Stephen Foster: Selected Songs

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

  • “Beautiful Dreamer”
  • “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”
  • “Nelly Bly”

Stephen Foster was born near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on the Fourth of July, 1826, and by most accounts became the first American to make a living solely by writing music. His songs are part of the foundation of both American classical and popular music, and have influenced musicians ranging from Antonín Dvořák to Bob Dylan.

In 1847, while Foster was working as a bookkeeper for his family’s steamship company, he entered a song, “Oh! Susanna,” into a contest at an ice-cream saloon. It was a hit, spread like wildfire, and became the theme song of the California Gold Rush. Publishing contracts followed, and the early 1850s were Foster’s most successful and productive period, though he was an alcoholic and had frequent conflicts with his wife, Jane. In 1860 the couple separated, and he moved to New York City. He wrote Union anthems through the Civil War, but his standard of living declined as lax copyright enforcement made it difficult to earn money from music publication. In January 1864, he fell unconscious in the squalor of his boarding-house room, hit his head, and died at Bellevue Hospital.

Foster’s music was based in minstrelsy, and many of his songs were written for or popularized by groups that performed in blackface, and include lyrics in fake Black dialect. At the same time, certain abolitionists defended his work, including Frederick Douglass, who thought some of Foster’s songs could “awaken the sympathies for the slave, in which anti-slavery principles take root and flourish.” Foster himself only once visited the South, and his frequent musical evocations of the region are based in imagination. His ballads and parlor songs, meanwhile, often draw from Irish and German dance music, styles popular among European immigrants in the urban North. As his work was absorbed into the American vernacular, even mistaken for folk song, its sources and original context were obscured.

“Beautiful Dreamer” is a late work, likely written in 1862, then misplaced by a publisher and unreleased until after his death. The iconic “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,” written in 1854 and dedicated to Foster’s estranged wife, has been memorably recorded by artists as different as Marilyn Horne and Sam Cooke. “Nelly Bly,” from 1850, is about domestic work and marriage; in the 1880s it inspired the pen name of Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran), a pioneering female journalist and adventurer who went undercover in an insane asylum and traveled around the world in 72 days, besting Jules Verne.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.