The life of the country’s first professional songwriter will be remembered when historians, musicians and others gather at the Allegheny Cemetery in Lawrenceville Friday. The group will mark the impact that Pittsburgh-native Stephen Foster has had on the songs we hear today and the music industry in general.
Foster died 149 years ago Jan 13th. He was 37 years old at the time, which University of Pittsburgh Center for American Music Director Deane Root thinks is remarkable given the impact he had on the world.
“We get visitors [to the Stephen Foster Memorial] from Australia, China, Japan, Russia, South Africa, who know the songs, who have been signing them all their lives,” said Root.
When students visit the memorial on the University of Pittsburgh campus Root asks them if they know who Stephen Foster was. He said more often than not there is no glimmer of recognition until he starts to sing Oh, Susannah, or Camp Town Races, then they all know who he is.
While there is a long list of familiar Foster tunes, he only wrote about 200 songs in his life, which Root calls an “amazing percentage.”
Oh, Susannah was written by Foster when he was a teen for a bunch of friends living in Allegheny City, said Root. “Today we might have a garage band… with kids playing rock music, but back in his day they would write songs like that.”
Along with writing songs that are still sung a century and a half after they were written, Foster served as a rallying point for professional songwriters who came after him and were trying to make a good living from their work.
Foster wrote all of his own contracts when he sold his work and wound up at his death with 37 cents to his name according to Root. He said when writers and publishers came together in 1914 to form American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) they did it with Foster in mind and the idea that writers should be compensated to the point that they should not die nearly penniless.
The annual celebration of Foster’s life begins at 11:00am Friday Jan. 11th at the Temple of Memories Mausoleum at the Allegheny Cemetery. It will include performances by guitarist Joe Negri and a pair of student groups. Root and other Foster experts will also say a few words at Foster’s graveside.