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Myths About Foster


People who have been led to believe any of the following common fictions about Stephen Collins Foster are uninformed. Any writing or presentation that conveys one or more of these fictions is misleading. These mythic beliefs and traditions that have grown up around the composer have long served a desire within the American common culture for a romanticized view of the mid-nineteenth century against which we could contrast our comparative superiority in the present. The truth, however, is even more powerful, and of greater interest to modern audiences.


Among the most widely repeated imaginary and false stories are these:


  • Foster was a Southerner
  • Foster wrote about the "Swanee" River and the old Kentucky home after (or while) visiting those sites
  • Foster was an idle dreamer, an untrained musical genius whose songs were flashes of inspiration
  • Foster was incapable of any kind of work, and did not have to labor at writing music
  • Foster got many of his musical ideas by listening to slaves or attending black church services and then simply writing down what he heard
  • Foster was a racist who glorified slavery and the happy life for slaves on the plantation, and who regretted the abolition of slavery
  • Foster earned a great deal of money but was financially inept
  • Foster was a carefree, spendthrift artist who neither knew nor cared about money
  • Foster hated school, and was therefore poorly educated
  • Foster was gay
  • Foster committed suicide
  • Foster was a drunkard who died intoxicated in a Bowery gutter

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last updated February 24, 2014