Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts


Stephen Foster His body was gone from Bellvue Hospital (where he was listed ingloriously as "Forster") before Cooper returned; they found it later at the bottom of a stack of coffins in the morgue. Among the contents of his pocket was a worn leather purse containing 38 cents and a scrap of paper with the scribbled words "dear friends and gentle hearts."

Aside from my capricious, melodious muse, whose melodies fill my ears unceasingly, drink has been my only steady companion and regrettably the primary source of my misfortune. Was it drink or lack thereof that caused me to faint and gash myself most severely on the washbasin then? I seem to have become accident prone in my middle age - the rather ugly burn that I gave myself days ago against the stove throbs violently and my induced alcohol numbness is only temporary. I don't care. Jenny and Marion have gone - this time for good. I have lived up to my father's ability to squander my talents and funds. I am cheated everywhere and no one knows my name or cares. A vision of my long lost home is calling me back from the dirty Bowery to the White Cottage - I dream sometimes of my mother's eyes and my sister Charlotte's sweet voice. I am alone now and forgotten by all; I am ready to go home: yet they will sing my songs anon.

The German taunted me tonight at the bar. He said I will never write another great song. Cooper nearly came to blows with him. I did not disagree. I feel as though I am done. But he is wrong: I have written one more that I am proud of; may it serve as an epitaph: Beautiful dreamer, wake unto me, starlight and dew drops are waiting for thee...

The war to preserve the Union has commenced and I have tried to keep in tune with the times by writing some admittedly dreadful war songs. I am ashamed, but you must do what you do to live. Meanwhile, the Republicans passed the law of conscription and as expected the Irish rioted in the streets. They will not go to war to free the Negroes they fear will take their jobs. They lynched any Black they could find and even burned down the Negro orphanage. I sat and watched the fires from my window and could not stop the shaking.

There is no heat and little food. I have sold all my songs and even the rights to my future ones, yet I am still in debt. Jenny and Marion returned to me, but I could not keep them. I must have total silence to work. Food and heat mean nothing to me - only my songs.

John Brown has been hanged for inciting the slaves to riot. I fear there is no turning back now.

Yet another economic downturn in 1855. Everywhere people are hungry and in want. I write "Hard Times Come Again No More" based on what I see. (I understand it becomes somewhat of a folk anthem in later times - covered by the likes of Bob Dylan and Nancy Griffith.)

They even tell me white folks are crying at "Old Black Joe" and that it is affecting public opinion even as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin" did. Ha - I'm no reformer. As long as it buys me an apple or a turnip and some good whiskey I'm satisfied.

I miss my wife and child. I write "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair." Shouldn't that prove to her that I love her?

New York is a fabulous place. Here music will become an industry. I will produce songs just as a factory produces goods and through the sales of sheet music to the public I will gain my fortune. (We didn't have things you have in the present like records or cds or even radio.) On another note, I intend to elevate the minstrel songs out of their tawdry gutter; I find am tired of the condescending doo-dahs of "Camptown Races."

Jenny and I took the steamboat to New Orleans as a belated honeymoon. Hard to believe it was the first and only time I ever was in the south. I am inspired to write "My Old Kentucky Home." She left me the first time not long after that and I moved alone to New York City.

Good morning Jenny, dear. I know I have been out all night and am in quite a shape, but you'll forgive me won't you? I admit I was angry when I left. Yes, I must find a way to spend more time with you. But my songs are my life and they are what financially supports us - you must respect my sanctuary to compose. Can't you understand?

I am misunderstood. I walk the fine line between the parlor ballads and the minstrel songs with my "plantation songs." Don't get me wrong - I am a "Copperhead" through and through: there must be compromise on the slave question to keep the nation intact. But all the same, they are human aren't they? They bleed and laugh and cry as we do, and love and grieve too?

SILENCE! I must have silence to work! Please I must hear the melodies; I must work them out of the tapestry that surrounds me. I cannot take the time. Stop the child from interrupting me! I love you both, but. I need time alone. I need quiet!

I can't believe my luck - I've persuaded E.P. Christy to use my song "Old Folks at Home" (you know - the one with the Swanee River running through it). He only insists that his name be listed as author - a small price to pay, no doubt!

Jenny, Jenny, Jenny. My sweet, sweet Jenny with the light brown hair. I love your auburn hair and your worldly manner. You'll be my rock. I'll swing in the stars and sky and pull the celestial melodies down for all to hear. You'll keep me from flying away into the ether. No one understands. You don't even care for music. But you are my other component and fulfill me.

Things progress; I have offended some folks with "Nellie Was a Lady," as if a Negro man cannot believe his woman a lady! But my "Camptown Races" is becoming quite popular and I have secured a deal with the publishers that will pay me 8 percent! My future is secure.

I never understood the power of music - not really - it just kind of gradually sunk in after I played "Oh Susanna" at Andrew's Eagle Ice Cream Saloon in Pittsburgh. Next thing you know they're singing my song everywhere, even all the way out in California with the Gold Rush, and sheet music is selling like no one's ever seen before. There's real money in this music business - too bad I gave it away. But I won't make that mistake again, and I've still got hundreds of songs within me. Maybe I won't be stuck working as a clerk all my life. Maybe I can even earn my living as a songwriter?

My friends and I used to play the Negro songs when nobody was around. I loved all that parlor music well enough, but there was something in the music from the minstrel shows that just hit me: something exciting and dangerous and full of life (almost like your rock and roll). I thought I was about to die when I first saw "Daddy" Rice wearing the burnt cork makeup jump Jim Crow. (He was perhaps the Elvis of his day.)

Nat Turner, inspired by heavenly visions, including a solar eclipse leads a violent slave revolt killing 55 whites. He is caught, hung and skinned.

My earliest memories are of playing my sister's guitar that I called my "little piano," and of course my beloved flute. The whole family used to sing and play - my eldest sister Charlotte Susanna was the real musical talent of the family. It devastated us all when she caught the fever and died at only nineteen. I swear I spent the rest of my life trying to fulfill the promise that was extinguished when that dear and gentle heart stopped beating.

July 4, 1826, Stephen Collins Foster - the first great professional American songwriter was born at the White Cottage - the plantation in Lawrenceville, PA that the family was fated to lose a few years later due to financial setbacks. It was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died later that day.

Beautiful Dreamer: The Songs of Stephen Foster - a collection of Foster's songs as performed by John Prine, Mavis Staples, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Alison Krauss, Mark O' Connor, Yo Yo Ma, Michelle Shocked, Roger McGuinn, Suzy Boggus, Rox Sexsmith and others was released on Emergent Records August 24th. All proceeds go to the benefit of Amercian Roots Publishing, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of American culture through literature and art.

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