Who Is That Man?

If you fondly recall the ballad, I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, you evoke Stephen Collins Foster (1826 – 1864).

The Euro-American songwriter´s ballads brought a lump to throats from Alaska to Durban, New Zealand to Buenos Aires, and of course throughout the United States. A hundred years and forty years on Beautiful Dreamer and My Old Kentucky Home still induce nostalgia yet few know of the man and the tragedy behind these much-loved songs.

The short life of Stephen Collins Foster was riches to rags story, which increases the poignancy of his death at the age of just 37. When Foster died during a bitterly cold New York winter he was sick, homeless; probably an alcoholic. In his pocket were just 38 cents and words scribbled on a scrap of paper, ‘Dear friends and gentle hearts’. By this time he had composed over 175 songs.

Personal Recollections of the Last Days of Foster was penned by 21-year old Mrs. Parkhurst Duer who was intrigued by the poet´s songs. The publisher´s secretary says, “I heard he was living in New York but had never known anything about his life; yet his songs had created in me a feeling of reverence for the man and I longed to see him. One day I was speaking with the clerks when the door opened, and a poorly dressed, very dejected man came in and leaned against the counter. I noticed he looked ill and weak. No one spoke to him.

A clerk laughed and said: “Steve looks down and out.”

The poor man saw them all laughing at him. It seemed to me my heart stood still, intuition perhaps and I asked who the vagrant was. A clerk told me it was Stephen Foster. “He is only a vagabond. Don’t go near him.”

“I was terribly shocked. Forcing back the tears I waited for that lump in the throat which prevents speech to clear away. I walked over to him, put out my hand, and asked, “Is this Mr Foster?”

He took my hand and replied: “Yes, the wreck of Stephen Collins Foster.”

With tears in my eyes I replied, “Oh no, not a wreck, but whatever you call yourself I feel it an honour to take by the hand the author of The Old Folks at Home. I am glad to know you.”

Tears rolled down the cheeks of the poet-songwriter. “Pardon my tears, young lady, you have spoken the first kind words I have heard in a long time. God bless you.”

What had brought such a talented and prolific song-writer to such poverty? His ballads enjoyed worldwide popularity. But, Stephen was hopeless at managing his affairs and rarely laid claim to his ballads. If paid at all a few paltry dollars were tossed like scraps to a stray.

Mrs. Parkhurst Duer told of how she found the poet to be a man of culture and refinement. He told her that he wrote his music on wrapping paper picked up in a grocery store. He wrote many of his songs while sitting on a box or a barrel.

Knowing he didn´t have a home the secretary asked if he had a room. Not as such. He slept in a cellar owned by an elderly couple who charged him nothing. He said he was comfortable so I supposed he had a bed she surmised.

Mrs. Parkhurst Duer arranged for the destitute songwriter to be better cared for in a Bowery hostel. Sadly it was all too late and Europe´s most gifted songwriter died soon afterwards. His brother Henry described the incident that led to his passing away in a New York theater-district hospital.

Confined to bed for days by a persistent fever, Stephen tried in vain to call for assistance but collapsed. Falling against the wash basin situated next to his bed he gouged his head. It took three hours to get him to the hospital but the gifted penman succumbed after three days. In his worn leather wallet, there was a scrap of paper that simply said “dear friends and gentle hearts”. Estranged from his family Stephen Collins Foster remained devoted to his wife whose name was Jane and for her, he had written:

 I DREAM OF JEANNIE WITH THE LIGHT BROWN HAIR

 I long for Jeanie with the day-dawn smile,

Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile;

I hear her melodies, like joys gone be,

Sighing around my heart o’er the fond hopes that die:

Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,

Waiting for the lost ones that come not again:

Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,

Floating, like a vapour, on the soft summer air.