Steven Foster died on January 13 in 1864 at the age of 37 (1826-1864). Reports are inconsistent; some say that he was a godly man who never drank while other reports said he was an alcoholic and died from complications. What is known is that his brother Morrison sought to white-wash Steven’s reputation after his death to protect the family name. To this day, there are Steven Foster memorials across the United States and folk singers everywhere play his music. I even try to strum out a few of his tunes whenever I get the patience to sit and tune my guitar.
If you turn on any radio or TV program this time of year you are bound to hear about Steven Foster. He is considered the first American musician. Not only is this a Eurocentric and ethnocentric view, but an examination of his life is a case study of how the facts may have been changed over the last 150 years. His brother readily admitted to changing the facts, and many other indigenous musicians had been playing music for hundreds, if not thousands, of years before him. And according to his brother, if it wasn’t “theirs” it wasn’t music, whatever that meant.
Steven Foster and his family were supporters of slavery despite being born and raised in the north-eastern United States. He spent much of his childhood near Buffalo, New York, and later in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Many of his songs had racist lyrics and many of these were changed over the years. In 1928 Kentucky adopted his song, My Old Kentucky Home, as their official state song. And Old Folks at Home was approved as the official state song of Florida 7 years later, but because of its racist lyrics, the words were changed. Still today, it is the official Florida state song and Florida (Where the sawgrass meets the sky) is the official Florida anthem.
Despite what little is known about him and his beliefs, regardless of whether he was indeed the father of American music, Steve Foster did write some of the classics of American music that have withstood the test of time. One of his songs “Oh! Susanna” became the theme song of the California gold rush. Charlotte Suzanna (1809-1829) was one of his older sisters and may be the original Susanna. Steven was only 3 when Charlotte Suzanna passed away. Oh! Susanna was written when he was living in Cincinnati and he was paid $100. However, his publisher later agreed to pay him 2 cents for every sheet of sheet music that was sold so, on this basis, he became America’s first professional songwriter.
This is always a difficult area; do we ignore a person’s musical output and life’s work because they happen(ed) to have archaic and racist views or just chalk it up to his narrow and somewhat controlled early life where alternative perspectives were not readily available?
Steven Foster was certainly prolific. He wrote four of the most loved songs that were later sung by the Confederate forces during the American Civil war- “The Pure, The Bright, The Beautiful”; “Over The River”; “Give Us This Day”; and “What Shall The Harvest Be?”.
His songs have been played by many of the world’s greatest musicians including Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and perhaps the greatest folk singer ever, Pete Seeger. Here is a listing of some of Steven Foster’s songs that even I can play on my guitar- and I am very limited in my talents (they only have 3 or 4 chords). I consider these campfire songs and despite their original questionable lyrics, their tunes live on at every campsite.
“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair“, about his wife Jennie.
“My Old Kentucky Home“, and this is an anti-slavery ballad.
“Oh! Susanna “