Stephen Foster Memorial Day
Many Americans pay tribute to one of the United States’ finest musicians on Stephen Foster Memorial Day, which is on January 13 each year. Stephen Foster was a songwriter who lived in the 19th century. His songs, such as Oh! Susanna and My Old Kentucky Home, are still popular in modern times.
Is Stephen Foster Memorial Day a Public Holiday?
Stephen Foster Memorial Day is not a public holiday. It falls on Sunday, January 13, 2019 and most businesses follow regular Sunday opening hours in the United States.
What Do People Do?
The United States president may issue an annual proclamation calling on people in the country to observe Stephen Foster Memorial Day with:
Pilgrimages to Stephen Foster’s shrines.
Musical programs featuring his compositions.
Events for the day may be organized at places that pay tribute to Stephen Foster, such as the Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park in Florida. Some schools provide music and history lessons that focus on Stephen Foster’s life and works around this date. Many music appreciation societies and organizations dedicated to the songwriter, such as the Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization, also pay tribute to Stephen Foster.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day is an observance but it is not a federal public holiday in the United States.
Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, on July 4, 1826. He received his early musical training from German immigrant Henry Kleber and became one of the most famous musical composers in the United States. Much of his work celebrates the African American portion of the population at a time when slavery was an important and controversial issue. His most popular songs included:
Oh! Susanna (or O Susanna by some texts).
My Old Kentucky Home.
Old Folks at Home, which is Florida’s state song with revised lyrics. The original was The Swanee River (Old Folks at Home).
Foster also composed instrumental music, including the Social Orchestra, a collection of 73 arrangements for flute, piano, violin and other instruments. He was not well known to the public during his lifetime as he did not perform music professionally. He composed more than 200 works in his lifetime.
Stephen Foster died in New York City on January 13, 1864. One of his best loved works, Beautiful Dreamer, was published shortly after his death. Stephen Foster Memorial Day was first officially observed on January 13, 1952, after President Harry Truman dedicated January 13 as the day to remember Foster through a proclamation in October 1951.
The Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park, situated on the Suwannee River banks in Florida, honors the memory of Stephen Foster. The center exhibits Foster’s most famous song and his music can be heard in the park during the day. Many of Foster’s songs are also remaining legacies of his achievements.
A memorial at the University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania, is dedicated to the songwriter, as well as a sculpture of Foster near the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s entrance. A musical, called Stephen Foster – The Musical has also been performed since 1958.
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Stephen Collins Foster (July 4, 1826 – January 13, 1864), known as "the father of American music", was an American songwriter known primarily for his parlor and minstrel music. Foster wrote over 200 songs; among his best-known are "Oh! Susanna", "Hard Times Come Again No More", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair", "Old Black Joe", and "Beautiful Dreamer". Many of his compositions remain popular more than 150 years after he wrote them. His compositions are thought to be autobiographical. He has been identified as "the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century" and may be the most recognizable American composer in other countries. His compositions are sometimes referred to as "childhood songs" because they have been included in the music curriculum of early education. Most of his handwritten music manuscripts are lost, but copies printed by publishers of his day can be found in various collections.
In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, and became a bookkeeper with his brother Dunning's steamship company. While he was in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful songs in 1848–1849, among them "Oh! Susanna", which became an anthem of the California Gold Rush. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song "Nelly Was a Lady" as made famous by the Christy Minstrels. A plaque marks the site of Foster's residence in Cincinnati, where the Guilford School building is now located.
Then he returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. It was during this period that Foster would write most of his best-known songs: "Camptown Races" (1850), "Nelly Bly" (1850), "Ring de Banjo" (1851), "Old Folks at Home" (known also as "Swanee River", 1851), "My Old Kentucky Home" (1853), "Old Dog Tray" (1853), and "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" (1854), written for his wife Jane Denny McDowell.
Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "build up taste ... among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order". Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once in 1852, by riverboat voyage on his honeymoon on his brother Dunning's steamboat the Millinger, which took him down the Mississippi River to New Orleans.
In 1862 during the Civil War in a response to Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers, Foster among other composers set the poem "We Are Coming, Father Abra'am" to music.
Foster's last four years were spent in New York City. Biographical information during this period of his life has not been located or remains lost, though correspondence to, from, and between other family members has been preserved.
Foster became ill with a fever in January 1864. Weakened, he fell in his hotel in the Bowery, cutting his neck. His writing partner George Cooper found him still alive, lying in a pool of blood. Foster died in Bellevue Hospital three days later at the age of 37.
