Stephen Collins Foster Biography

Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as the "father of American music", was an American songwriter primarily known for his parlour and minstrel music. Foster wrote over 200 songs; among his best known are "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", "Massa's in the Cold Ground", "Nelly Bly", "Old Uncle Ned" and "Beautiful Dreamer". Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them.

Foster attended private academies in Allegheny, Athens and Towanda, Pennsylvania. He received an education in English grammar, diction, the classics, penmanship, Latin and Greek, and mathematics. In 1839, his elder brother William was serving his apprenticeship as an engineer at nearby Towanda and thought Stephen would benefit from being under his supervision. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens, and 15 miles from Towanda. Stephen attended Athens Academy from 1839 to 1841. He wrote his first composition, Tioga Waltz, while attending Athens Academy, and performed it during the 1841 commencement exercises; he was 14. It was not published during the composer's lifetime, but it is included in the collection of published works by Morrison Foster. In 1842, Athens Academy was destroyed in a fire.

His education included a brief period at Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania (now Washington & Jefferson College). His tuition was paid, but Foster had little spending money. Sources conflict on whether he left willingly or was dismissed; but, either way, he left Canonsburg to visit Pittsburgh with another student and didn't return.

During his teenage years, Foster was influenced greatly by two men. Henry Kleber (1816–1897), one of Stephen’s few formal music instructors, was a classically trained musician who emigrated from Darmstadt, Germany, to Pittsburgh and opened a music store. Dan Rice was an entertainer, a clown and blackface singer, making his living in traveling circuses. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at a piano, writing and singing minstrel songs through the night. Eventually, Foster learned to blend the two genres to write some of his best-known work.