Art and Culture

Who Is That Man?

Mrs Parkhurst Duer was chatting with clerks when the door opened.  As the attractive 21-year-old looked up, a shabbily dressed dejected man entered the New York publishing house lobby and leaned his careworn against the counter near the door.  

The clerk recalled: ‘I noticed he looked ill and weak. No one spoke to him.  A clerk laughed and said: ‘Steve looks down and out.’

‘Everyone laughed and the poor man saw them all laughing at him. It seemed to me my heart stood still. Intuition perhaps, I asked ‘who is that man?’

‘Stephen Foster.’ the clerk replied. ‘He is only a vagabond. Don’t go near him.’

The married clerk smiled.  ‘Yes, I will go near him. That man needs a friend.’

She went on to write: ‘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.’

‘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.’

The warm-hearted young woman was as familiar with the ballads composed by Stephen Collins Foster as were the American people and indeed the world. 

‘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.’

Lovers of the greatest melodies ever composed will also be familiar with such whimsical ballads as I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, Oh Susanna and The Old Folks at Home.

The world then was far different from ours. Practically the one source of entertainment were the songs performed in theatres or when family and friends gathered around the piano in the bar or home.  The songs of this homeless vagrant brought a lump to throats from Alaska to Durban, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, and of course throughout the United States and they still do. 

Beautiful Dreamer and My Old Kentucky Home 150 years on still evoke nostalgia. Sales hold up yet few know of the man and the tragedy behind these much loved songs. What had brought such a talented and prolific song-writer to such poverty even as his compositions were being sung 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 personal affairs.  The songwriter rarely laid claim to his compositions, which were shamelessly plagiarised. If he was paid at all it was as though he were a charity case; a few paltry dollars thrown like scraps to a stray. The show business world leeched Stephen’s intellectual copyright. 

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 wrote many of his songs while sitting on a box or a barrel.

Mrs Parkhurst Duer knew Foster didn’t have a home and asked if he had a room. Not as such. He slept in a cellar owned by an elderly couple who charged him nothing. He said he was comfortable so I supposed he had a bed she surmised.

The kindly publisher 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 it was all too late and Stephen, arguably America’s greatest ever songwriter, died impoverished. His brother Henry described the accident that led to his passing away in a New York theatre-district hospital.

Confined by a persistent fever to bed for days, Stephen tried to call for assistance but collapsed.  Staggering from his bed, he fell against the wash basin next to his bed and shattered it, which gouged his head.  It took three hours to get him to the hospital. In that era, before transfusions and antibiotics, he succumbed after three days. In his worn leather wallet there was a scrap of paper that simply said ‘dear friends and gentle hearts’.

Born into a comfortable and loving family the short life of Stephen Collins Foster (1826 – 1864) was riches to rags story. This increases the poignancy of his death at the age of just 37.

When Foster died during a bitterly cold New York winter he was sick, homeless; probably an alcoholic. In his pocket when he died were just 38 cents and words scribbled on a scrap of paper, ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts’.

By this time he had composed over 175 songs. Estranged from his family he remained devoted to his wife whose name was Jane and for her he had written:

JEANNIE 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 around 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.

‘The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic  passageways in which the thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.’ ~ Hunter S. Thompson.

‘Ah music! What a beautiful art but what a wretched profession.’  ~ Georges Bizet. 

Beautiful Dreamer, possibly his best-loved work, was written just days before Foster’s death — and published posthumously.  The words follow:

Beautiful Dreamer

Beautiful Dreamer, wake unto me,
Starlight and dewdrops are waiting for thee;
Sounds of the rude world heard in the day,
Lull’d by the moonlight have all passed away!

Beautiful dreamer, queen of my song,
List while I woo thee with soft melody;
Gone are the cares of life’s busy throng

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Beautiful dreamer, out on the sea,
Mermaids are chanting the wild Lorelei;
Over the streamlet vapors are borne,
Waiting to fade at the bright coming morn.

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,
E’en as the morn on the streamlet and sea;
Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!
Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

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MICHAEL WALSH is a journalist, broadcaster and the author of RISE OF THE SUN WHEELEUROPE ARISE TROTSKY’S WHITE NEGROESMEGACAUST,  DEATH OF A CITYWITNESS TO HISTORY, THE BUSINESS BOOSTERTHE FIFTH COLUMN VOLUME I and IIFOR THOSE WHO CANNOT SPEAKIMMORTAL BELOVEDTHE ALL LIES INVASIONINSPIRE A NATION Volume IINSPIRE A NATION Volume II , SLAUGHTER OF A DYNASTY , REICH AND WRONG,  THE RED BRIGANDSRANSACKING THE REICH ,    SCULPTURES OF THE THIRD RIECH: ARNO BREKER AND REICH SCULPTORS  SCULPTURES OF THE THIRD RIECH:  JOSEF THORAK AND REICH SCULPTORS ,   PORCELAIN OF THE THIRD REICHSupreme Ceramics and Porcelain Lost to War, The Exiled Duke Romanov Who Turned Desert Into Paradise , THE DOVETAILS , SEX FEST AT TIFFANY’S  and other book titles. These illustrated best-selling books are essential for the libraries of informed readers.

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3 replies »

  1. Every morning I sit at the piano for a few minutes. The piece I am currently working my way through – as a total beginner, I might add (piano is not my first instrument:-) – is Swanee River by Stephen Foster. It is such a rich and beautiful piece.
    Then my routine is to turn on the computer. I am so behind on emails, that I vowed to just skim and delete most things today, but alas, the very first email was the notification of this article about Stephen Collins Foster. How wonderful! I really did not know much about his life before, so I thank you for this article. Beautiful serendipity.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree more, Monika; this story ~ his story will surely separate the human hearted from the cold-hearted. Of thousands of stories I have penned, the legend (for that is an apt description) is one of the very few that is etched on my heart. ~ Michael

      Liked by 1 person

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