The first pop superstar in American music history was neither a performer nor a recording artist – he was a songwriter. His name was Stephen Foster. He was the first American to make his living as a composer of pop music.
On July 4, 1826 the country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died, and Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, PA. With little or no formal training, young Foster taught himself to play several musical instruments, and at fourteen years old his first composition was performed in public. At age twenty-one he wrote a song called “Oh Suzannah” and sold it to a publisher, W. C. Peters, for $100.00. By 1848 this song had become a hit from coast to coast. Mr. Peters made $10,000.00 from sales of sheet music and Stephen Foster had become a superstar.
His most productive and successful years were the late 1840’s through the mid 1850’s, writing what he termed “plantation songs” for minstrel shows. Though he wrote many of these songs in dialect, his lyrics depict the life of black people in The South with a sense of compassion and affection. These tunes were made popular by minstrel performers such as The Christy Minstrels. During this period he also began writing sentimental ballads as well as light-hearted tunes.
The year 1860 marked a decline in Mr. Foster’s professional and personal life. With high hopes he moved with his wife, Jane, and his daughter, Marion, to New York City to be near publishers with whom he had relationships. Though he continued writing songs (mostly war related and sentimental ballads) he could not sell them. His debts began to mount and Jane left him to return with Marion to Pennsylvania. Stephen grew despondent and began drinking heavily. In the winter of 1862 he was befriended by a young law student and lyricist named George Cooper. Together they wrote over twenty songs with limited success while George often acted as a caretaker.
On the 10th of January, 1864, Mr. Foster had a serious fall, cutting his neck severely. George was able to get his friend to Bellevue Hospital where he initially showed some improvement, however, on January 13 he suddenly slumped down in his chair. America’s first professional songwriter was dead, but his great songs lived on! . . .
About this recording:
Since Mr. Foster’s music touched the common folk, it was my intention to arrange and perform these tunes in the simple, straight-forward way 19th century string bands would have played them.
Mr. Foster wrote songs about black people in The South with respect and compassion. For many in his day the term “darkey” was one of endearment; however, in the 21st century this word has negative connotations. In the spirit of Mr. Foster’s feelings on this matter, I have chosen to substitute the term “black folks” in its stead.
Like all my other recordings, I played each instrument, sang each part, developed the arrangements and the liner notes, and recorded here in my home production studio – hence the name “Homespun” in the title. I do hope you will enjoy each of these Stephen Foster compositions.
 Oh! Suzannah – This one was first performed in an ice cream parlor in Pittsburgh, PA. It was later published by W. C. Peters with great success! By the year 1848, this song was being sung by common folk from coast to coast and Stephen Foster was a household name.
[banjo, fiddle, fiddlesticks, mandolin, guitar, and vocals]
 Old Folks At Home – Mr. Foster wrote this song in 1851 and it was a huge hit! No matter what you do for a living, no matter where life takes you, it is calming and satisfying to think back to childhood – to the warmth and security of the childhood home, to the carefree days before the responsibility of adulthood, to the love and support of the old folks (parents). Foster considered using The Yazoo River in Mississippi, and The Pee Dee River in South Carolina before finally settling on The Suwanee River in Florida at the suggestion of his brother. He incorrectly spelled it “Swanee” to fit the meter of the tune. Though he never saw this river, nor visited Florida, this song was the official state song of Florida for many years.
[banjo, harmonica, guitar, fiddles, mandolin, and vocals]
 Massa’s In The Cold, Cold Ground – This 1852 Foster composition is a very powerful one, indeed! The people of the plantation lived and worked together and there was at times genuine affection between the slaves and the master. This is vividly described in the lyrics of this tune. With the death of the master, the future of the slave was in doubt – would they be “allowed” to stay in their homes, would they be freed, or would they be sold and forced to move to some other farm? As you listen to Mr. Foster’s lyrics, you can almost feel the concern the black folks would have regarding their futures along with their sadness at the death of a kind master.
[mandolins, fiddle, guitar, and vocals]
 Dolly Day – Mr. Foster wrote this happy tune in 1850. The narrator of these lyrics is smitten by a lady named Dolly Day. He has high hopes to marry and spend his life with her.
