Appropriately, he was born on July 4th, 1826, the same day that founding fathers John Adams and Thomas Jefferson left this world, only hours apart. Stephen Foster hailed from Pennsylvania, attended the University of Pittsburgh, then went out into the world to find his own special road to walk.
He would be the first American to ever try and make his living as a songwriter. Encouraged in the beginning at receiving $100 dollars for "Oh Susannah", Foster would go on to write some 200 songs.
But, while America loved singing his songs, and while they were always a hit in the many minstrel shows, no one cared to pay Foster for his work. Eventually even his wife lost faith in him and took their child and went away.
So, Foster languished about in a hundred squalid tenement rooms and penned song after song that America would come to love...just not in time to save him.
"I Dream of Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair", "Camptown Races", and "Old Folks At Home" would later become anthems to anyone longing for "place" and "home". Civil War soldiers would sing "My Old Kentucky Home" as they trudged back home after the Civil War.
Foster would not see the end of that war; he died impoverished in a New York City tenement in the winter of 1864. When they searched his body they found .38 cents in Confederate Script and three pennies. He was 37 years old. And his last song; perhaps his best; "Beautiful Dreamer".
Stephen Foster's songs would grow in popularity after his death. My generation grew up singing his songs in elementary school classrooms. There always seemed to be an ache in our heart when we sang something from Stephen. Now his songs are part of the Great American Songbook and are recorded by folk singers and presented by American symphony orchestras all across the land.
Today Roseanne Cash released an album of Foster's songs. Partnered with the Cincinnati Orchestra she has once again reminded us of what it feels to be "American". And, as we listen, we will once again feel that ache in our heart for the homes of our childhood.