Other versions exist concerning Foster's death described by other biographers.
When Foster died, his leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, "Dear friends and gentle hearts", along with 38 cents in Civil War scrip and three U.S. pennies. The note is said to have inspired Bob Hilliard's lyric for "Dear Hearts and Gentle People" (1949). Foster was buried in the Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh. After his death, Morrison Foster became his "literary executor". As such, he answered requests for copies of manuscripts, autographs, and biographical information. One of the best-loved of his works, "Beautiful Dreamer" was published shortly after his death.
Growing up in a section of the city where many European immigrants had settled, Foster was accustomed to hearing the music and musical styles of the Italian, Scots-Irish, and German residents in the neighborhood. He composed his first song when he was 14 and entitled it the "Tioga Waltz". The first song he had published was "Open thy Lattice Love" (1844).] In addition to his well-known and familiar songs which are still widely performed, Foster wrote songs in support of both drinking (such as "My Wife Is a Most Knowing Woman" or "Mr. and Mrs. Brown" or "When the Bowl Goes Round") and temperance, such as "Comrades Fill No Glass for Me" or "The Wife".
Foster also authored many church hymns. The inclusion of his hymns in hymnals ended by 1910. Some titles of the hymns are: "Seek and ye shall find", "All around is bright and fair, While we work for Jesus", and "Blame not those who weep and sigh". Several rare Civil War-era hymns by Foster were performed by The Old Stoughton Musical Society Chorus: "The Pure, The Bright, The Beautiful"; "Over The River"; "Give Us This Day" and "What Shall The Harvest Be?"; on a disc compiled and edited by Roger Lee Hall and titled, "Glory, Hallelujah: Songs and Hymns of the Civil War Era."
Foster usually sent his handwritten scores directly to his publishers. The publishers kept the sheet music manuscripts and did not give them to libraries nor return them to his heirs. Some of his original, hand-written scores were bought and put into private collections and the Library of Congress.
Accolades and honors
Foster is honored on the University of Pittsburgh campus with the
Stephen Foster Memorial, a landmark building that houses the
Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center for American Music,
as well as two theaters: the Charity Randall Theatre and Henry
Heymann Theatre, both performance spaces for Pitt's Department of
Theater Arts. It is the largest repository for original Stephen Foster
compositions, recordings, and other memorabilia his songs have
Two state parks are named in Foster's honor: the Stephen Foster
Folk Culture Center State Park in White Springs, Florida and Stephen
C. Foster State Park in Georgia. Both parks are on the Suwannee River.
Stephen Foster Lake at Mount Pisgah State Park in Pennsylvania is also
named in his honor.
One state park is named in honor of Foster's songs, My Old Kentucky
Home, an historic mansion formerly named Federal Hill, located in
Bardstown, Kentucky where Stephen is said to have been an occasional
visitor according to his brother, Morrison Foster. The park dedicated a bronze statue in honor of Stephen's work.
The Lawrenceville (Pittsburgh) Historical Society, together with the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, hosts the annual Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival (Doo Dah Days!). Held the first weekend of July, Doo Dah Days! celebrates the life and music of one of the most influential songwriters in America's history. His home in the Lawrenceville Section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, still remains on Penn Avenue nearby the Stephen Foster Community Center.
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Pitt's Stephen Foster Memorial contains two theaters
A 1900 statue of Foster by Giuseppe Moretti was located in Schenley Plaza, in Pittsburgh, from 1940 until 2018. On the unanimous recommendation of the Pittsburgh Art Commission, the statue was removed on April 26, 2018. Its new home has not yet been determined. It has a long reputation as the most controversial public art in Pittsburgh "for its depiction of an African-American banjo player at the feet of the seated composer. Critics say the statue glorifies white appropriation of black culture, and depicts the vacantly smiling musician in a way that is at best condescending and at worst racist." A city-appointed Task Force on Women in Public Art called for the statue to be replaced with one honoring an African American woman with ties to the Pittsburgh community. The Task Force held a series of community forums in Pittsburgh to collect public feedback on the statue replacement and circulated an online form which allowed the public to vote for one of seven previously selected candidates or write in an alternate suggestion. However, the Task Force on Women in Public Art and the Pittsburgh Art Commission have not reached an agreement as to who will be commemorated or if the statue will stay in the Schenley Plaza location.
Stephen Foster by
Giuseppe Moretti (1900)