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    Stephen Foster: Fact or Fiction?

    There have been a large number of myths about Foster that have emerged over time.  Can you tell which of these claims are fact and which are fiction?

    Stephen Foster was an alcoholic

      Opinions vary as to what role alcohol played in Foster’s life. His father struggled with alcohol and took the temperance pledge. Foster himself wrote a temperance song (“Comrades Fill No Glass for Me”). Although there is evidence that Foster drank, he was not the mythic bum in a Bowery gutter some have portrayed him to be, nor did he drink himself to death. Foster, already sick, died of blood loss and infection on January 13, 1864, after collapsing on a washbasin and bowl in a Bowery-district hotel room in New York.

    Stephen Foster made lots of money but died penniless because of financial missteps

    Foster did die financially destitute, but it was not only a result of bad money management. Foster worked  as an accountant for his brother and kept meticulous financial records of his own business dealings, so he was certainly capable of  financial responsibility. Unfortunately, in Foster’s life-time copyright law did not protect composers’ own interests, but were entirely directed to the rights of the publishers.  The only way to earn money from a song was through a 5 to 10 percent royalty paid only by the song’s original publisher or by the outright selling of a song to a performer for perhaps $5 to $15. Stephen also developed a bad habit of requesting from his publishers an advance on sheet music sales in exchange for ending his royalties of future sales. These deals severely curtailed his future earnings.

    Stephen Foster was an untrained musical genius

      While the family perpetuated the myth that Foster was able, as a young child, to pick up instruments and immediately play a tune, he most likely had formal music education. There is evidence that he studied with Henry Kleber, a German-immigrant musician to Pittsburgh who owned a music store. In addition, on his own time Stephen certainly studied all of the popular forms of music of his day.

    Stephen Foster was gay

    In short, there is no definitive conclusion or evidence on how Foster defined his sexuality. In his biography of the composer, John Tasker Howard describes Stephen as not having a typical man’s sexual interest in his wife, and in his book Doo-Dah: Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture,  Ken Emerson maintains that it is impossible to prove or disprove Foster’s sexuality. Non-fiction works such as The Gay Almanac and The Gay and Lesbian Theatrical Legacy include Foster but do not provide evidence for his inclusion beyond supposition that he and his collaborator George Cooper may have been involved in a romantic relationship.

    Stephen Foster was a Southerner

    Stephen Foster was born, raised, and spent the majority of his adult life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a child he visited Louisville and Augusta in Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, and he attended boarding school in northern Pennsylvania. In the late 1840s he lived in Cincinnati, where he worked as a bookkeeper for his brother Dunning’s shipping business. From 1853 to 1854 and 1860 to 1864 he lived in the New York City area, presumably to be close to his publishers. The only documented trip to the South in adulthood was a month-long cruise down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans in 1852.

    Stephen Foster visited the Suwanee River and the Old Kentucky Home prior to writing those two songs.

    It is often said that the Rowan Family’s estate in Bardstown, Kentucky, where members of Foster’s family visited, is the old Kentucky home that inspired the song, but there is no definitive record that Foster ever visited there. We do know that he wrote “My Old Kentucky Home” in response to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin while living in Pittsburgh, originally titling the song “Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night.” He never visited the Suwannee River in Florida. According to family lore, his brother Morrison suggested he use the Suwanee River after Stephen came to him bemoaning that his first choice, the Pedee River, wasn’t working.

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last updated April 13, 2020