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by William H. Benson

January 13, 2000


     Thursday of this week, the thirteenth, is noted as Stephen Foster Memorial Day.  Composer and lyricist, he died on that day in 1864 at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital at the age of 38.  During his short life he wrote some 200 songs–musical images of American life, especially of the South.

     “Oh! Susanna!  Oh won’t you cry for me,  for I’ve come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.”  This Foster song became the favorite at the California mining camps during the Forty-Nine gold rush.  Popular song books still include his other remembered songs:  “Camptown Races”, “Swanee River”, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”, and “My Old Kentucky Home”. 

     Although he wrote Southern songs that captured the plantation’s spirit, albeit in an idyllic sense, Stephen Foster actually lived most of his life in the North–at Pittsburgh.  Still, he had a great gift for melody and could pick up any tune by ear.  He played the clarinet and the piano when still a child, and he wrote both the words and the music to his songs.

     With war clouds threatening between North and South, Foster moved to New York City in 1860 where he lived the rest of his life.  His wife and children soon abandoned him when his heavy drinking had reduced them to squalor.

     Although Stephen Foster had little actual experience living on a Southern plantation, someone who did and believed wholeheartedly in its way of life was Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy.  He grew up on a Mississippi cotton plantation, and he often spoke of the benevolence of the slave-system.  On his father’s cotton plantation, the slaves were never flogged.  The slaves judged and punished themselves.  Families were kept together.  Davis falsely assumed that slaves were treated the same across the South; he refused to believe any stories of cruelty.

     When the Northerners questioned Davis’s assumptions, he, like so many other Southerners, responded as if insulted and personally assaulted.  He told his wife, Varina, “I cannot bear to be suspected or complained of, or misconstrued after explanation.”  Senator Isaac P. Walker of Wisconsin commented on Jefferson Davis: “He speaks with an air which seems to say ‘Nothing more can be said, I know it all, it must be as I think.'”  Reading this helps to explain why the Civil War occurred and, still more, why it lasted so long.

     The best of Stephen Foster’s music had encouraged sympathy for the slaves’ suffering on the plantation, and that music is our link back to those pre-Civil War days before the Great National Divorce, back to those simpler but not necessarily better ideas.

     Despite his genius for song, Stephen Foster died alone, penniless, in a drunken stupor in January of 1864.  Fifteen months later the Confederacy died, its back completely broken.

     Exactly a century would pass before a descendent of a former slave would stand next to the Lincoln Memorial and dare to say:  “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’ . . . I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. . . . And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.  So let freedom ring.”


     Those words sound so much more sincere and nobler than, “Camptown Races five miles long, doo-dah, doo-dah,” or “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away.  That’s where my heart is turning ever.  That’s where the old foks stay.  All up and down the whole creation, sadly I roam.  Still longing for the old plantation, and for the old folks at home.”