By Robert Crowe
On Saturday, May 2, 2015, The Kentucky Derby will be run in Louisville, Kentucky. The “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” has been run every year since 1875. Prior to the running of three-year-old horses will be the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” written in 1853 by Stephen Foster. He wrote over 200 hundred songs but died impoverished. In addition to “My Old Kentucky Home,” many of his tunes remain popular after 150 years.
Stephen Collins Foster was born in 1826 in Lawrenceville, PA. The youngest of eleven children, he had a natural penchant for music even though he had no formal academic training. He wrote his first song at age 14 but it was not published during his lifetime. As a youth he attended a number of private academies and had a brief college experience.
At age twenty he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to serve as a bookkeeper with his brother’s steamship company. While there he wrote “Oh, Susanna” for which he was paid $100. The publisher made over $10,000 from the song. ”Oh, Susanna” became the anthem for the California Gold Rush.
He returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster wrote most of his best-known songs: “Camptown Races” (1850), “Nelly Bly” (1850), “Old Folks at Home” (1851), “My Old Kentucky Home” (1853), “Old Dog Tray” (1853), and “Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair” (1854) written for his wife who was not named Jeanie; she was Jane Denny McDowell.
Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once when he was on his honeymoon in 1852. From 1850 to 1856 he wrote 160 songs but made little if any money from them because there were no copyright protection laws. He did begin to receive money for his work but his dependency upon alcohol negated any personal wealth.
Foster and family moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, because of his alcoholism, his wife and daughter left him and returned to Pittsburgh.
Stephen Foster became impoverished while living in a hotel in Manhattan’s lower east side. He developed a persistent fever and one day fell, hitting his head on a washbasin. He was taken to Bellevue Hospital and succumbed three days later. He was 37 years old.
At his death he had 40 cents in his purse.
One of the best loved of his works, Beautiful Dreamer, was published after his death.