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ONE MAN'S VIEW

On Thursday each week my column appears in the Euro Weekly News. My opinion is just that, an opinion. Feel free to put your oar in but in a constructive way if you please. Thanks so much. - Michael

The Strange Story of Stephen Collins Foster
16 November 2011 @ 17:40

 
 
The more mature generation will be familiar with such whimsical ballads as I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh Susanna and The Old Folks at Home. They were American favourites long before Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue came to symbolise the essence of the United States. Indeed the originator of these songs had by then earned an international reputation. His repertoire of ballads were bringing lumps to the throat and tears to eyes from Alaska to Durban, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, and of course throughout the United States. They still do.
 
One hundred years and forty years since they were penned Beautiful Dreamer, My Old Kentucky Home, Camptown Races and Old Black Joe, still evoke nostalgia; sales still hold up yet few have an inkling of the tragedy that marked the life of the man who created these much loved melodies.
 
Born into a comfortable and loving family existence the short life of Stephen Collins Foster (1826 - 1864) was a riches to rags story. This increases the poignancy of his death at the age of just 37 for when Foster died, during a bitterly cold New York winter; he was sick, homeless and penniless; probably an alcoholic; a figure of fun. In his pocket when he died were just 38 cents and the words ‘dear friends and gentle hearts’ scribbled on a scrap of paper. Yet by this time he had composed over 175 songs.
 
The Two of Hearts
 
Perhaps the best account of the composer’s final days can be found in ‘Personal Recollections of the Last Days of Foster’. It was written by 21-year old Mrs Parkhurst Duer who worked for a large publishing house on Broadway. She was intrigued by the songs that had warmed the hearts of America and it was her dearest wish to one day meet the songwriter.
 
She later recounted: “I heard he was living in New York but had never known anything about his life; yet his songs had created in me a feeling of reverence for the man and I longed to see him. One day I was speaking with the clerks when the door opened, and a poorly dressed, very dejected man came in and leaned against the counter near the door. I noticed he looked ill and weak. No one spoke to him. A clerk laughed and said: “Steve looks down and out.”
 
Who is that Man?
 
Everyone laughed and the poor man saw them all laughing at him. It seemed to me my heart stood still, intuition perhaps and I asked, “Who is that man?”
“Stephen Foster.” the clerk replied. “He is only a vagabond. Don’t go near him.”
“Yes, I will go near him, that man needs a friend,” was my reply.
I was terribly shocked. Forcing back the tears, I waited for that lump in the throat which prevents speech, to clear away. I walked over to him, put out my hand, and asked, “Is this Mr Foster?”
He took my hand and replied: “Yes, the wreck of Stephen Collins Foster.”
Oh no.” I answered, “Not a wreck, but whatever you call yourself I feel it an honour to take by the hand the author of The Old Folks at Home. I am glad to know you.”
As I spoke, the tears came to his eyes and he said, “Pardon my tears, young lady, you have spoken the first kind words I have heard in a long time. God bless you.”
 
What had brought such a talented and prolific song-writer to such poverty, even as his compositions were being sung and wildly applauded in vaudeville and saloons, family get-togethers; published by the theatre world and making a fortune for others? Like many other talented craftsmen Stephen was hopeless at managing his affairs and rarely laid claim to his compositions, which were shamelessly plagiarised. If he was paid at all such gestures were given as though in charity; a few paltry dollars thrown like scraps to a stray. The avaricious world of show business leeched Stephen’s intellectual copyright.
 
A Hobo of Culture and Refinement
 
The young lady publisher told of how she got to know him better and found him to be a man of culture and refinement. He told her that he wrote his music on wrapping paper picked up in a grocery store, and he had written many of his songs while sitting on a box or a barrel.
 
Mrs Parkhurst Duer knew he did not have a home and asked if he had a room.
Not as such. He slept in a cellar owned by an elderly couple who had offered him the living quarters without taking payment. He said he was comfortable so I supposed he had a bed she surmised.
 
The publisher’s assistant arranged for the destitute songwriter to receive one good meal a day, and medicine, and took care of other comforts, one of which was a room in a Bowery hostel. Sadly by then it was all too late and Stephen Foster Collins died in the most miserable of circumstances.
 
His brother Henry described the accident that led to his death shortly afterwards in a New York theater-district hospital. Confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen had tried to call for assistance. In doing so he collapsed and falling against the wash basin next to his bed, he shattered and gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital. It was an era before transfusions and antibiotics; the internationally adored but penniless songwriter succumbed after just three days. In his worn leather wallet there was a scrap of paper that simply said "dear friends and gentle hearts". Estranged from his family he remained devoted to his wife whose name was Jane and for her he had written:
 
I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair


I long for Jeanie with the day-dawn smile,
Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile;
I hear her melodies, like joys gone be,
Sighing round my heart o’er the fond hopes that die:
Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,
Waiting for the lost ones that come not again:
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapour, on the soft summer air. ©


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