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Stephen Foster: Pioneering American Composer.

On Jan. 13, 2004, The Center for American Music along with Allegheny Cemetery and the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Theatre Arts commemorated the 140th anniversary of Stephen Foster's death with a number of special events.

It would not be appropriate to regard Stephen Foster as anything less than a great pioneer of American music composition.  He created in his lifetime what would become some of the world’s most popular music for the next century and a half to follow. If he had access to today’s copyright laws and publishing network, Foster would be earning millions a year, but in his day he would only see profits from the direct sales of his sheet music ( 5 – 10 cents a sheet ) or from the outright sale of a song to a publisher. Foster kept extensive records of his business. His contracts, written out in his own hand are examples of the earliest ones known to exist between American music publishers and individual songwriters. He died financially broke at the age of 37, but he left behind a priceless legacy.

More than just a successful songwriter, Stephen Foster had a purpose; to reform a style of entertainment that had already taken a strong hold on American popular culture: the black-face minstrel show.  In his own words, he wanted to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order.”  Foster also studied the different ethnic music and poetic styles prevalent among the new immigrant populations of the United States as well. He wanted to write music using images and a musical vocabulary that would be widely understood by all groups. He sought to humanize the characters in his songs, to have them care for one another, and to convey a sense that all people--regardless of their ethnic identities or social and economic class--share the same longings and needs for family and home.

Although he was exploited by the entrepreneurs of his day, and modern public opinion is sometimes misdirected against him out of politically correct ignorance, we must always remember the spirit of Foster’s work, and forever marvel at the beauty and elegance of his words and music.

For more details on the life of Stephen Foster and his music, please visit the website for the Center For American Music.