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  • Editors' Introduction
  • Mariana Whitmer and Deane Root

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Stephen Foster

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826-January 13, 1864) was the first full-time songwriter in the United States, and still one of the most significant in the nation's history. As the editors of the chapter titled "Stephen Foster's Legacy" wrote in Music in the USA: A Documentary Companion, "A broad multicultural public heard itself in the songs written by Stephen Foster . . ., who forged a synthesis among a variety of styles—from Thomas Moore's Irish parlor songs and bel canto Italian opera to blackface minstrelsy and revival hymns . . . Foster's songs were as common as bread on the table."1 Another musicologist summed up the wide spread of Foster's songs throughout the country thus: "Never before, and rarely since, did any music come so close to being a shared experience for so many Americans."2 [End Page 269]

Foster's legacy and the documentation of his life and works have been the object of some of the most remarkable philanthropic acts in American music history, manifest in the building, library, and programs of the Stephen C. Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh, initially funded from 1937 by pharmaceutical manufacturer Josiah Kirby Lilly.3 The summary of Foster's life and career, a description of his compositions and their various genres, a list of his complete works, and an extensive bibliography of major research publications from the nineteenth century to the present may be found in his entry in the second edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music.4 What is more relevant for this journal is the assessment there of Foster's reception and influence, the two factors that have given rise to the cultural interpretations of his music from the mid-nineteenth century to the present that are explored by the articles in this issue of American Music. Foster's songs have reflected both supremely positive and negative social morals, practices, and qualities, sometimes simultaneously for the same listeners. They have therefore been beloved by many and reviled by others, while circulating globally from his time to ours.

Minstrel performers created an early demand for songs by Foster beginning in 1848, and it was the dialect versions of his music that flooded the market and seemed to be "on everybody's tongue." In 1864 Harper's New Monthly Magazine announced his death saying, "The air is full of his melodies. They are our national music."5 Foster's contemporaries found his tunes to be "effortless and sincere," "catchy," "a mingling of sincere pathos and whimsical consolation," with "pacific and kindly words."6 Fellow songwriter George F. Root credited Foster with having pioneered the creation of the "people's song," words and music that seemed simple, combined in such a way "that it will be received and live in the hearts of the people."7

Foster's songs are prominent in discussions of cultural perspectives on race in 1840s and 1850s America, "a lens through which to read" the era's political controversies.8 Some historians portray Foster as sensitive to social approbation, crafting "refined" lyric sentiments about family, young women, or slaves; others argue that Foster, like Mark Twain, has been "hypercanonized," that he helped popularize working-class racist language and sentimentalize slavery.9

The popularity of Foster's songs prompted imitations and outright pirating. Arrangements and adaptations flooded the market and influenced song composition and performance.10 Piano variations and band arrangements were ubiquitous, and the melodies also inspired contrafacta for political and social purposes such as electoral campaigns, abolition rallies, and temperance meetings. Songs such as "Old Folks at Home" and "My Old Kentucky Home" acquired new connotations when theatrical companies interpolated them into staged versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin.11 [End Page 270] These uses disseminated the musical and textual language of the songs throughout antebellum American social and political culture.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Foster's songs spread rapidly to distant countries. "Oh! Susanna" was especially popular, easily transmitted, and translated. Documented performances were heard as far away as Panama, Japan, Greece, and in Malta where it was...


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