Marking Time highlights one of the more than 2,500 markers that have been installed throughout the state since 1914 as part of the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, operated by PHMC's State Historic Preservation Office.

Stephen Collins Foster, son of Ger­man immigrants William Barclay and Eliza Tomlinson Foster, was born in Lawrenceville, near Pittsburgh, on July 4, 1826. As a child, he seemed to have more interest in music than in school. As a teen he was composing music, including “Oh! Susanna.” His first published song, “Open Thy Lattice Love,” was published in Philadelphia in 1844. Two years later, with a dozen compositions in print, Fos­ter married Jane Denny MacDowell, established himself as a composer, and wrote “Camptown Races.”

Despite his music’s association with the South, Foster spent most of his adult life in Pittsburgh. His only visit to the Deep South was a belated honeymoon in 1852, when he and his wife took a month-long steamship trip to New Or­leans. Foster never even visited the Suwannee River in Florida, subject of one of his most famous songs.

Although he died at the age of thirty-seven, Foster wrote 286 works during his twenty-year career, including songs, hymns, and instrumental works. He is considered America’s first professional songwriter. His versatile repertoire was equally at home in traveling minstrel shows and in the family parlor. He drew from diverse musical traditions and incorporated elements of hymns, ballads, opera, and popular songs into his compositions, endowing them with a familiarity that resonated with an enthusiastic public.

“Camptown Races,” also ti­tled “Gwine to Run All Night,” was apparently inspired by the horse races that ran from the village of Camptown to Wyalusing, both in Bradford County (see “Our Documentary Heritage” in the spring 2005 issue). Although it was published in 1850, the song may have been inspired by the brief period Foster spent in nearby Towanda and Athens, both in Bradford County, in 1840-1841. It was during this time that he also performed one of his first compositions, “The Tioga Waltz.”

Foster’s compositions have influ­enced America’s musical heritage for the past century and a half. His first hit after he became a professional songwriter, “Oh! Susanna” (1848), became wildly popular with the prospectors who raced to California during the frenzied gold rush. “Camptown Races” and “Old Black Joe” have alternately been heralded and reviled as emblems of America’s struggle for racial equality. Foster sought to humanize the characters in his songs, and instructed white performers not to mock slaves but to inspire compassion for them. “Beautiful Dreamer” and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” are sentimental ballads with enduring lyrical beauty. Two of his compositions, “My Old Ken­tucky Home” and “Suwannee River,” became the state songs of Kentucky and Florida in the twentieth century, long after Foster’s death.

Stephen Collins Foster died on January 13, 1864, in New York and is buried in Allegheny Cemetery in the Lawrenceville neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

This state historical marker acknowledging Camptown and the race immortalized by Foster is located at the junction of routes 706 and 409 in Camp­town. More information about Foster is available from the Center for American Music at the University of Pittsburgh, the principal repository for materials concerning his life and music.


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