He died at the age of 37 with 38 cents in his pocket - the first professional American songwriter. Some say he was the greatest, although his star has diminished because of his links with minstrelsy.
Despite the often cruel racial stereotyping of African-Americans in minstrel shows, Foster’s songs stand apart for they exude an ineffable ache that makes them timeless.
Of Scots, Irish and English descent, Foster was born to a prosperous, politically connected father who later fell on hard times and spent much of his life bemoaning the fact.
Are the sins of the father visited on his children? It would often appear so. John Stanislaus Joyce was usually but one step ahead of the bailiff; and his son, James, despite his genius, became perhaps the greatest literary scrounger and loan artist – no mean feat.
Foster himself was hardly a stranger to adversity – and creditors. Little wonder that he wrote Hard Times Come Again No More.
Bruce Springsteen often begins shows with this powerful song, Cherish The Ladies does a fine version, and Mavis Staples shows its real roots with her gospel treatment; for young Stephen spent many Sunday mornings with a family servant at the local African-American church outside Pittsburgh.
Yet, Foster is often stigmatized today because of his connection to “blackface.” Oddly enough, some of this genre’s greatest practitioners were Irish, including Dan Emmett, who by “blacking up” his whole band, is credited with creating the first true minstrel show.
Foster’s early songs became an acute source of embarrassment to him and as he matured he sought to humanize his subjects and to reform minstrelsy, the most powerful force in American popular culture in the mid 19th century.
Many off-the-boat Irish were drawn to “blackface” because who wanted to see Paddy Murphy up onstage unless he was being portrayed as the dimwitted, ignorant Simian beloved of Know-Nothing nativist Americans.
Much better to look like Master Jubah, the African-American dancer that the Irish flocked to see in the saloons of New York City’s Five Points.
And so it goes, stereotypes and, indeed, racism are rarely far from the surface in the melting pot.
Foster might have been just another flash-in-the-pan songwriter had his nascent career not been blessed with the telegraph. Like our modern day Internet this invention almost instantly revolutionized communication.
When Oh Susannah was published in 1848 it raced across the wires: the first universal American song. Miners in the Gold Rush of ’49 parodied it in California; there are even reports of it being sung in the bazaars of India.
Loss and a longing for the warmth of the past are ever recurring themes in Foster’s songs. Replace the “de” and “brudder” and “ribber” of Swannee River with their proper spelling and pronunciation, and you have an anthem of loneliness that borders on despair.
Foster was married to Jane McDowell, the “Jeanie with the light brown hair;” they had one daughter Marion but the union was unhappy. There is, in fact, strong reason to believe that he was gay.
In any case, Foster spent the last years of his life in and around the morally permissive Five Points, moving easily through a cross cultural and ethnically mixed world where, amongst others, Irish and African-Americans – known as amalgamationists - intermarried or cohabited.
That all ended on July 13, 1863 during the Draft Riots when the Colored Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue was burned down by a white mob, liberally sprinkled with Irish immigrants. Most African-Americans left the Five Points after that awful day and relations between the two peoples have never been the same.
Six months later in a dismal Bowery hotel room Foster lay dying. His family’s verdict was that while alone and feverish he knocked over a washbasin and cut his throat. Others suspect he committed suicide – an artist whose time had passed, a man who could no longer live with his sexuality.
One thing is certain: we can mark the inexorable march of a country – and the division among its peoples – through a study of his songs.
He wrote to the very end. One melody, in particular, is haunting; the words simple but searing, for they sum up his own life and a feeling that many have had at one time or another.
No one to love, no one to love
Why, no one to love?
What have you done in this beautiful world that you're
Sighing of no one to love?