A Singer to Pioneers


ABOUT eighty-four years ago, at his home in Pittsburgh, a young man named Foster was trying to write a song.

‘I want the name of a river in the South with two syllables in it,’ he said to his brother Morrison.

‘Yazoo,’ said Morrison.

‘That’s been used,’ Stephen objected.

‘Pedee,’ said Morrison.

‘That won’t do!’ came emphatically from Stephen, for he had tried and had discarded the word.

Morrison got down an atlas. After a little he pointed to the word ‘ Swanee,’ the name of a river starting in Georgia and flowing through part of Florida to the Gulf.

‘That’s it! That’s exactly it!’ said Stephen.

The sound of the name suited him. Swanee ... he crossed ‘Pedee’ from his lines and wrote ‘ Swanee. ’

Within a year, old and young and rich and poor were humming, singing, whistling the song. Visiting opera singers sang it for encores. The South protested that the Negro dialect was poor and unreal. Boston found the song beneath its dignity. But the song went on, through the minstrel-show days, through the gramophone era, and even into the radio age, without loss of popularity. Probably no other song in America has been so widely sung.

Over the country to-day interest in the composer runs high. At Indianapolis, in recent years, Foster Hall has appeared with a staff of workers seeking to do justice and honor to Foster. A great collection of manuscripts, first editions of songs, personal effects, and other Fosteriana are gathered there. On the campus of the University of Pittsburgh a Foster Memorial building with a ‘shrine’ is under construction. Thousands of copies of Foster song books have gone into schools across the country. A life, Stephen Foster, America s Troubadour, written by John Tasker Howard, was published early in 1934.

‘After all,’ people are asking, ‘who was Foster? Why all this interest? What is Foster Hall? What is the Pittsburgh memorial?’

Answers to these questions rest upon the fact that people like Foster’s music. When asked for money to build a memorial, they attempt to analyze their liking, and these analyses have brought out two reasons: one is sheer sentiment that may attach to the songs, and the other is a belief that Foster is significant both as a character and as an artist.

The sheer sentiment usually dates back to early associations with the songs. Time and again when among folk interested in Foster, I have heard some word implying that their recollections of childhood were indestructibly set in one or more of the tunes he composed.

Here is an illustration. As a boy I lived on the Mississippi. Sometimes in those days we would hear a long, deep-toned whistle — a steamboat was coming. We knew by the sound of the whistle the boat’s name and would hurry off to the levee.

One steamboat morning, when I got to the levee, smoke was rising far off behind an island near the Illinois side, rising and rising in a line upstream above the distant treetops. Then the gleaming white thing of glory nosed into view at the upper end of the island, flags flying and the smoke rolling out in a grander way. The bow broke the smooth water by two widening lines, one moving toward Illinois and one in our direction. Would the boat turn and come toward us? She did. And at that moment steam flared up from the rear of the hurricane deck and a long blast of whistles in a chord shook the air. ‘Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay . . .’ The whistles seemed to be singing the very words.

As the boat drew nearer and the ‘gentle voices’ had called Old Black Joe three or four times, and ladies in white dresses became distinct on the cabin deck, and colored roustabouts were in line on the boiler deck, smiling, waving to us, ready to let the gangplank down; as bells rang and the captain, in blue with gold braid and buttons, gave orders, it seemed, to the whole world, — all blurred and throbbing in the mystery and sadness and joy of ‘Old Black Joe,’ — the sand trembled under my feet. Too much of life was packed into a little while. I could not move. I was gone, seeking some unsubstantial glory across the wide river, not in Illinois, but beyond that and beyond trouble and time in the land that never was.

For days following, I whistled ‘Old Black Joe’ and wanted to be a steamboat captain. And if I could be a steamboat captain I would have the calliope play ‘Old Black Joe’ all the time.

This is the sort of feeling, I suspect, that has led many people to contribute toward the Foster memorial, a feeling that the songs are part of a fair and almost forgotten past, of youth and of hopefulness and of far-away things. Moved at least partly, I think, by that impulse, in 1927, some five hundred women in the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh decided to build a memorial to Foster. The idea soon became a plan to erect a building on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh. The plan met favor. Foster was generally referred to as Stephen, and everyone seemed to have private reason enough to help.


While these preparations were going on, a rumor came to Pittsburgh that Josiah K. Lilly of Indianapolis had completed Foster Hall in that city and was collecting manuscripts, pictures, and first editions of Foster’s songs, which, as it seemed to us, would be most desirable in our proposed building. I called up Mr. Lilly.

‘I’d like to talk with you about Foster,’ I told him. He invited me to come to Indianapolis. I went. At luncheon I asked him what he was doing at P’oster Hall.

‘After a bit, if you will, we’ll go to my farm,’ he said. ’I can tell you there.’

‘How did you happen,’ I asked, ‘to be interested in booster?’

The question brought a smile and hesitation. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘as a small boy I was often lonesome. The songs — “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and others — made me feel better. I’m trying to pay a debt.’

