January 13, 2012 - Stephen Foster Memorial Day

– U.S.

Stephen Foster (who died on this date in 1864) is known as the Father of American Music. (Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that he was born on the Fourth of July – in 1826.) He wrote songs such as “Oh! Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Swanee River,” “My Old Kentucky Home,” and “Beautiful Dreamer.”

According to Wikipedia, these songs are still popular today, more than 150 years after Foster wrote them. But...I wonder, have YOU ever heard of them? I'm not sure that they are still all that popular or known...

Foster had a pretty wide-ranging education but little instruction in music. However, he was influenced by a classically trained musician who emigrated from Germany and became one of Foster's only music teachers. Also, Foster was influenced by an entertainer who acted as a clown and a blackface singer who traveled with a circus. (Blackface was theatrical makeup that white performers wore in order to create stereotyped caricatures of black people. It was popular for a century in the U.S. and overseas, but eventually people came to see it as racist.)

Foster tried to make a living as a songwriter, but although his songs were very popular during his lifetime, he wasn't able to make much money with them. The music copyright laws and composer royalties of the time were not very fair to creative artists. For example, one highly popular song that became a sort of theme song for the Gold Rush, “Oh! Susanna,” earned Foster only $100. Publishers of sheet music raked in most of the profits for Foster's creative work!

Listen to samples of Foster's songs here

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