Stephen Foster Memorial Day
annually on January 13th (since 1952)
President Harry S. Truman on December 13th, 1951
Born on July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, an area that now is part of Pittsburgh, Stephen Foster was a composer of songs that reflected American traditions and folklore, which gained him titles such as "the father of American folk music," "the father of American music," and "the most famous songwriter of the nineteenth century." His compositions were largely of parlor and minstrel music, the latter of which being a category of songs that are usually viewed as racist today. But he also brought Irish melodies, German songs, and Italian operas into his compositions. His melodies and lyrics have lasted through the centuries, and are familiar to countless Americans, even if listeners don't know Foster by name. He is celebrated today, on the anniversary of his death.
While growing up, Foster taught himself clarinet, flute, piano, and guitar. He did not have formal music education, and was mainly self-taught, but was assisted by Henry Kleber, a musician and music dealer. Foster composed his first piece of music, "Tioga Waltz," at the age of 14, and in 1844, at the age of 18, he became a published songwriter with the publication of "Open Thy Lattice, Love." Foster went on to compose over 200 songs. Some of his most well-known compositions include "Oh! Susanna," "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!" (later shortened to "My Kentucky Home"), "Camptown Races," and "Old Folks at Home" (also known as "Swanee River"), as well as "Nelly Was a Lady," "Come Where My Love Lies Dreaming," "Old Black Joe," "Uncle Ned," "Laura Lee," "Hard Times Come Again No More," "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair," and "Beautiful Dreamer."
Foster's first successful songs were written in 1848 and 1849, while he was working as a bookkeeper at a steamship company owned by one of his brothers in Cincinnati. One of these songs was "Oh! Susanna," which was performed by minstrel troupes and also had a parodied version of it become an anthem for the California Gold Rush. "Nelly Was a Lady," published in 1849, was made popular by the Christy Minstrels. Following this, Foster returned to Pennsylvania and signed a contract with the Christy Minstrels. He then wrote many of his most well-known songs, like "Camptown Races" in 1850 and "Old Folks at Home" in 1851.
Foster published "My Old Kentucky Home" in 1853. He went through hardship in subsequent years—splitting with his wife, losing his parents, and suffering alcoholism—and was less prolific. At this time he also shifted from composing minstrel songs to penning sentimental ballads. Only "Beautiful Dreamer," which was published posthumously, achieved the status of his earlier works. In January 1864, according to some accounts, he came down with a fever, and afterward fell in his hotel and accidentally cut his neck. He was found in a pool of blood and died three days later, on January 13, at the age of 37. Others speculate that he died of suicide.
Since his death, he has become known as one of the most influential and prominent songwriters in American history. Two of his songs, "My Old Kentucky Home" and "Old Folks at Home," became the state songs of Kentucky and Florida, respectively. Although, some lyrics in the songs were deemed racist and were changed. These two songs and many other of his compositions have remained in the public consciousness, and Stephen Foster Memorial Day was created in his honor.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day celebrations have been held on a local scale since at least 1923, often taking place on January 13, but not always. This date was used because it is the date of Foster's death—his birth date was not used because it coincides with Independence Day. Foster's songs were sung at a celebration in Pennsylvania on January 13, 1923. Other celebrations in the 1920s included memorial services at Foster's grave, programs of his songs in public schools, and orchestras playing his music over the radio waves. Many of the early celebrations were held in Pennsylvania, particularly in Pittsburgh, the city of Foster's birth. In 1929, the governor of Pennsylvania proclaimed Stephen Collins Foster Memorial Day to be held in the state on April 15. In 1934, the Kentucky legislature authorized the governor to proclaim Stephen Collins Foster Memorial Day on January 31, in honor of the writer of "My Old Kentucky Home."
In April 1951, the Florida Federation of Music Clubs held a convention in Miami, Florida, and the National Federation of Music Clubs held a convention in Salt Lake City the following month. They endorsed and joined with the Florida Stephen Foster Memorial Corporation's call for the creation of a national holiday called Stephen Foster Memorial Day. On October 27, 1951, Congress approved a joint resolution, Public Law 225, which authorized the president to issue a proclamation designating January 13, the date of Foster's death, as Stephen Foster Memorial Day. On December 13, 1951, President Harry Truman issued Proclamation 2957, which designated January 13, 1952, "and each succeeding January 13 throughout the years" as Stephen Foster Memorial Day. He called upon citizens to "observe such day with appropriate ceremonies, pilgrimages to the shrines of this beloved composer, and musical programs featuring his compositions."
During the first year of observance, a program was held in White Springs, Florida, at the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, along the Suwannee River—the river which one of Foster's songs references. Many of Foster's best-known songs were performed by James Melton, a popular tenor singer, with the backing of the University of Florida Glee Club. Addresses were given by Vice President Alben W. Barkley and Florida Governor Fuller Warren, among others. The Mutual Broadcasting System broadcast the event nationally.
During contemporary observances, people visit places of tribute to Foster. Some schools celebrate his songs and have history lessons related to him. He is celebrated by music appreciation societies and organizations, such as the Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization. Stephen Foster Memorial Day is a federal observance, being designated in 36 U.S.C. §140.
How to Observe Stephen Foster Memorial Day
Some ideas on how to observe the day include:
- Attend ceremonies and musical programs related to the day.
- Make a pilgrimage to a site that honors Stephen Foster, such as the Hall of Fame for Great Americans; the Stephen Foster Memorial at the University of Pittsburgh, which houses the Stephen Foster Memorial Museum, the Center For American Music, and the Stephen Foster Collection and archive; The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park on the Suwannee River in White Springs, Florida; the Stephen C. Foster State Park in Georgia; the Stephen Foster Home in Hoboken, New Jersey; the Guilford School building, which is on the grounds where the boarding house where Foster resided in Cincinnati once stood; My Old Kentucky Home State Park in Bardstown, Kentucky; or Foster's grave at Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh.
- Join the Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization.
- See the production of The Stephen Foster Story musical at My Kentucky Home State Park.
- Watch the American Experience episode about Foster or the biographical film Swanee River.
- Explore and listen to Foster's songs.
- Read a biography about Stephen Foster.
- Take a more nuanced approach to the day, and instead of celebrating Foster, read more about the history of minstrel songs, and reflect on Foster's legacy in that context.