“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair”

Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair

Stephen Foster is widely considered to be America’s first great songwriter. He was born in Lawrenceville, Allegheny County, near Pittsburgh, on July 4, 1826. His first composition was published when he was 18 years old, and he would go on to write more than 250 songs, hymns and instrumental works during his lifetime, becoming the most important composer of popular music in 19th-century America.

In 1854 Foster composed the song “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” for his estranged wife, Jane McDowell Foster, probably in an attempt to win her back. The song was popular and its sheet music sold quite well.

The composition is a fine example of 19th-century parlor music. Parlor music was usually played on a piano in a family room and was a staple of Victorian-era American life. Middle-class families would gather around the ivories and entertain themselves by making music together. In some areas of the country it was considered good taste or a sign of education to be musically proficient. Sheet music was the dominant medium in which new songs were disseminated to people before the invention of the phonograph in 1877.

This particular piece of music was first published in 1854 by Firth, Pond & Co. It sold for 35 cents per copy. Firth, Pond began business in 1847 in New York. The majority of its commerce centered on the publishing of sheet music. Foster signed a contract with the company in 1849, and it played a key role in helping to popularize some of his best-known works.

Unfortunately for Foster, the music industry in the United States was just getting started at the time of his composing career. Therefore, he made only a pittance for his prolific output of great music because many publishers and performers ignored his copyrights and paid him little or no royalties. This precipitated another separation from his wife, alcohol abuse, poverty and an early death at the age of 37 on January 13, 1864. In the modern music industry he would have made millions of dollars for his compositions.

“Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” has remained one of Foster’s most enduring songs. Nearly a century later, in 1941, it became a hit again when the music industry was in turmoil fighting over royalty rates that led to a radio ban on playing compositions licensed by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). Songs in the public domain, like this Foster classic, were played instead on radio stations. Popular musicians of the day, including Bing Crosby, recorded their own versions of the tune. In 1952 the Republic Pictures film about Foster’s life and musical career borrowed its title from the first words of the song: I Dream of Jeanie.

A copy of the Firth, Pond & Co. sheet music for “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” is held by the Pennsylvania State Archives in Manuscript Group 9, Pennsylvania Writers Collection.

 

Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders.