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The name Swannee immediately brings Al
Jolson to mind. But there is another song which also refers to this river:
"Way Down Upon the Swannee River", better known as "The Old
Folks at Home", by Stephen Foster who never saw the Suwannee River.
Stephen Foster was
born in 1826 in Pittsburgh,
on a most appropriate date for an American who was to become known for his
all-American songs - July 4th.The family
was prominent in local politics, commerce and the social life. Stephen's
father, William, was a member of the Pennsylvania State Legislature and mayor
of Allegheny City
(a suburb of Pittsburgh).
William and Eliza Foster had eleven children and, following the death of the
youngest, Stephen was then the cherished youngest child.
The whole family was
interested in music, art and literature and it didn't take much encouragement
for the baby of the family to acquire his interest in those arts.Although Stephen showed that music was his
first love, his family merely thought of it as an interesting hobby. What he
learned about music was through his own efforts and not from serious study.
Most of his early boyhood was spent in or near Pittsburgh
with occasional visits to Ohio.
In fact, he spent most of his life in Pittsburgh,
wrote most of his best songs there, and is buried there.
At school he was a rebel.
Unable to adapt to discipline and routine he preferred to study only subjects
which interested him. Unfortunately, music had little place in the curriculum.When he was fourteen and attending the Athens Academy
he wrote his first musical work: The Tioga Waltz. His inspiration for this was
Tioga Point, a local beauty spot. The waltz was arranged for flutes and
presented in a school programme at the Presbyterian Church in Athens in 1841. Stephen played one of the
flutes. Although he had the satisfaction of being enthusiastically applauded,
The Tioga Waltz was not his first published work. It wasn't published until
many years after his death.
His education continued,
mostly with private teachers from whom he learned French, German and painting.
He also worked occasionally in an office or a warehouse. His leisure hours were
devoted to music. His father is quoted as saying, "he possesses a strange
talent". An understatement if ever there was one!
In 1843 he found some verses in a magazine and set them to music. This
was published in 1844 - "Open Thy Lattice, Love". As he probably
didn't earn anything from this, his family felt that music did not hold out
much promise of a life's work.
When he was nineteen he
formed an all-male singing group which met twice a week at the Foster home.
Usually they sang the popular songs of the day, then Stephen began to compose
for them. Two were to make him famous: "Old Uncle Ned" and "Oh!
Susannah".But not for a few years
Eventually Stephen shared his
family's concern about his future and thought he might try a career in the
army. Fortunately, in 1846, he learned that his application for West Point had been rejected. With his family's
encouragement he moved to Cincinnati to become a
bookkeeper in a steamboat agency on the Ohio River.
He was there for three years and they were among the happiest and most
formative of his life.
From his office window he
could see the activity on the river. Passenger boats, freight boats, southern
planters, river men, gold-seekers bound for California. It was no wonder that he began
to write songs and subsequently abandoned a business career to become a
He gave copies of "Old
Uncle Ned" and "Oh! Susannah" (as well as other songs) to
several of his acquaintances. The minstrels sang them, the public loved them,
and the minstrels took them all over the country. And they were published, but without
his consent so he earned nothing. Because he had overlooked the possibility of
financial gain, he had failed to protect his own interests through copyright or
contracts with the publishers.
eventually decided that it was time to profit from his writing and contracted
with the New York
firm of Firth, Pond & Co.
Now that he was devoting
himself to music, he returned to Pittsburgh
and became very ambitious. He worked hard and achieved immediate and
spectacular success. The next six years were the most successful of his entire
life. He wrote over 160 works - songs, compositions, arrangements and
translations. But he was also composing
songs which would never die. Songs such
as "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home", "Massa's in
de Cold Ground", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Old Dog
Tray", "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair".
At about the time of his
return to Pittsburgh,
Stephen Foster contacted the leader of the Christy Minstrels - Edwin P.
Christy. The most famous minstrel band performing in the United States at that time. At
Stephen's suggestion, the Christy Minstrels were to be the first to sing his
new songs and the title pages of those songs would bear the legend, "As
Sung by the Christy Minstrels".
Oh yes, Christy did pay for
this - but only a small sum. Had Stephen Foster been a better businessman there
is no doubt that he could have made a more advantageous bargain.
He also made another bad mistake. In 1851, "Old Folks at Home"
was published. The title page read: "AsSung by Christy's Minstrels - Written and Composed by E.P. Christy".
For the sum of a miserly $15.00 Stephen Foster had sold the right to claim
authorship to Christy. And that was Stephen's idea! A year later when he
realised his mistake - this song was among his best and extremely popular in the
United States and Europe - he asked Christy to cancel the transaction.
Naturally, Christy refused. The mistake wasn't rectified until 1879, fifteen
years after Stephen Foster's death, when the song was re-copyrighted and given
the correct accreditation.
Fortunately, although the
song was originally credited to Christy, the royalties of the sales went to
Foster. During his lifetime he received $1,647.46. After it was re-copyrighted,
his heirs received nearly $2,000. A most profitable work.
The years from 1853 to 1860
were dark days for Stephen Foster. His marriage was rocky, his expenses high
and he began to drink. But, in 1860 he wrote another great work. "Old
Black Joe", a song of intense emotion. Was he singing about his own
problems? Probably. It isn't known whether he was paid cash for this song or
whether he received royalties.
After this he moved to New York but the only
song he wrote during his last four years which we remember is "Beautiful
Dreamer". His career wasn't helped by the Civil War which broke out in
1861. It destroyed the market for his songs.
Stephen Foster was seriously
injured when he fell in his room in the Bowery and, although he was taken to
hospital and died three days later. Aged thirty-seven.
The Stephen Foster Memorial in White Springs, FL.
At the beginning I
said that Stephen Foster never saw the Suwannee River.
So, why write a song about it? The nearest he came to the river was New Orleans, in 1852,
some months after "The Old Folks at Home" was written.In
1851 he was working on a new song for the Christy Minstrels. According to the
first draft, the opening words were, "Way down upon de Pedee
ribber...".Stephen had the Pedee
River of South Carolina in mind. Not satisfied with the name he asked his
brother Morrison for advice. Yazoo
River?Not romantic enough. They opened a map of the
and looked for a southern river with a romantic sounding name. It was Morrison
who pointed to the Suwannee River in Florida.
Except that Stephen shortened it to Swannee to fit the music.