My Old Kentucky Home is the Federal Hill Mansion in Bardstown Kentucky which was built by Judge John Rowan in 1795. Many notable historical figures including Henry Clay and the Marqui de Lafayette visited the home. The home remained in the Rowan family until 1920 when it was sold to the Old Kentucky Home Commision and two years later donated to the state of Kentucky for use as a state park, which it remains today.
The lyrics to this song were changed in 1986. State Representative Carl Hines (D) was quoted as saying that the lyrics, "convey connotations of racial discrimination that are not acceptable." Hines sponsored House Bill 159 which revised the lyrics.
His parents were William Barclay Foster, merchant and trader, and Eliza Clayland Foster. Foster’s parents had no interest in music. It was his sister, Charlotte Susanna Foster, who played the piano and sang songs about loss and love that became his inspiration.
Stephen grew up and received an education that was typical of Irish families living in Pittsburgh during that era, attending the Allegheny Academy and two other institutions in the Bradford County area. He enrolled at Jefferson College, but left after only a weeks stay and never returned.
Foster never lived in Kentucky however In 1846, Foster moved to Cincinnati, Ohio and became a bookkeeper with his brother's steamship company. While in Cincinnati, Foster penned his first successful songs, among them "Oh! Susanna". It would prove to be the anthem of the California Gold Rush in 1848–1849. In 1849, he published Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, which included the successful song "Nelly Was a Lady", made famous by the Christy Minstrels.
Many of Foster's songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. Foster sought, in his own words, to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." He instructed Caucasian performers of his songs not to mock slaves but to get their audiences to feel compassion for them.
Though many of Foster's songs have Southern themes, Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once, by river-boat voyage (on his brother Dunning's steam boat, the James Millinger) down the Mississippi to New Orleans, during his honeymoon in 1852.
Foster is notable for popularizing the use of the "honky tonk" piano style and the use of the Swanee whistle aka as a slide whistle for effect.
In an era in which copyrights were limited and ignored Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter. Composer royalties did not exist at the time. So Foster realized very little income from his works. For Oh! Susanna he earned a meager $100.
In 1860 Foster decided to move to New York City. Things did not work out for the family and his wife and daughter moved back to Pittsburgh. Foster faced difficult times due to lack of work. He kept on writing songs, but the quality had diminished. Foster became an alcoholic and moved to the North American Hotel at 30 Bowery on the lower east side of Manhattan, New York.
It was during this period he wrote two more songs that went on to achieve fame. One was Old Black Joe, written in 1863. His final song was deeply personal and perhaps allows us a view into Foster’s dispair and desire to escape his condition. This was Beautiful Dreamer.
According to his brother Henry, Stephen had been ill for a number of days and was confined to his bead with a persistent fever. Foster had called out for help and when no one came, he attempted to stand up only to hit his head on a washbasin. The basis shattered and gouged his head. Foster was taken to Bellevue Hospital although the trip took over three hours. Due to injury and possible sepsis, Foster died three days later at age 37.
In his worn leather wallet there was found a scrap of paper that simply said "Dear friends and gentle hearts" along with 35 cents in Civil War scrip and three pennies.
Foster did not live to see the success of his final song, Beautiful Dreamer, for he died on January 13, 1864 and the song was published in March 1864, two months after his death.
His brother, Morrison Foster, is largely responsible for compiling his works and writing a short but pertinent biography of Stephen. His sister, Ann Eliza Foster Buchanan, married a brother of President James Buchanan.
Although there are many honors, theaters and academic awards for this man that was the Father of American music, one that is close to my home is in Alms Park in Cincinnati, overlooking the Ohio River, where there is a seated statue of him.
The Lawrenceville (Pennsylvania) Historical Society, together with the Allegheny Cemetery Historical Association, hosts the annual Stephen Foster Music and Heritage Festival (Doo Dah Days!). Held the first weekend of July, Doo Dah Days! celebrates the life and music of one the most influential songwriters in America's history.
36 U.S.C. § 140 designates January 13 as Stephen Foster Memorial Day, a United States National Observance.
In 1936, Congress authorized the minting of a silver half dollar in honor of the Cincinnati Musical Center. Stephen Foster was featured on the obverse of the coin despite his tenuous links to the city.
On a personal note, one of the families that lived nearby his Pittsburgh home was that of General James O’Hara who served in the Revolutionary War and had successful businesses in Pittsburgh. Although it’s doubtful he was my relation, I find it interesting.
As a child of around 12 my family visited the Federal Hill Mansion in Bardstown Kentucky, which is said to have served as the inspiration for My Old Kentucky Home. We stayed to see The Stephen Foster Story, which is an outdoor musical held in an amphitheater that is nearby the structure.
Two things touched me during that visit. I wondered if My Old Kentucky Home was about the mansion or the slave quarters behind the home or perhaps they were intertwined. Certainly the lives of white people and black people became intertwined in a way that seems strange and horrible to us living 160 years later.
There was a very small family cemetery on the grounds. One of the graves read, “Weep No More My Lady.”
I could not help but think Foster knew one of the family members at the home that was suffering due to her health.