Friday, June 13, 2014

Stephen Foster

Having the interest in Pennsylvania history that I do, I collect Pennsylvania items. Walking through a flea market one day, I came upon a song book for schools. Printed in 1947, the book, Songs of Stephen Foster  edited/arranged by Will Earhart with Edward B. Birge and published by the University of Pittsburgh attracted me because I knew Mr. Foster had been born in Pennsylvania.

When I went to elementary school we learned many of Stephan Foster’s songs: Beautiful Dreamer, Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Homes, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh! Susanna, Old Folks at Homes, and Old Black Joe.

Last Sunday, on a beautiful summer day with the sound of water running, I sat in front of the beautiful gray with red trim mill at Little Buffalo State Park.  I listened to a wonderful concert with some of the above songs and others. Bruce Young, a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Speaker, related incidents from Stephen Foster’s life between renditions of his songs on a five string fiddle, an Appalachian lap dulcimer, a banjo, or a guitar.

Here’s some of what I learned from Mr. Young between the musical bits of delight.  Stephen Foster, born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, spent much of his time in Allegheny City although he moved other places for short times.  He tried going to college and being a bookkeeper but neither became his occupation. He became, instead a full time song writer and did well with it for a while. He wrote his first song in 1839 for flutes and published his first song in 1844. Some of his musical influence came from his family’s slave, Olivia Pise, and from black minstrel shows. The Christy Minstrels made his songs popular by using them in their shows. Unfortunately, near the end of his short 37 year-old life, a number of deaths in the family brought him down low. He became penniless and had to go out on the street to sell his songs.

One of Mr. Foster’s strong character traits was to treat the black people as real people in a time when that rarely happened. Stephan Foster wrote over 200 songs. His life, although short, yielded much rich fruit.

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