‘Trying to pay a debt’ . . . the words started the old calliope on the river and brought back the sand that trembled. Mr. Lilly had probably not had the advantages of calliopes and of sand. But without them he had got to the land that never was.

We went to the farm and to Foster Hall. As we approached the granite, chapel-like building set in an old orchard, Mr. Lilly remarked, ‘That’s our little hut among the bushes.’ The bushes were there, and, toward the rear, a pond or two. We went inside and all afternoon talked about Foster and looked at first editions, daguerreotypes, letters, and notebooks. Mr. Lilly played Foster records on the pipe organ, and more records on a phonograph. He had had the records made. The minstrel’s portable melodeon used for serenades was there. It seemed to belong there, for the very atmosphere, the open fireplace, the church-like room, all were one with the innate fineness of Foster. A hope was expressed that some day John Tasker Howard would here make himself at home and write the man’s true character and reinterpret his genius.

The day ended too soon. In the last ten minutes Mr. Lilly made one of the largest gifts toward the Foster memorial to be in Pittsburgh.


Sentiment, then, was at work for Foster’s memory. And yet, if now and then with too much sweetness he was referred to as Stephen, or as the world’s child, or as half myth and half sweet spirit, he was also recognized as a human creature and as an artist. Under the sentiment was rational sense.

The human Stephen, the artist, appears more evident as we see his environment. The boy was born in 1820 in Pittsburgh, when that city was a village twenty-six days by stage west of Philadelphia. His parents were pioneers, well-to-do. Through his father’s business connections and by travel here and there, the boy had reason to know what people were doing in the Ohio valley and what they were thinking about. The valley was his world. He saw men chop down trees and build roads, fences, barns, and houses; he saw them plough and sow and harvest. Wheat was cut with a hand sickle and threshed with a flail. An open fireplace usually served for heating and cooking. Candles did for light. Days began before sunup. There was work, and more work, on farms; and in the village, too, there was work, for here, through the same long days, men made pots, crocks, glass, horseshoes, nails, and river boats. Everywhere was work, and the boy looked upon it all in wistful admiration, for, being slight and in doubtful health, he could not do his share.

Stephen had time to think; he had time, little by little, to lay out the truth for himself about his surroundings; and whether it was because of his environment or because of his native endowment, or both, he looked out upon what was about him with a sort of evening wisdom. He saw that men on their farms — most people lived on farms — were trying to establish homes forever in the new land. Here they would cultivate their fields and gardens, and make farm work a high calling, and at a time not far off would be infinitely good and infinitely happy. Generation after generation would live in this way. They would never fear the future again, for plenty and security were theirs. Their children would go to school and to college and would get ideals and live the good life. In the practical world of corn bread and of work these people lived also in a dream world. The boy was heart and soul in accord with the dream.

It happened now, as Foster grew to manhood, that a change was sweeping over the Ohio valley, especially in the Pittsburgh district. The frontier had moved on. It had crossed the Mississippi. The old dream world was beginning to fade. The high hope had not materialized; for there were too much mud and work, too many flies and hard times generally, all of which were bringing disappointment, if not resignation. Further, industries were appearing along the rivers of Pittsburgh. Men by thousands were leaving their farms for a new kind of work and a new kind of life in mills, stores, and offices. Was the dream world to be given up?

I do not think that Foster asked the question. He was not a philosopher. Yet, sensitive by nature, he felt his way along and found the outlook more than half sad. For him a mood of sunset had spread over the valley. Could he tell people how he felt? If so, the natural way for him was by music. Since he had been a small boy he had tried to express himself on his flute. And this is what he would say on the flute: ‘To give up the fields, the garden, the home, the dream, is all wrong. ’

What Foster wanted to say on the flute, however, because of his insight into the life about him, fitted in closely indeed with the dominant note of his personality, the love of home. He was a home boy, through and through. Home was shelter and security and good will. Home was the dream world come true. He seems to have been born with this conviction. Home included his father and mother, his brothers and sisters, and the memory of little expressions of affection.

The young man, then, knew doubly well what he wanted to express. He had enough of the artist’s penetration and imagination to find an exact meaning through a confusion of details. He found this meaning in 1851. By means of his pencil and flute he poured happiness over a little hut among the bushes. The hut was home, a symbol of the highest values of his life. It was not to be given up. He called the composition ‘Old Folks at Home.’


This song is Foster himself. In it he expressed the depth of his heart; he let himself go in imagination, and, wandering far, made a discovery. For a brief moment in a distant somewhere he sang what he found. Sang . . . he did not argue or plead. He did not question or speak as a prophet. Coldly stated, he found that a man could be happy in a hut. The idea was not new. It was even commonplace; the folk of the valley had long ago had faith in the hut theory and were now in a mood to doubt it. But coldly stating Foster’s discovery in this way does not tell what he found. He gave to the old idea so much sincerity and beauty of expression that the idea rose above its former meaning. In effect his discovery was new. In as true a sense as Columbus sighted new land off San Salvador, Foster on a far journey came upon new faith in human nature. He went to the materials of his own experience, simplified them and enriched them, and gave them words and melody and soul.

