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

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To fully understand the role of Stephen Foster, it is important to realize that no great popular music was ever written without two crucial elements: a memorable melody and accessible lyrics. Prior to Foster, these two elements were absent from most American parlor songs.

This is not to say that there were not memorable melodies in early 19th century music. Many folk songs and spirituals contained melodic ideas that have remained in public consciousness for over a century.

But the melodic efforts of the popular tune-smiths in the early decades of the 19th century were overworked, self-absorbed and manipulatively melodramatic. The melodies and lyrics of “Woodsman,” “Blind Orphan Girl,” and “The Old Armchair” tugged incessantly at the emotions like a histrionic adolescent. Although at the time they were accepted as the finest standards of American popular song, removed from that era, they are nothing more than curious museum pieces, no more in touch with today’s reality than women’s corsets or men’s shoe spats.

Into this era of flourishing melodic embellishments and flowery sentimentalism arrived a young man who was to turn American popular music towards a less affected path of emotion.

Stephen Foster was born outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 4, 1826 (the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the exact day that both former presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died). Growing up in a middle class family, Foster and his nine siblings were well exposed to music; his sister and father both played the violin and Stephen took piano lessons. His attempts to study the music of Mozart and Beethoven on his own were augmented when a local music teacher transplanted from Germany began to give him formal musical training. However, the predominant attitude in Foster’s family was the same as in most American homes at the time: music is a luxury and an entertainment, but certainly not a career.

Although Stephen Foster published his first song at age 16, his career path had been selected for him: bookkeeper. At age 20 he moved to Cincinnati to become bookkeeper for his brother’s store. While in Cincinnati, Foster was hunted down by W.C. Peters, the publisher of his first song years earlier. Foster was so excited the publisher showed an interest in his songs that he literally gave a dozen or more songs to Peters for the possibility of seeing them in print. Peters published the songs, which included the classic “Oh Susanna,” in a collection and earned over $10,000 from the first printing. However, not only did Peters keep all the profits for himself, but Stephen Foster’s name was not included on any song as composer.

The success of the collection did encourage Foster to quit his job as bookkeeper and decide to try his hand as a writer of parlor songs; he became America’s first professional songwriter.

In New York Foster found a more reputable music publisher and signed a contract to receive a respectable royalty for his compositions. Traveling music groups such as Christy’s Minstrels regularly performed Foster’s songs, further aiding in their exposure and sales. Foster moved back to Pittsburgh, married a physician’s daughter, and had a daughter. His popularity as America’s foremost songwriter was established, his personal life seemed secure and grounded, and Stephen Foster seemed to be on the verge of becoming America’s most successful composer.

Stephen Foster’s “Oh! Susanna” attributed to Wells.

The legal right for a composer to own, publish, and gain financially from his composition was not established until the early part of the 20th century. In Foster’s day, a composer could have his songs picked up by any unscrupulous publisher and never see any financial gain from its printing. Unfortunately, the same naivete which caused him to give songs to Peters without compensation was part of his professional downfall. Many songs which should have gone first to his New York publisher were published by another company and attributed to someone other than Stephen Foster. With no copyright law to protect his work, any publisher could print sheet music or lyrics without Foster having any legal recourse or financial compensation. So popular was “Oh! Susanna” that as many as two dozen other companies and individuals claimed legal ownership of the song between 1848 and 1851.

In spite of early success with the New York publisher, Foster’s life began to fall apart. After being taken advantage of by several publishers, his home life began to be a place of pressure and reminded shortcomings. Foster became an alcoholic, which put further pressure on his home life and prevented him from meeting his publisher’s deadlines. Leaving his wife and daughter in Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster moved to New York City to be closer to the industry and perhaps increase his chances of financial remuneration for his work. Increased debts forced him to sell ownership rights to songs before he wrote them.

The separation from his wife became permanent when she divorced him in 1862. When his contract with his publishing company expired, Stephen was reduced to composing his songs on a freelance arrangement, selling each for whatever the music publisher might offer, and then taking the money to buy enough alcohol to feed his addiction for a few days. When he once again was sober, he would write another song and the cycle would begin again.

On January 13, 1864, Stephen Foster died in a run-down New York apartment. He had thirty-eight cents in his pocket. If he had been born a century later, he would have been a millionaire several times over. He was a victim in spite of his own success.

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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”?

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