Old Folks at Home, Ethiopian Melody

[Foster, Stephen Collins]. Old Folks at Home, Ethiopian Melody. New York: Firth, Pond, [1852?]. [Incorrectly attributed to E. P. Christy.]

Hard Times (2)

Stephen Collins Foster became the first American to make his living solely from the sale of his music. Born on July 4, 1826, he received his early musical training from a German immigrant. At the age of 20, he sold his first songs to a publisher in Cincinnati and four years later embarked on his career as a professional songwriter. Recognizing the commercial potential of the minstrel shows, Foster sent his early "Ethiopian melodies" to Christy's Minstrels and other troupes. These first efforts earned him popular acclaim, but the rampant illegal printing of his songs, such as "Oh! Susannah," resulted in small financial profits. Nonetheless, the "Ethiopian melodies" proved to be only a small fraction of Foster's output. Of his 286 compositions, only twenty-three were written for the minstrel stage.

Portrait of Foster

Portrait of Foster.

By the mid-nineteenth century, Foster made a conscious attempt to counter the excesses of blackface minstrelsy, omitting the crude dialect used in earlier songs and refusing to permit his sheet music to display caricatured images of African Americans. "Nelly Was a Lady" and "Old Dog Tray" exemplify this more genteel style. In an effort to distinguish new songs from his earlier offerings, Foster classified his later output as "plantation melodies."

The Old Plantation Melodies

Foster, Stephen Collins, Walter Kittredge, et al. The Old Plantation Melodies. New York: H. M. Caldwell Co., 1888.

Stephen Foster's reputation has ebbed and flowed with the vicissitudes of time and changes in social consciousness. Sensitivity to the inherent racism in minstrelsy led many schools to abandon his songs in the 1950s and 1960s, but more recent scholarship has restored their standing in the annals of American song.

Fearing that use of his own name would endanger his reputation as a serious composer, Foster had his first "Ethiopian melodies" published under E. P. Christy's name. In 1935, this song became the state song of Florida.

"Nelly Was a Lady" marks the first song of its type to portray an African-American couple with dignity and compassion. Even the song's title demonstrates its unusual sensitivity by using the term "lady," which at that time was reserved for upper-class white women.

Irish Melodies

Moore, Thomas. Irish Melodies. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1846. In Memory of Mary de Camp Moore.

Thomas Moore, the voice of an oppressed Ireland, used his poems and songs to carry that message to the parlors and concert halls of Europe and America. Irish Melodies tapped into the nationalistic fervor of the time, a passion which in musical circles translated into the folk song revival. Moore's songs exerted a tremendous influence on Stephen Foster and contemporary American composers.

Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No. 7 Banjo, replica

Fairbanks Whyte Laydie No. 7 Banjo, replica.

On loan from Jay Darmstadter.

This reproduction of a ca. 1906 original, owned at the time by Michael I. Holmes, was constructed over a two-week period in 1979 by Jay Darmstadter. The neck is maple and the fingerboard and peghead face are ebony with engraved mother-of-pearl inlays. The body, known as the pot, is from a ca. 1920 lesser model Whyte Laydie modified with purflings (inlaid border on the back edge of the body) and tortoise bindings to resemble the original.