After all, the valley folk wanted to believe in home. They liked the song. They sang it. It was good news. It was fresh evidence that the dream world was better and more possible than they had thought. There the dream world was, with a hut as its centre, — natural and good and real, like a rail fence or a blackberry bush, — but, unlike an ordinary hut or farmhouse, it took their hearts with beauty.

Foster wrote ‘Old Folks at Home’ for Pittsburgh and for the valley he knew. As Mr. Howard makes clear, he had no idea of universality. He did not suspect that soon people the world over would create in imagination their own unsubstantial Swanee with its hut and bees and banjos and kind hearts. But these various people now for many years had been wanting that idealized spot by the river, ‘far, far away.’

For seventy-one years the man has been in his grave. Not only had he no thought that any of his songs would go on, alive and warm, but he also, I think, had no idea that he had steadied the hope of the pioneers. There is no evidence that he strove for such effect. He merely sang what he felt. Yet, especially in ‘Old Folks at Home,’ he caught their hope and improved it. They listened, wondered, understood, and picked up courage.

In less obvious ways, too, Foster’s work has a courage-giving note. Associated with Jeanie, for example, is ‘the soft summer air.’ Men were accustomed to ordinary soft summer air. They thought it good. But here, caught in the tune, that air is more than good. It is a reward. You can never be poor so long as you may feel or look forward to the joy and the prayer-like charm of such a bit of summer. ‘ Starlight and dewdrops,’ and ‘wild flowers,’ and ‘the bright coming morn’ are likewise turned to pure wealth. The world is worth going on with.

The pioneers, finding their ‘promised land’ without the aid of a path, were surprised, no doubt, at their own adventure. Later they were to be more deeply surprised by some songs which revealed to them their own unsuspected wealth.


But to return to the Pittsburgh memorial. As time went on Mr. Lilly began to consider giving his collection to Pittsburgh. After all, Foster was born in Pittsburgh, and that city proposed to build a memorial in harmony with the character and sincerity of the composer. Pittsburgh seemed to deserve the collection. And so, late in 1934, he gave to the University of Pittsburgh his Fosteriana with the provision that they be made available to the public.

The collection consists of first, early, and modern editions of sheet music; original letters, manuscripts; personal belongings of Foster; original pictures and portraits in oil of the composer; song books, magazines, together with an extensive bibliography and miscellany. Each of the items — about ten thousand in all — is being studied, described, and indexed. Every known song, composition, and arrangement of Stephen Foster’s is represented in the collection.

In his letter of gift, Mr. Lilly told, among other things, of his interest in Foster: —

Some years ago, arriving at threescore years and ten, I asked myself what debts of the unpayable kind I might owe. The question led to a lonesome little boy burdened with such a debt. The boy, in those far days, had found comfort and courage and lasting joy in some songs that were being played and sung in our Indiana air. ‘Old Black Joe’ was one of them, and the ‘Swanee River,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ and ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.’ . . .

They all came back with their heartsearching words and haunting melodies. Could I, half-amused I asked myself, pay for these deep values? If so, how?

The questioning led to a happy outcome. Stephen Collins Foster, I knew, was the writer of the words and of the music of the songs, but I did not know how very meagre were the records of his life and character, or how incompletely his songs had been collected and credited to him. Here was a challenge, or a chance, to make amends. Challenge or chance, the task was begun and prosecuted intensively. Almost at the start it became apparent that the plan, if carried out thoroughly, would be more than biography. It would be also a significant record in American history. Stephen Collins Foster was the nation’s highest genius in song. In originality and in the prism-like colors of his expression he seems, like the rivers and the sunsets, to have always been a presence in the land.

The Pittsburgh memorial is under construction. The style of the building is Gothic. The principal mass will contain an auditorium with seating capacity for seven hundred. Standing somewhat apart from this mass is the shrine, a six-sided symmetrical figure, its tall traceried windows alternating with arched wall spaces. In this shrine will be placed the Foster Hall collection.

Why, now, does the University want this memorial? The answer is much the same as the answer to this question: Why does the University want a high Gothic arch, with its note of adventure and of victory? If a youth once honestly shares in the aspiration of the arch maker or of Foster, he never quite comes back to the life from which he started, for his imagination gains in diameter, and the age-old demand for the superlative is keener within him. The arch maker was a doer. So was Foster. Both were conveyors of the riches of the heart.

The character and achievement of Foster will be especially vivid to students at the University because of the constant reminder that the man grew up and did his best work almost within sight of the campus. The dream world will become part of the radiation of the Gothic walls of the University; and so, too, will be Foster’s sincerity and the fineness of his character. In the hope of such a reality the University wants the memorial.