Stephen Foster was America’s first folk songwriter and one of the most successful songwriters of the 1800s. His songs continue to be popular and he is often considered to be the “father” of American music. The following article was written by Garry Gamber.
“Beautiful Dreamer” was written by Stephen Foster just before his death in 1864 at age 37. The song became one of his most famous and most popular. However, as with the approximately 200 other songs that Foster wrote during his brief lifetime, he did not receive the recognition or financial reward that he deserved.
Stephen Foster was America’s first great songwriter, yet he died with 38 cents in a leather poke and a scrap of paper on which he had written a bit of song lyric, “dear friends and gentle hearts.”
Stephen Collins Foster was born near Pittsburgh on July 4, 1826, the same day that both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died. Foster died in 1864 when he suffered a fall at home while weak from fever. The fall cut open his head and he died in New York’s Bellevue Hospital shortly thereafter. Foster had been suffering from alcoholism for years prior to his accidental death.
Young Stephen was able to play tunes on the guitar at age two, and at age ten he performed popular comic songs with local boys. By age 18 he wrote blackface minstrel songs which were the popular folk music of the day. At age 21 he composed the minstrel song, “Oh! Susanna,” which became a hit, resung, repeated, and whistled across the country. In fact it became the unofficial anthem of the California Gold Rush two years later.
Music publication was in its infancy in those days and music recording didn’t even exist. Stephen Foster did not receive royalties or fees for the many publications or arrangements of “Oh! Susanna” over the next few years. Indeed, he gave away the rights to the song and never received a penny for it.
Over the next ten years Foster wrote many songs, including “The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home),” “Camptown Races,” “Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair,” “Old Black Joe,” “Nelly Bly,” “Old Dog Tray,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Stephen Foster earned a little money by selling his songs outright, some for as little as one dollar. It’s been said that his songwriting earned him about $20,000 during the 15 or so years of his songwriting career.
In 1935 Florida adopted “The Swanee River” as the official state song, though Stephen Foster never visited Florida nor saw the river. He chose “Swanee” because the two syllables fit the music he had written. Foster sold E.P.Christy of the “Christy Minstrels,” a blackface minstrel show troupe, the authorship rights to “The Swanee River,” a regrettable decision.
The song became a popular international folk tune and has been credited with starting the tourist industry in Florida. Beginning in the 1880’s millions of people traveled to Florida to view the famous northern Florida river.
In 1928 Kentucky adopted “My Old Kentucky Home” as their official state song. In 1986 Kentucky changed the second line of the song, “‘Tis summer, the darkies are gay;” to “‘Tis summer, the people are gay;” for obvious reasons.
Because of the popularity of “My Old Kentucky Home” and “The Swanee River,” many people have the impression that Stephen Foster was a southern gentleman. However, he visited the South on only one occasion, a steamboat trip to New Orleans in 1852.
Stephen Foster spent his life mostly in Pennsylvania and New York. His father, William Foster Sr., spent many years in politics, working for President Harrison and winning election to two terms as mayor of Allegheny, Pa.
Prior to the Civil War Stephen Foster helped James Buchanan become President by becoming the musical director of the Buchanan Glee Club and by writing musical pieces for the campaign effort.
During the Civil War Stephen Foster wrote about 70 songs, mostly patriotic war songs which sold poorly. During the war Foster’s alcoholism deteriorated his health until his poverty-stricken death in 1864.
Two months after his death, Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” was published in New York.
Beautiful Dreamer by Stephen Foster
Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all pass’d away!
Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng, —
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea
Mermaids are chaunting the wild lorelie;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.
Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart, —
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
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