Stephen Foster, American songwriter, is remembered on January 13, the day of his death in 1864. Morbid as it seems, upon researching this man’s life and death, it seems oddly appropriate. Although respectful of the more civilized parlor songs of the day, he and his friends would often sit at the piano for hours, writing and singing minstrel songs. Foster learned to blend the two genres to write some of his best-known work.
Foster attempted to make a living as a professional songwriter and may be considered innovative in this respect, since this field did not yet exist in the modern sense. Due in part to the limited scope of music copyright and composer royalties at the time, Foster realized very little profits from his works. He received $100 ($2,653 in 2012 dollars) for Oh, Susanna.
Foster moved to New York City in 1860. About a year later, his wife and daughter left him. Beginning in 1862, his fortunes decreased, and as they did, so did the quality of his new songs. Stephen Foster became impoverished while living in New York. He developed a fever, and when he tried to call for help, he fell against a washbasin and gouged his head. After three hours, he was taken to Bellevue Hospital where he died three days later at the age of 37.
His worn leather wallet contained a scrap of paper that simply said, “Dear friends and gentle hearts,” and 38 cents in Civil War script. This small message inspired the lovely song, Three Bells for Stephen, by American country songwriter Mickey Newbury.