Stephen Foster Memorial Day, held annually on January 13, gives you the opportunity 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. He also taught himself how to play the clarinet, flute, piano, and guitar, and he 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 as 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. 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 began to change his style. Now, 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 the age of 37 in what appeared to be an accident at home and left around 200 songs for which he had written the words as well as 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
He composes the ‘Tioga Waltz’ at the age of 14 and becomes a published songwriter at the age of 18, with the song ‘Open Thy Lattice, Love.’
Stephen Foster writes ‘Oh! Susanna’ while working at his brother's steamship company; the song goes on to become the anthem for gold miners heading west to the California Gold Rush.
In October, President Harry Truman issues a proclamation to dedicate January 13 as a day to remember Foster.
A law comes into effect that turns Stephen Foster Memorial Day into a United States Federal Observance Day.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day is now officially celebrated across America.
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, which is Independence Day in the United States.
Where is Stephen Foster Memorial?
The Stephen Collins Foster Memorial is located at the University of Pittsburgh and is 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 actually 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 entrance of Carnegie Museum Of Natural History. Can't physically visit these places? Conduct virtual tours online, or simply 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 his 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 American 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.
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.
Why We Love Stephen Foster Memorial Day
His story says dreams do come true
Even for a short amount of time, Stephen Foster lived his dream of earning a living from songwriting. He did this at a time when songwriting was not even a career.
He gave us an invaluable gift
His music lives on in popular melodies. Some of them are still familiar to the current generation.
His gift keeps on giving
His music shaped multiple musicians — Ray Charles, Harriet Tubman, Bob Dylan, and even Pete Seeger. It may have influenced the music we heard, and still hear today.
Stephen Foster Memorial Day dates