Dwight's Journal of Music
Unsigned Reprint
Boston: 14 May 1859

Who Writes Our Songs?

(From the New York Evening Post.)

  The musical composer who really furnishes the great majority of our songs, and whose productions have the widest popularity among the masses of our people, is known to very few of them, even by reputation. The new melodies that greet the public ear, month after month, and are sung, whistled, and hummed by thousands—that are thumped on piano-fortes, thrummed on banjos, breathed on flutes, tortured into variations, and enjoy a wide, though, after all, evanescent popularity, are chiefly the product of one of fertile brain—and that brain, as Mr. Micawber would say, is the brain appertaining to Mr. Stephen C. Foster. This gentleman is a native of Pittsburgh, and has spent all his days there, excepting three years at Cincinnati, and two at New York. He was born on the 4th of July, 1826, (the very day that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died,) and is therefore now in his thirty-third year. His father, Mr. William B. Foster, was a Pittsburgh merchant, a member of the State Legislature, afterwards a


Mayor of Alleghany city, and subsequently occupied an official post under the federal government. His oldest sister is the wife of Rev. E. Y. Buchanan, the only brother of the President of the United States. Stephen C. Foster is the youngest of his family.

  He enjoyed but limited opportunities for musical instruction, and took but few lessons. When nineteen years old he composed for a social quartette club, of which he was a member, his first successful song, the popular favorite, "Uncle Ned." It was shortly afterwards sung at a public concert in Cincinnati, and received such applause that Mr. William C. Peters, the musical publisher in that city, requested the privilege of publishing it, which was at once granted. Mr. Foster next composed "Susanna," which was more simple in its style, and became even more popular. In a private letter, Mr. Foster writes: "I had up to this time neither received nor thought of any pecuniary remuneration for my efforts in the musical line. Imagine my delight, therefore, on receiving for my next song one hundred dollars in cash! Though this song was not successful, yet the two fifty dollar notes which I received for it had the effect of starting me in my present vocation as a song writer."

  It would render this article too much like a "catalogue of popular and standard music" to give a list of Mr. Foster's songs. "Massa's in the Cold Ground," "Old Kentucky Home," "Hi! Boys, Carry Me 'Long," "Nelly was a Lady," and "Old Folks at Home," may be mentioned as among the most popular. His "Susanna" melody has been seized by many pianists, (among whom may be mentioned Herz and Thalberg) as a melodic theme peculiarly suited for treatment with variations, and some of the other negro melodies have obtained an equal popularity. Nor is this popularity merely a local one. In many of the Southern States Mr. Foster's songs have been adopted by the slaves to enliven them at their huskings and field labors. In a private letter from one who has recently returned from an extended pedestrian tour through the border land of Scotland, where the songs of Burns and the older oral Scotch ballads are known to and sung by everyone, occurs the following passage: "I spent several weeks amid the poetic hills of Ettrick, along the braes of Yarrow, so famed in Scottish border minstrelsy, and here I found some of Foster's earlier melodies were almost displacing, in the estimation of the shepherd boys and cottage girls, the songs of Burns and Ramsey. Often in the Scottish cottages, after the bagpipes have droned out their accompaniments to 'Scots wha hae,' and 'Lord Athol's Courtship,' a voice will take up one of these American melodies, and all gathered around the ingle side will join in the simple refrain; and thus the plaintive, touching strains that are first sung in the dark, sooty town of Pittsburgh, on the Monongahela, rise away above the smoke and steam of city life, float across the Atlantic, and are heard upon the heathery hills of Ettrick, and among the birks that grow upon the 'braes of Yarrow.'" Favorable mention has also been made of them from California, China, and Australia, and even the deserts of Africa, through the foreign and home correspondence of our newspapers.

  Ethiopian minstrelsy, as it is called, has, however, culminated, and is now in its decline. Appreciating this fact, Mr. Foster has somewhat changed his style, and abandoning the use of negro jargon, he now writes songs better adapted for general use. While the melodies exhibit a decided improvement, the words are rhythmical, always unexceptionable in point of moral, and as good, poetically considered, as the majority of songs. We do not say that Mr. Foster's "melodies" can be compared with those that have immortalized the names of Burns, Barry Cornwall, or Thomas Moore; but we do maintain that the composer who produced such popular and pleasing songs as "Gentle Annie," "Willie, we have Missed You," "Maggie by my Side," "I see her still in my Dreams," "Old Dog Tray," "Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair," &c., deserves an honorable mention, as one of those who has enlarged the pleasure of thousands.

  The reason of the popularity of Mr. Foster's songs lies in their easy, flowing melody, the adherence to plain chords in the accompaniments, and the avoidance of intricacy in the harmony or embarrassing accidentals in the melody. They have a family resemblance, but not greater than the simpler melodies of Bellini and Donizetti, and the composer is no more truly open to the charge of self-plagiarism than are those Italian melodists. And, as Mr. Foster is still young, he may improve and elevate his style, till he attains a musical reputation that will be more than ephemeral.