

Ch. 4: Cowboys and the Movies

Ch. 5: Western Swing

Ch. 6: Bluegrass: Hillbilly on Caffeine

Ch. 7: Honky-tonk: Merging Two into One

Ch. 8: The Nashville Sound: Country-Pop

Ch. 9: Rockabilly – Country meets R&B

Ch. 10: Country Feminists Find Their Voice

Ch. 11: The Bakersfield Sound

Ch. 12: Austin “Outlaw” Country

Ch. 13: Neo-Traditionalists at the end of the 20th Century

Ch. 14: Mainstreaming Country in the ‘90s

Ch. 15: Redesigning Country in the 21st Century

An Overview

Ch. 1: What is Jazz?

Ch. 2: Before It Was Jazz

Ch. 3: Jazz is Born!

Ch. 4: Early Jazz Musicians

Ch. 5: Louis Armstrong

Ch. 6: Chicago and Harlem – Hub of 1920s Jazz

Ch. 7: Big Band – Jazz Swing!

Ch. 8: Big Band Musicians and Singers

Ch. 9: Jump Blues and Bop

Ch. 10: Cool Jazz

Ch. 11: Hard Bop

Ch. 12: Free Jazz – Breaking the Rules

Ch. 13: Fusion – The Jazz-Rock-Funk Experience

Ch. 14: Third Stream and World Jazz

Ch. 15: New Age & Smooth Jazz

Ch. 16: Summary – Jazz Lives!

An Overview

Ch. 1: Blues – The Granddaddy of American Popular Music

Ch. 2: Where Did the Blues Come From?

Ch. 3: What Are the Blues?

Ch. 4: How to Build the Blues

Ch. 5: Classic Blues – The Early Years

Ch. 6: Delta Blues – Authentic Beginnings

Ch. 7: Blues in the City – Migration and Power

Ch. 8: Blues in Britain – Redefining the Masters

Ch. 9: Contemporary Blues – Maturity and Respect

Ch. 10: The Relevancy of the Blues Today

Ch. 1: Timelines, Cultures & Technology

Ch. 2: Pre-Rock Influences

Ch. 3: Rock is Born!

Ch. 4: Rock is Named

Ch. 5: Doo-Wop

Ch. 6: Independent Record Labels

Ch. 7: Technology Shapes Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 8: The Plan to Mainstream Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Payola – Rock ‘n’ Roll’s First Scandal

Ch. 1: Crafting Sound in the Studio/Producers and Hit Songs

Ch. 2: West Coast Sound: Beach, Surf, and Teens

Ch. 3: The British Invasion: Two Prongs – Pop & Blues

Ch. 4: Motown and the Development of a Black Pop-Rock Sound

Ch. 5: Soul Music: Gospel and R&B in the Deep South

Ch. 6: The Sounds of Bubble Gum Pop-Rock

Ch. 7: The Arrival of Folk-Rock

Ch. 8: Psychedelic Rock ‘n’ Roll

Ch. 9: Early Guitar Gods of Rock

Ch. 10: Rock Festivals: The Rise and Fall of Music, Peace, and Love

Ch. 11: Anti-Woodstock and Shock Rock Movements

Ch. 1: Technological Breakthroughs

Ch. 2: Electronic Dance Music

Ch. 3: Hip-Hop & Rap – An Introduction

Ch. 4: The Beginnings of Rap

Ch. 5: Old School Rap – Up From the Streets

Ch. 6: Rap’s Golden Age

Ch. 7: East Coast – Political Rap

Ch. 8: West Coast – Gangsta Rap

Ch. 9: The Fragmentation of Rap – Pop, Party & More

Ch. 10: Further Fragmentation – Different Directions

Ch. 11: The Importance of Rap

Ch. 1: Musical Stage Productions in America before the 1800s

Ch. 2: Minstrel Shows and Melodramas

Ch. 3: Stage Presentations in the Late 19th Century

Ch. 4: Early 20th Century: Revues and Operettas

Ch. 5: The Arrival of the Modern American Musical

Ch. 6: Great Partnerships in Book-Musicals

Ch. 7: Musical Theatre Composers in the mid-Century

Ch. 8: Fresh Voices on the Stage in the 1960s

Ch. 9: Two Dominant Forces at the End of the Century

Ch. 10: New Voices at the End of the Century

Ch. 11: New Voices, New Sounds in the New Century

Ch. 12: Musical Theatre Glossary

Ch. 13: Is it “Theatre” or “Theater”?

Study Units also have “Playdecks” – containing hundreds of chronologically organized audio examples of music in the study units, and “Study Qs” for unit chapters.

Study and Test

Testing Library

Contact Form