[banjo, fiddles, mandolin, guitar, whistle, bordhran, and vocals]
 My Old Kentucky Home – In the powerful lyrics of this song, published in 1853, Mr. Foster gives a sympathetic look at the life of slaves on a plantation. If became the official state song of Kentucky in 1928 and has been performed at the Kentucky Derby since the 1920’s.
[fiddles, mandolin, guitar, and vocal]
 Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair – Stephen Foster was quoted as saying he was first attracted to his future wife, Jane, by her beautiful hair. Because Jane was very pious and Stephen enjoyed a good party, their relationship had several “ups and downs.” Apparently Foster wrote this tribute to his wife while enjoying one of their reconciliations.
[violins, guitar, and vocal]
 Angelina Baker – Published in 1850, this song gives a sympathetic look at a slave whose lady-love was sold and he found himself without her. The chorus says “she left me here to weep a tear, and beat on the old jaw bone.” Jaw bones of horses, mules, etc. were often used to beat out rhythms while performing music in the 19th century.
[banjo, whistle, mandolin, guitar, bones, jaw harp, and vocals]
 Old Dog Tray – This is the first song Foster wrote that was not set in the Southland and written in dialect. This one became a huge hit when it was published in 1853, and was unique because its subject matter is a dog –once again Foster proved to be a trail blazer in the field of popular music. Foster’s brother Morrison once described a beloved setter that Stephen had owned as the inspiration for this song.
[mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and vocals]
 Jenny’s Coming O’er the Green – This 1860 publication describes a lovely lady named Jenny. She was not without imperfection, so the song questions “why do I love her so?”
[fiddles, mandolin, banjo, guitar, bordhran, and vocals]
 Hard Times Come Again No More – The text of this 1854 composition is timeless. Mr. Foster reminds us that the poor are with us and we should be aware of their needs and do our part to help alleviate their hard times to the best of our ability. We all fear the hard times, whether they be tragic events or the loss of a loved one. This is one of my favorites.
[fiddle, whistle, guitar, and vocals]
 Camptown Races – As the railroads were being built, the workers would live in tent cities that were known as camptowns. As the tracks moved forward, the camptowns moved with them. When the workers had time off, they often turned to racing horses (and every form of livestock available to them) for entertainment and gambling. This was the inspiration for Mr. Foster’s 1850 plantation song – it was a big hit.
[banjo, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar, and vocals]
 Beautiful Dreamer – This marvelous song was written by Stephen Foster in 1862. It was published two months after his death in 1864 and is one of the most popular of all his great songs.
[ violin, viola, cello, guitar, and vocal]
 The Glendy Burk – When this song was published in 1860, there were over 50,000 steamboats operating on the rivers of America. Mr. Foster’s narrator is a black man who vividly describes the captain, crew, and a steamboat trip he intends to take on the Glendy Burk to New Orleans.
[banjo, mandolin, fiddle, fiddlesticks, hammer dulcimer, guitar, and vocals]
 Gentle Annie – Foster wrote this sentimental ballad in 1856 and is one of the most tender and mournful of his compositions. According to Morrison Foster, Annie Jenkins, the young daughter of a poor, working neighbor was run over by a wagon and died. Stephen abandoned his evening plans and spent the night comforting the family of the dead child. Stephen also had a cousin named Annie Evans who died after a long battle with illness. Most likely the death of one or both of these young ladies inspired this moving composition.
[mandolins, guitar, and vocals]
 If You’ve Only Got A Mustache – This happy song that was the result of the collaboration between Mr. Foster and George Cooper. Foster wrote this music to Cooper’s clever lyrics. This song is often cited as one of the earliest Vaudeville songs to be written. It was published in 1864.
[fiddle, concertina, mandolin, guitar, and vocals]
 Old Black Joe – In this masterpiece Foster gives a tender, respectful depiction of a laborer who is at the end of his life.
[violin, viola, cello, whistle, guitar, and vocals]
 Sweet Emerald Isle – This tribute to Ireland is another collaboration of Stephen Foster (music) and George Cooper (lyrics). It was published two years after Mr. Foster’s death.
[fiddles, whistle, mandolin, guitar, and vocals]
 Nothing But A Plain Old Soldier – In 1863, the year this song was written, the Union war effort was faltering and the armies lacked a strong leader. Mr. Foster uses a fictional Revolutionary War veteran to compare the stalwart leadership of George Washington to that of the Union generals.
[whistles, snare drum, bass drum, fiddles, banjo, guitar, and vocal]