Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Stephen Foster, Susquehanna Schoolboy

{Stephen Foster}
Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster was born in Pittsburgh, spent much of his life there, and the University of Pittsburgh honors him with the most important collection of his letters and life history. It is, therefore, a surprise to encounter The Camptown racetrack near the upper Susquehanna River and to find that he was sent to boarding schools in Towanda and Athens by his Pittsburgh parents. This partly reflects the nature of pre-steel mill Pittsburgh, a transportation gateway for westward migrants in the early part of the 19th Century, for whom Athens and Towanda were cultural centers "back East". Whether this signifies some subsequent decline of the Central portion of Pennsylvania, or merely the relative growth of Pittsburgh, is a little less certain.

The Camptown Racetrack, five miles long, Do-Dah, Do-Dah is surely the place referred to in the song; its present obscurity is a surprise compared with its enduring fame in song. At the time Foster wrote it, Camptown probably was a bustling center on the frontier, seemingly more glamorous because of gambling and adventure of other sorts. Its fame endures because reality has by-passed it. By contrast, the Bowery where Foster died has declined to a noxious slum and the name summons up a different image.

Stephen Foster was an alcoholic, suffering in poverty all his later life and dragging his wife and child down with him. He struck his head and bled to death over a period of three weeks, in the Bowery. Since then, the simple little tunes he wrote have become a central part of the American myth, leading to the title of "America's first composer", or the "Father of American Music." The songs were in fact the product of considerable study and skill, with numerous revisions to achieve their apparent simplicity.

Since Pittsburgh continues to think of itself as a Union town, part of the emphasis in that environment is on the way he made a pitiful income from works which enriched sheet music publishers and performers, largely because of a lack of enforceable copyright protections, or even an organized methodology for monetizing a work of art. In a subsequent article, a happenstance encounter with the present leader of music monetization points a contrast between then and now.

(Notes: 1. His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan. 2. Alexander Cassatt was born on December 8, 1839, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.[3] His sister was the painter Mary Cassatt. He married Lois Buchanan, daughter of the Rev. Edward Y. Buchanan and Ann Eliza Foster. Lois Buchanan was a niece of James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States, and through her mother, a niece of songwriter Stephen Foster.[4] The couple had two sons and two daughters.)

Originally published: Friday, October 15, 2010; most-recently modified: Wednesday, June 05, 2019