Stephen Collins Foster. They called them minstrel songs. How could they have known? They were actually the most beautiful ballads ever written by an American. Curse history for what it lies to us about.

He was born July 4, 1826. The Fourth of July is really a celebration of his birth. Don't let them tell you otherwise. He died in January of 1864. See, folks didn't live that long back then. You think you'll live to be 150, don't you? You're going to be one miserable son of a bitch, I can tell you that, if you make it.

Foster went to a black church with his family's servant. This is where he picked up a lot of his ideas about what music should be. See, that wouldn't happen now, would it? A servant taking the young little massah to church with her. What were his parents thinking? Maybe your whole idea of race relations in America is a funked up mess; ever think of that? No, I guess not.

He sold Oh, Susannah for $100. The publisher made $10,000 on it. Sort of like a Hillary! cattle futures deal, isn't it?

Well, little Stephen died broke and drunk, as so many of us will. (Ooops, didn't mean to let that little secret out about old dannye...) But he left behind such classics as Camptown Races, My Old Kentucky Home, Old Black Joe, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, and Beautiful Dreamer.

Oooh, that mean ol' dannye! How dare he beat me to this writeup! mumblemumblemumble

American songwriter (1826-1864). Born on the Fourth of July near Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh), he had little musical training, but a great gift for melody, able to learn any tune by ear. He taught himself how to play the clarinet at the age of 6, composed "The Tioga Waltz" when he was 14, and published his first song--"Open Thy Lattice, Love" just two years later.. His family tolerated his fascination with music, but never really understood it, making him promise, when he went away to school, that he would limit his music studies to after 8 o'clock at night.

Foster wrote a number of songs for "minstrel shows", in which white entertainers performed in blackface, partly because he wanted to improve the quality of the music and partly because he enjoyed the songs he heard sung by slaves in the Old South. This earned him a bit of money, but he was a lousy businessman, selling many of his most famous songs for a mere pittance.

He worked for his brother in Cincinnati for a while as a bookkeeper, but when "Oh, Susannah" became a hit during the California gold rush, he became popular enough that he was able to work as a composer full-time. Unfortunately, his business sense remained a joke, and he took a nosedive into alcoholism. Though he wrote more than 200 songs, he died in poverty.

Many of Foster's most popular songs are still remembered today, including "Oh, Susannah", "Camptown Races", "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair", and "Beautiful Dreamer". Many others, including "Swanee River", "Massa's in de Cold Ground", and "Old Black Joe" have become pushed aside as painful reminders of American slavery, which is too bad. Foster's songs about slaves were simple, heartfelt, affectionate, and often deeply moving. "Old Black Joe", in particular, is a beautiful song, and it's a pity that it's being forgotten. Foster's songs were once considered American standards, but there is now little hope that his music will still be remembered at the beginning of the next century...

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