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  • Josiah Kirby Lilly and the Foster Hall Collection
  • Mariana Whitmer (bio)

An elderly man, with children and grandchildren gathered about, sits before a newly acquired Orthophonic Victrola. One after another, recent reproductions of [Stephen] Foster's songs by Nathaniel Shilkret's Orchestra and the Victor Singers are rendered. What a flood of memories pour through the mind and heart of him of three score years and ten! . . . Truth compels it to be recorded that silent tears were in evidence and deepest emotions stirred. In the quiet following the "concert" a chance remark made to the family bibliophile proved to be the spark that has brought into being a comprehensive collection of data and material pertaining to the life and work of America's greatest composer of beautiful melodies.

Josiah Kirby Lilly (1861-1948), heir to the Eli Lilly Pharmaceutical Company, described this informal concert of recorded songs by Stephen Collins Foster as the inspiration for collecting Foster's materials, which, in time, led to the expansive distribution and the most comprehensive documentation of his music and life.1 Lilly's collection and related projects have helped to clarify our understanding of Foster and amend some of the myths surrounding his life, while also acquainting the general public with a larger percentage of Foster's music.2 It was Lilly's combined dedication and persistence, along with a sizable bank account, that resulted [End Page 326] in the widespread dissemination of Foster's music that embellished the American cultural landscape during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Figure 1.

Josiah K. Lilly

The recording by Nathaniel Shilkret and the Salon Orchestra Group so closely attended to by Lilly and his family was a notable sampling of Foster's music. Recorded in the early 1930s, it included the songs most popular during the early years of recorded sound, such as "Beautiful Dreamer," "Camptown Races," "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Old Folks at Home." However, it also offered some of Foster's songs that were less often recognized, including "Oh! Lemuel," "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," "Angelina Baker," "The Village Maiden," and "Nelly Was a Lady," among others.3 At the time, it was the most comprehensive recording of Foster's songs, and yet Lilly knew there was more to be appreciated. Thus he devoted vast resources to collecting and preserving Foster's legacy, work that would eventually ignite the imagination of musicians performing and composing in a variety of styles and contexts.

The culmination of Lilly's work in publications was the Foster Hall Reproductions and the Foster Hall Recordings, a complete facsimile printing on special paper of all of Foster's songs that were known in 1933, followed [End Page 327] by a recording of the same.4 Both projects were intended to preserve and make widely accessible all of the earliest available or authentic versions of all of Foster's music. The following discussion of the Reproductions and the Recordings will relate their history as well as their relationship to earlier and contemporary documentations of Foster's music, exploring what influence they may have had on musical life in the first half of the twentieth century.

To understand the collection and its impact, one must begin with an appreciation for their benefactor. A brief biography of Lilly will help us understand how a successful businessman came to benefit the world through his love of Foster. Lilly was devoted to the music of Foster, and he worked tirelessly, without a thought of expense, to ensure that Foster's music would be available to everyone. Josiah Kirby Lilly was born in 1861, shortly before the onset of the Civil War, and died in 1948 just after World War II. Lilly was able to cope with the sadness of departure and the grief of loss that ensued during the wartimes through his lifelong attachment to the music of Stephen Foster. Songs such as "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Beautiful Dreamer" sustained him through happy as well as difficult times. "The songs he heard floating across the DePauw campus...


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