Foster did his composing on the Monongahela River
By Miles S. Richards
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
A persistent tradition has existed in South Carolina that Stephen Collins Foster, the famous American composer of popular ballads, about 1850, paid a visit to a plantation upon the Pee Dee River.
Furthermore, Foster became so enamored with the river's natural beauty that he decided to utilize the name in the lyrics of an upcoming song, “Old Folks at Home.”
Unfortunately, though, the New York publishing firm, Firth, Pond & Company substituted the name Swanee in the text.
There are two problems, however, with this story. Foster never visited South Carolina during his lifetime. And he personally had selected that name, in 1851, while sitting in an office upon the Monongahela waterfront in Pittsburgh, the composer's hometown. In essence, he made the selection while gazing upon the Monongahela River.
Contrary to another popular belief, Foster did not travel widely through the southern states. During the late 1840s, he spent 14 months working for a river freighting firm owned by his elder brother, Dunning Foster, in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While residing in that city he probably crossed over the Ohio River into Kentucky on numerous occasions. But Foster apparently made no major Kentucky excursions during those years.
But the would-be composer was known to walk about the wharves listening to the African-American laborers singing their work songs while unloading the various steamboat cargoes.
Two of his popular early songs, “Camptown Races” and “Ring, Ring de Banjo,” reflect the black dialect he heard amid such strolls.
Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Foster surprised everyone by marrying Jane Denny McDowell, on July 22, 1850 at Trinity Episcopal Church.
Nonetheless, the young couple waited two years before taking a belated honeymoon. On Feb. 20, 1852, the Fosters and several companions embarked upon a steam packet, James Millinger, bound for New Orleans, Louisiana.
Amid a stopover in Louisville, Ky., Foster may have undertaken a trip southward to Federal Hill, a plantation owned by a cousin, John Rowan, in Bardstown.
Many commentators have suggested that this sojourn was the origin for the composer's subsequent ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Meanwhile, the couple undertook no significant side excursions while in New Orleans. Consequently, the only parts of the “Sunny South” that Foster ever saw were the lands adjoining the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.
They were back in Pittsburgh by late April. This river voyage was the initial, as well as only time that Foster traveled further south than Kentucky. At that point, he was awaiting the publication of “Old Folks At Home” by Firth, Pond and Associates.
The main reason that southern themes were common in his music was due to financial necessity. Foster frequently wrote “plantation melodies” for the various leading minstrel show companies.
During these shows the performers wore black face makeup and sang song lyrics emulating the African-American dialect.
Foster often was commissioned to write such tunes by Edwin Pearce Christy, the director of Christy's Minstrels. Accordingly, “Old Folks At Home” was typical of this musical genre.
Apparently, in his sketchbook, Foster initially had written in the song's opening line, “Way down upon the old plantation.” But he promptly changed the wording to “Way down upon de Pedee ribber.”
Subsequently, though, he recalled that the South Carolina river already had been used in a minstrel show song. An anonymous composer had produced “Ole Pee Dee” in 1844.
Although this song melody did not resemble his own proposed tune, Foster evidently decided that the title was shopworn. At that point, he decided to consult with his brother, Morrison, the chief clerk of a commercial shipping firm, which had an office in the vicinity of the Monongahela water front. From the Pittsburgh's earliest days this section of town has been known popularly as the “Mon Wharf.”
As was his usual habit, the composer one afternoon, without notice, walked into Morrison Foster's ground floor office. He quickly asked, “What is a good name of two syllables for a Southern river?” He spurned, however, his brother's initial suggestions of the Pee Dee and Yazoo.
In any case, Morrison Foster possessed a comprehensive marine atlas that included all of the inland rivers in North America. After studying the relevant maps, the brothers noted Swanee River in northern Florida, hardly a notable waterway.
After pondering the name for several minutes, the composer began humming his proposed tune. He then declared, “Yes that's the one.” Without further comment he abruptly walked out the front door and began pacing along the docks.
He always became oblivious to his surroundings when contemplating the completion of a song. Knowing his brother's various personal crotchets, Morrison Foster did not give the matter a second thought.
Meanwhile, in the sketchbook Stephen Foster subsequently wrote “Way down upon the Swanee ribber.” He probably had concluded that the river's actual spelling was too cumbersome.
Consequently, the lyrics contained the name Soigne when the musical score reached the publishers in New York City. On the title page, however, Christy was credited with being the composer of “Old Folks At Home.”
Desperately needing cash, Foster had signed an agreement that Christy was to pay him $500 for being credited as the songwriter.
Nevertheless, from the outset Foster gained royalties for the song, although no recognition for being its creator. Throughout his career Foster made a series of equally poor business decisions. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing that “Old Folks At Home” was a national sensation.
By 1860, Stephen Foster had moved to New York City to pursue his aim of being a full-time professional composer. His marriage virtually had disintegrated several years earlier in Pittsburgh. Among the numerous songs written during this period, only “Beautiful Dreamer” proved noteworthy.
Along with experiencing dire financial distress, he was a chronic alcoholic as well. After being severely injured in a fall in his rooming house, on Jan. 13, 1864, he died in Bellevue Hospital.
Upon examining his belongings, hospital attendants found a brown leather purse containing 38 pennies. That was approximately one cent for every year of his short life.
They also found an envelope upon which he had written in pencil “dear friends and gentle hearts.” Morrison Foster later surmised that those words were to be the title of his brother's next song.
Although a prolific composer, Stephen Foster had declined to write many songs reflecting a distinctly western Pennsylvania theme. For instance, he never mentioned any of the local rivers, including the Monongahela, within his lyrics.
While pacing along the Monongahela river front, however, he probably formulated the final touches to one of his most popular tunes, “Old Folks At Home.”
Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The author holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.
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