Stephen Foster Memorial Day, held annually on January 13, allows you to discover America’s first songwriter and his music — which you might recognize. This day commemorates the man who composed hundreds of popular American songs, even before songwriting was a career.
History of Stephen Foster Memorial Day
Stephen Foster did not receive formal tutoring in music but was assisted by musician and music dealer Henry Kleber. However, he also taught himself how to play the clarinet, flute, piano, and guitar and showed a natural musical bent.
By 1846, he had moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, to work as a bookkeeper at his brother’s steamship company. While there, he wrote his first successful song, eventually returning to Pennsylvania in 1850 to sign a contract with New York publishers Firth, Pond & Co. to write songs for the minstrel band, the Christy Minstrels. According to the publisher’s rules, some songs appeared under Christy’s name. Foster was named the songwriter only after 1879.
Foster attempted to make a living as a songwriter after signing his contract with Firth, Pond & Co., back when this was not even considered a profession. This was his most successful period. But unfortunately, as he did not perform on stage, his talents went virtually unrecognized during his lifetime.
By 1857, after severe financial difficulties, he sold the rights to all his future songs to his publishers for approximately $1,900. The profits of his songs went largely to the performers and his publishers. Upon moving to New York City in 1860, he changed his style. He was writing largely sentimental songs such as ‘Poor Drooping Maiden.’ The subsequent years were less prolific, and he faced significant personal troubles. He died at 37 in what appeared to be an accident at home and left around 200 songs for which he had written the words and the music.
In October 1951, President Harry Truman dedicated the day Foster died, January 13, as a day to remember him. Stephen Foster Memorial Day was made official in 1966 and was celebrated a year later.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day Timeline
Foster Begins to Write Songs
He composed the ‘Tioga Waltz’ at 14 and became a published songwriter at 18, with the song ‘Open Thy Lattice, Love.’
Foster’s First Successful Song
Stephen Foster writes, ‘Oh! While working at his brother’s steamship company, Susanna’s song became the anthem for gold miners heading west during the California Gold Rush.
A Special Dedication
In October, President Harry Truman proclaimed to dedicate January 13 as a day to remember Foster.
The Day Becomes Official
A law comes into effect that turns Stephen Foster Memorial Day into a United States Federal Observance Day.
The First Celebration
Stephen Foster Memorial Day is now officially celebrated across America.
Songwriters Hall of Fame
Foster is inducted in New York.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day Faqs
What holiday was Stephen Foster born on?
Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, on July 4, Independence Day in the United States.
Where is Stephen Foster Memorial?
The Stephen Collins Foster Memorial is located at the University of Pittsburgh, a performing arts center and museum. It houses the Stephen Foster Archives as well.
Why is Stephen Foster important?
This “father of American music” influenced various musicians after him, and he was the very first songwriter in America.
How To Celebrate Stephen Foster Memorial Day
- Listen to some Stephen Foster originals.
- Hear some of his compositions, including songs like ‘Oh! Susanna,’ ‘Camptown Races,’ ‘Old Folks at Home,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home,’ ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair,’ ‘Old Black Joe,’ and ‘Beautiful Dreamer.’ You would be surprised to hear how familiar some of his music is!
- Check out a memorial event.
- Multiple cities organize special events in honor of Stephen Foster. Visit the Stephen Foster Culture Center State Park in Florida, check out the Stephen Foster Citizen Support Organization, or see his memorial at the University of Pittsburgh and another at the Carnegie Museum Of Natural History entrance. Can’t physically visit these places? Conduct virtual tours online or visit local music appreciation societies for information dedicated to this songwriter.
- Learn more about Stephen Foster
- Read about his life online or watch a documentary film about him. Gain invaluable insight into his music and influences, and take a closer look at the music industry back then.
5 Fun Facts About Stephen Foster Memorial Day
- A musical about Stephen Foster
- Held since 1858, ‘Stephen Foster – The Musical’ delves into this songwriter’s life and legacy.
- Only Americans credited for two state songs
- Foster’s ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘Old Folks at Home’ were adopted as the official state song of Kentucky and Florida, respectively, with some tweaks.
- First celebrations
- The first observance of Stephen Foster Memorial Day was held along the Suwannee River in Florida, which one of Foster’s songs references.
- Bruce Springsteen’s concert encore
- One of Foster’s most recorded songs, ‘Hard Times Come No More,’ has been used as Bruce Springsteen’s concert encore multiple times.
- A Japanese anime series about Foster
- In the 1990s, the songwriter and his wife, Jane, were the focus of a Japanese anime TV series.