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Stephen Foster

 Stephen Foster

Stephen Foster who had first performed in blackface himself at the age of nine, wrote many of the most popular songs of the minstrel era. In the 1850s, the most successful minstrel troupe in America was Christy's Minstrels. They staged a less raunchy, more refined blackface show that appealed to middle-class families. "I wish to unite with you," Foster wrote E. P. Christy, the troupe's leader, "in every effort to encourage a taste for this style of music." 

Foster wrote 286 songs in less than 20 years and everything he wrote was romantic, sentimental and moving. On the plantation, he found warm, happy images of family and home, free from all problems. His fictional slaves were always happy and carefree. Foster's songs offered the unsettled public welcome symbols of escape from their frustrating new lives by creating an idealized world that had all the virtues that Northern society seemed to lack.

Some of the most popular songs in American history began as minstrel songs -- "Oh! Susanna", "Camptown Races", "Old Folks at Home" ("Swanee River"), " Polly Wolly Doodle", "Hard Times Come Again No More", "My Old Kentucky Home", "Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair", and "Blue Tail Fly". All were written by Stephen Foster.

Although Foster was the most successful songwriter of his era, he was never able to cash-in on it. He sold his songs to performers and music publishers for a pittance and there were no royalties paid to him for performances of his songs. "Intellectual property rights" were unheard of at that time, and anyone could "borrow" or steal someone else's work and present it as their own without any fear of financial or legal penalty.


Stephen Foster Stamp and Coin

Foster was thrilled by his success, but the vulgarity of blackface made him uncomfortable. In 1852, Stephen Foster wrote: "I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the [minstrel] songs among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste..." But as an artist, Foster longed to earn recognition for songwriting and composing other types of music that were considered less trivial than minstrel shows. As he struggled to move beyond minstrelsy, Foster's drinking took over his life and he was locked in a downward spiral. Foster died in a cheap hotel in the Bronx after cutting his neck while falling on a broken piece of glass.


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Blackface! -- Contents

Bert Williams

History of Blackface

Blacks in Blackface

History of Minstrel Shows

Minstrel Show Female Impersonators

Stephen Foster

Origins of Jump Jim Crow

Blackface Origins in Clowning

Blackface History Prior to Minstrel Shows

Excerpts from Monarchs of Minstrelsy (1911)

Famous Blackface Minstrel Performers

Blackface Around the World

About This Web Site

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