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Cheryl Hughes: Beautiful Dreamer

When you visit My Old Kentucky Home in Bardstown, you will see a picture of Stephen Foster on the wall.  You will see a statue of him on the grounds, as well.  If you take the tour, you will be told that he visited the house—previously known as the Federal Home—many times.


               There are articles in various publications that dispute this fact.  They say he was born a Yankee—in Pennsylvania—and remained a Yankee, only traveling to the South on his honeymoon via a steamer on the Mississippi bound for New Orleans (  He was a northerner with the ability to write like a southerner, so to speak.

               As a writer myself, I tend to think you pretty much write what you know, so whether Stephen Foster visited the South or didn’t visit the South, he wrote what he knew.  He knew about life, the life that was going on around him, and that’s what he wrote about.

               His parents were William and Eliza Foster, both came from wealthy families, but would be unable to hold on to that wealth.  They had ten children.  Stephen had four brothers and four sisters, plus one half-brother from a relationship William had before he met Eliza.  Married in 1807, William and Eliza started out well.  1814 finds them purchasing 123 acres of land northeast of Pittsburg, land on which they built their home, which they called White Cottage.  William had a career as a merchant at the time, and things were going well.

               1815 marks the beginning of William’s financial troubles.  He files for reimbursement from the U.S. War Department for supplies he purchased for the Army during the War of 1812.  The Army denies his claim.  There are lawsuits over this dispute that drag on through the courts for years.  1822 finds William managing the Greenburgh Turnpike Company, however the company goes bankrupt and sues William for the company debts. 

               I bring up the father’s ups and downs, because this is the life Stephen Foster is born into, on July 4, 1826—the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  (An interesting side note: both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, founding fathers of our country, died on the very day Stephen Foster was born.)

               In 1830, the Bank of the United States foreclosed on White Cottage.  Young Stephen is four years old, and his family is homeless.  The Fosters will find themselves moving from place to place for years. 

               In 1840, at the age of fourteen, Stephen studies at the Athens Academy in Athens, Pennsylvania.  He stays only a year, then enrolls in Jefferson College, a school his father attended.  He feels like he is too far behind to ever catch up and drops out after a week.  He takes a job as a bookkeeper for his brother’s company in Cincinnati, Ohio, but continues to write songs, hoping something will work out for him as a songwriter.  It does.

               In 1847, Stephen Foster strikes gold with the song, “Oh! Susanna.”  It sweeps the nation and becomes the theme of the California gold rush.  Over 100,000 copies of the song are sold (  “Camptown Races,” “Swanee River,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” follow. 

               In 1855, during a financial downturn in the US, Foster wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More,” later recorded by Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris and others.  In 1861, the Civil War began, and he wrote war songs like, “I’ll Be a Soldier,” and “Was My Brother in the Battle.”  Stephen Foster always seemed to have his finger on the pulse of America. 

               He wrote folk songs, hymns, instrumentals, and songs for children’s collections.  He is known as the father of American music, and if he had had an agent, he would have died a millionaire, but he didn’t.  This was way before songwriters would get a fair share of royalties, and many writers signed those royalties away to cover debts. 

               Stephen Foster died on January 13, 1864, in a hospital in New York City with 38 cents in his pocket and a scrap of paper on which was written, “Dear friends and gentle hearts”—maybe an idea for a new song. 

               On March 10, 1864, William A. Pond and Co. Publishers—the company Stephen Foster signed over his royalties to—published “Beautiful Dreamer,” a song he composed a few days before he died.  It was fitting.  That’s what he was after all—a beautiful dreamer.

               (Unless otherwise noted, all information for this column came from the website.) 



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