A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel

If you’ve ever found yourself humming “Camptown Races” or “Oh! Susanna,” then you know Stephen Foster.

He’s the genius behind these and other catchy Antebellum-era favorites, many of which supposedly captured life in the Old South — even though Foster was born in Pennsylvania in 1826 and only visited the South when he honeymooned in New Orleans.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the inventor of the pop song: “the bastard stepchild of the parlor song and the minstrel song, of the European and African strains of American music,” as Michael Friedman wrote in The New Yorker in 2014.

And sadly, his tragic life trajectory echos that of many of today’s pop stars.

Growing up, Foster learned to play various instruments. He tried college, then went to work for his brother. But music was his passion, and he began selling songs in the 1840s to sheet music publishers.

“Oh! Susanna,” in 1848, was his breakthrough hit; it sold an astounding 100,000 copies and was performed by the popular New York–based Christy Minstrels.

“The song spread like wild fire with people whistling it in the streets,” states Pittsburgh Music History. “People all over country were singing it.”

Foster was famous now, churning out hits he liked to call “American melodies” (he reportedly disliked the demeaning, racially charged language in many minstrel tunes and tried to make the characters in his songs, both black and white, sympathetic).

He also inked a deal with a New York publisher that paid him 2 cents in royalties for every copy of his music that sold.

But the 1850s weren’t kind to Foster. His wife left him, he was creatively stuck, and pirated copies of his songs took a toll on his finances. He moved to Hoboken for a spell, then returned to Pennsylvania before coming east again.

In debt and alone by 1860, he lived in various Bowery hotels, took on a writing partner, and tried to restart his career.

Living on the Bowery (above, at Chatham Square in 1860) — which was then transforming from a lively theater district to a wilder strip of lowbrow stages and saloons — wasn’t a good move for a man already beset by depression and alcoholism.

“He rented a room in a cheap hotel at the corner of Bayard Street (at right), hoping for inspiration,” wrote Michael Leapman in The Companion Guide to New York, “but instead developed an undetermined fever and a gargantuan taste for drink.”

On January 10, 1864, Foster’s writing partner, George Cooper (below with Foster) found him on the floor of his room, naked and bleeding from the neck. He’d apparently slipped and cut his throat on a porcelain washing basin.

Brought by carriage to Bellevue, he died a few days later, at age 37. In his pocket was 38 cents and a note that read “Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts” but nothing else.

“Beautiful Dreamer,” which he wrote in his Bowery hotel room, was published after his death and became arguably his most enduring song, a standard to this day.

[Top photo: Bowery Alliance; second image: Alamy; third photo: NYPL; fourth image: MCNY 48.79; fifth image: Pittsburgh Music History]

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8 Responses to “A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel”

  1. Lady G. Says:

    How sad, I never knew the writer behind those songs we find ourselves whistling and humming nearly every day. Wow. :/

  2. Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

    I heard Gloria Loring sing ‘BEAUTIFUL DREAMER’ at a political event in the 1970s. The lights were low and she had no accompaniment.. The melding of her voice with the musical-poetry was so unforgettible, I handpainted the lyric of this Foster song in calligraphy as a border around the crest of our bedroom.

    I wish you had added the (gigantic in size) oil portrait of Foster by masterful artist, Howard Chandler Christy. It is an allegory of imagined figures representing the characters in his songs as Stephen Foster ponders the music at his composing-desk. This is in a museum setting in Florida at a park dedicated to the musician. Once you spot this artwork, WOW – it is stunning – it’ll stop ya in yer tracks!

    There is an impressive, outdoor musical show available in Bardstown, Kent. The production is based on the life and music of Foster. It is lovely to hear and offers Old South charm with lots of colorful costumes and everysong is part of the heartbeat-of-America.

    • Audrey Burtrum-Stanley Says:

      I had a friend whose home telephone number (in Missouri) were the opening notes to ‘CAMPTOWN RACES.’ Each time I would dial him, after he said: “HELLO!” – I’d hit the numbers “7-8, 7-8” because those numbers emitted a tone that matched the melody for: ‘Doo-Dah Doo-Dah!

      (Alas, when I tried to dial the opening numbers now, — to share with everyone reading the blog — my modern day phone is positively monotone / tone deaf – @$#@! DRAT – There goes another FUN part of life…)

  3. Ruth Edebohls Says:

    He did write at least decidedly un-PC song, “Uncle Ned”. It was in my 6ith-grade songbook at PS 10 in Brooklyn. First line was” Oh there was an old darkie and his name was Uncle Ned and he lived long ago, long ago …”. It was actually a very catchy tune, but would never be sung in this day and age, for obvious reasons.

  4. A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel | Ephemeral New York | Rogues & Vagabonds Says:

    […] Source: A songwriter’s desperate end in a Bowery hotel | Ephemeral New York […]

  5. ksbeth Says:

    sad ending –

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