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The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster

A Revealing Portrait of the Forgotten Man Behind "Swanee River," "Beautiful Dreamer," and "My Old Kentucky Home"

JoAnne O'Connell

The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster offers an engaging reassessment of the life, politics, and legacy of the misunderstood father of American music. Once revered the world over, Foster’s plantation songs, like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home,” fell from grace in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement due to their controversial lyrics. Foster embraced the minstrel tradition for a brief time, refining it and infusing his songs with sympathy for slaves, before abandoning the genre for respectable parlor music. The youngest child in a large family, he grew up in the shadows of a successful older brother and his president brother-in-law, James Buchanan, and walked a fine line between the family’s conservative politics and his own pro-Lincoln sentiments. Foster lived most of his life just outside of industrial, smoke-filled Pittsburgh and wrote songs set in a pastoral South—unsullied by the grime of industry but tarnished by the injustice of slavery.

Rather than defining Foster by his now-controversial minstrel songs, JoAnne O’Connell reveals a prolific composer who concealed his true feelings in his lyrics and wrote in diverse styles to satisfy the changing tastes of his generation. In a trenchant reevaluation of his NewYork Bowery years, O’Connell illustrates how Foster purposely abandoned the style for which he was famous to write lighthearted songs for newly popular variety stages and music halls. In the last years of his life, Foster’s new direction in songwriting stood in the vanguard of vaudeville and musical comedy to pave the way for the future of American popular music. His stylistic flexibility in the face of evolving audience preferences not only proves his versatility as a composer but also reveals important changes in the American music and publishing industries.

An intimate biography of a complex, controversial, and now neglected composer,
The Life and Songs of Stephen Foster is an important story about the father of American music. This invaluable portrait of the political, economic, social, racial, and gender issues of antebellum and Civil War America will appeal to history and music lovers of all generations.
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Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Pages: 496Size: 6 x 9
978-1-4422-5386-5 • Hardback • September 2016 • $45.00 • (£29.95)
978-1-4422-5387-2 • eBook • September 2016 • $42.00 • (£27.95)
JoAnne O’Connell has a background in history and classical vocal music. She earned her PhD at the University of Pittsburgh where she began researching her revisionist biography of the Pittsburgh born composer Stephen Collins Foster. She has taught at colleges and universities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, and currently spends her time researching and writing.
Chapter 1: Pioneer Elites
Chapter 2: Foreclosure and the Death of Charlotte
Chapter 3: All Up and Down the Whole Creation
Chapter 4: Schooling in Brother William’s Sunshine
Chapter 5: At Home in Allegheny
Chapter 6: Musical Bookkeeper
Chapter 7: The Awakening in Cincinnati
Chapter 8: Non-Companionate Marriage
Chapter 9: “Swanee River,” E. P. Christy, and Sentimental Minstrelsy
Chapter 10: Shiras and the Antislavery Impulse
Chapter 11: Piano Girls and Parlor Songs
Chapter 12: Hoboken and Deaths in the Family
Chapter 13: The Buchanan Glee Club
Chapter 14: Royalties Sellout
Chapter 15: New York “Potboilers”
Chapter 16: War Songs and Copperhead Relatives
Chapter 17: The Foster – Cooper “Song Factory”
Chapter 18: Concert Saloons and Variety Music
Chapter 19: Last Days on the Bowery
Chapter 20: Accidental Death or Suicide?
Epilogue: What Came Afterwards
Almost everyone knows something about Stephen Foster (1826–64), but unfortunately much of that information is either incorrect or vastly oversimplified. Many believe that Foster, the first American popular songwriter to make his living entirely from composing, was a Southerner. In fact Foster lived most of his life near Pittsburgh. Everyone knows he wrote minstrel and plantation songs that are now considered racist, but few know that he also wrote songs in support of Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause, not to mention sentimental parlor songs, comic songs for the stage, and hymns. O’Connell’s rich retelling of Foster’s story covers all this. Foster’s brother, Morrison Foster, destroyed hundreds of family letters, leaving wide gaps in the songwriter’s life story. O’Connell fills those gaps by examining musical, political, economic, and social writings of the day, and she addresses the thorny issues of race and gender. She refutes earlier claims that nearly all of Foster’s compositions after 1860 were inferior, and dares to speculate on the mysterious circumstances of Foster’s untimely death. This beautifully written biography provides important new insights into the complex life of one of America’s most controversial popular songwriters.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.

Stephen Foster (1826–64) is often remembered as a writer of plantation songs, but researcher O’Connell describes him as a much more diverse composer. The author’s dense but fascinating book puts the life of Foster and his family in context as it relates to U.S. cultural and political history. This is particularly relevant to Foster’s works because his pieces were often autobiographical. Details of dealings with parents, siblings, spouse Jane McDowell, and publishers are described in great length, as are the many tragedies through deaths and financial distress experienced by the Foster family. The unhappiness of his marriage was in part caused by his alcoholism, which also affected his work. Foster’s political views were often hidden, and therefore, his sympathy for slaves was often unknown. He embraced minstrel songs until they were widely recognized as insulting and then abandoned them for campaign and parlor songs, variety, and music hall songs. VERDICT All readers interested in Foster, professional or amateur musicians or historians included, will delight in the perspective taken by O’Connell that the man was much more than the few songs for which he is remembered.
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