In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Stephen Foster

  • Introduction
  • Library and Archive
  • Bibliographies and Discographies

Music Stephen Foster
Deane L. Root, Codee Spinner
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0273


Stephen Collins Foster (b. Lawrence, near Pittsburgh, PA, 4 July 1826–d. New York, 13 January 1864) was the first professional songwriter in the United States, and the earliest to write songs whose images pervaded American culture and whose melodies endure into the 21st century. For his most familiar songs, he wrote both lyrics and music, though he also set poems that had appeared in household magazines, and toward the end of his life he partnered with poet George Cooper. His oeuvre includes principally songs for solo voice (or solo voice plus four-voice chorus) with piano accompaniment, four-voice hymns, and instrumental works (mostly dances, for piano). His songs for blackface minstrels (which provided him with the majority of his income, though they amount to less than one-tenth of his 287 authenticated compositions) were controversial from the start; they made Foster’s reputation, even as he attempted to create “refined” songs in a genre he considered to be rife with “trashy and really offensive words” (Foster letter to E. P. Christy, 25 May 1852). He was of Scots-Irish descent, and as a resident of a northern industrializing urban center that drew workers from throughout Western Europe, he was attuned to different national styles of song and common sentiments of lyric poetry not confined by ethnicity, race, or social class. His song structures and lyrics became models for other songwriters well into the Tin Pan Alley era; his inability to control copyrights (which were owned by his publishers) and his death in poverty (with 38 cents in his pocket) were factors in the establishment of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) fifty years later. It is perhaps not coincidental that songs quoting Foster’s “Swanee River” (“The Old Folks at Home”) helped launch the careers of two of the most significant American songwriters of the 20th century, Irving Berlin (“Alexander’s Ragtime Band”) and George Gershwin (“Swanee”). This bibliography summarizes the major sources of archival, published, and online information about Foster’s life, career, music, and their interpretation and influence in the social and cultural history of the United States, Europe, and East Asia. It omits the sound recordings, plays, films, novels, and other creative works that reflect and contribute to that influence.

Library and Archive

Neither Foster nor his family maintained an archive of his career. The only such collection (now in the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh) was not assembled until some seventy years after the composer’s death, by which time most his personal effects and publishers’ records had been lost or destroyed. While some individual Foster manuscript letters or scores are held by the Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, and in private hands, most of what still exists was assembled beginning in 1931 by the Indianapolis pharmaceutical industrialist Josiah Kirby Lilly (b. 1861–d. 1948) in what he called the Foster Hall Collection, the world repository for manuscripts, publications, and artifacts of Foster and his family. Alberts 1986 documents the creation of a new Stephen Foster Memorial building to house the collection and a concert hall at the University of Pittsburgh in 1937, partly at the instigation of the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh; Bair 1997 illuminates the roles of the club and university administrators in creating and using the building. As described by the author of Hodges 1938, who was the first curator, Lilly hired a staff of up to twelve curators and typists to create and index the collection and established a far-ranging communications network of newsletters and correspondence with collectors of Americana. His Lilly Endowment continued to fund the collection’s operations until 1991. The music librarian author of Elliker 1994 describes Lilly’s collecting process and philanthropy; the musicologist author of Whitmer 2012 emphasizes Lilly’s archival sound recordings. The Collection, with about 30,000 books, sheet music imprints, manuscripts, sound recordings, and other publications, became part of the University Library System’s Special Collections in 1996.

  • Alberts, Robert C. Pitt: The Story of the University of Pittsburgh, 1787–1987. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1986.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt5hjnhq

    A section of chapter 8, “The 1930s: Fulfillment and Good Fortune” (pp. 132–134), documents the conception, funding, and construction of the Stephen Collins Foster Memorial building on the Pitt campus, housing a theater and Josiah K. Lilly’s Foster Hall Collection, and dedicated 2 June 1937.

  • Bair, Geraldine Morris. “Beautiful Dreamers: The Founding of the Stephen Foster Memorial in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1927–1937, the Working In, and the Aftermath.” 1997.

    A past president of the Tuesday Musical Club of Pittsburgh documents the club’s role in helping create the building, its activities over the ensuing six decades, and the history of negotiations and policies particularly concerning access and use of the building’s concert hall. Unpublished typescript, 219 pp.

  • Center for American Music, University of Pittsburgh. Special collection in the University Library System at the University of Pittsburgh.

    This is the omnibus library of every type of format and object that reflected Foster’s life as well as the images and uses of his songs. The website describes the Center’s services, exhibits, and research projects based on the holdings. The finding aid—including digital access to thousands of scanned items—is available through the university’s digital library, and publications are accessible through the university’s online catalogue.

  • Elliker, Calvin. “The Collector and Reception History: The Case of Josiah Kirby Lilly.” In Music Publishing & Collecting: Essays in Honor of Donald W. Krummel. Edited by David Hunter, 189–203. Urbana: Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, 1994.

    A history of the process of assembling the Foster Hall Collection in the 1930s. Elliker also describes Lilly’s philanthropy to libraries, and advocacy in creating school editions, sound recordings, an authoritative biography, a Florida state park, Hollywood biopics, a US postage stamp, and other memorials including the Stephen Foster Memorial building at the University of Pittsburgh.

  • Hodges, Fletcher, Jr. “A Pittsburgh Composer and His Memorial.” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine 21.2 (June 1938): 77–106.

    The curator of the Foster Hall Collection and the Stephen Foster Memorial building (dedicated 2 June 1937) on the University of Pittsburgh campus provides a brief history of publications on Foster and a biographical sketch, particulars of the building’s construction, and a summary of the Foster Hall Collection’s origins and contents.

  • Whitmer, Mariana. “Josiah Kirby Lilly and the Foster Hall Collection.” In Special Issue on Stephen Foster. Edited by Mariana Whitmer and Deane L. Root. American Music 30.3 (Fall 2012): 326–343.

    DOI: 10.5406/americanmusic.30.3.0326

    Augments Elliker 1994 by offering background on Lilly’s philanthropic motivations, strategies, and processes for assembling his collection and producing the Foster Hall Reproductions (see Complete Works Editions), Foster Hall Recordings (in context of commercial 78-rpm albums of Foster songs), school songbooks, editions for radio, and other publications.

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