July 4, 1826, dawned as a very special day in the life of America; the date signified, of course, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.    In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, it was the day that Stephen Collins Foster was born. From a very early age, little Stephen demonstrated a talent for music, plinking away at the family piano. When the Foster family moved to Ohio aboard a steamboat, Stephen became enamored of the folk songs sung by the deck hands.

Unimpressed with Stephen’s endless tune-tinkering, his father warned him that music-making would never provide him income sufficient to support a family.      But in spite of this, Foster, now grown, began composing for troupes of black-face minstrels who seasonally visited every port of call along the inland waterways. E. P. Christy, a well-known impresario of these white troubadours, commissioned several early Foster works, and cleverly conned the innocent composer out of his copyrights.    Still, the two men were to collaborate for several years.

That Stephen Foster’s catchy tunes quickly caught the nation’s ear is confirmed by a New York newspaper, which groused about his everywhere-present songs that were warbled, hummed, and sung nearly everywhere. His tunes include well-known songs such as “Old Folks at Home” “Way Down Upon the Swanee River” “Camptown Races” “My Old Kentucky Home” “Old Susanna”    “Nelly Bly” “Old Black Joe” and hundreds of others that have since faded into obscurity.

In the summer of 1850 Foster married Jane McDowell, soon to be immortalized as “I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair.”    They produced a daughter, their sole offspring.    But shortly afterwards, he left his wife and child, choosing to pursue his musical calling in New York City.

Merchants National Bank

Although Foster’s fame peaked during the 1850s with single published song sheets sometimes selling more than 100,000 copies each, as the Civil War erupted and worsened, so did his luck.    He often sold rights to his songs for a pittance, wasting even that paltry income on drink.    Nothing he now wrote seemed to capture anyone’s fancy, for his public was caught up in the horrors of war, and military marches and stirring patriotic songs became the rage.

One late night in 1864 a policeman patrolling the streets off Broadway heard groans from the rude cellar where Foster dwelt, and found Foster lying on the floor, bleeding at the neck.    He had apparently fallen, shattering a glass pitcher and gashing himself in the throat.    Although he was transported to the hospital, Foster died within hours. At the moment of his death, he had 38 cents in his possession – one penny for each year of his life.    In his trousers pocket was a scrap of paper with a simple fragment written on it:    “Dear friends and gentle hearts…..”

Foster’s death was as his birth had been – unnoted and unsung.    But during his brief career he had, for a time, actually made a modest living with his craft – one of the first Americans to do so.    More than 200 of his songs appeared in print.    He was among the first composers to depict black persons as experiencing genuine pain, sorrow, love, and joy.    He wrote about the masses and he wrote for popular enjoyment.    His work fostered the mid-century interest in parlor singing, and his easy pieces were readily performed on newly-affordable musical instruments.

In sum, Stephen Collins Foster did much to make music a shared national experience.    Fortunately for his times and ours, he was a “Beautiful Dreamer” even when “hard times came knocking at his door.”