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Identity & Community

Pittsburgh Declares Stephen Foster Day

Music aficionados and historical scholars will gather Monday to commemorate the life of songwriter Stephen Foster, 150 years after the local songwriter’s death.

The city of Pittsburgh will officially proclaim it to be Stephen Foster Day.

Starting at 11 a.m., the public is invited to the Temple of Memories Mausoleum in Allegheny Cemetery to honor Foster’s memory. Students from the St. Raphael Elementary School in Morningside will sing a medley of Foster’s most memorable tunes and Pittsburgh guitarist Joe Negri will lead a group sing-along in memory of, who some call, the forefather of American pop culture.

Deane Root, director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for American Music, said Foster’s arrangements were truly original.

“Stephen Foster was a very quiet, unassuming Pittsburgher,” Root said. “You wouldn’t notice him if you walked passed him on the street 150 years ago, but he was the first person in this country to create what was recognizably American song.”

The mind behind classic compositions such as “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Camptown Races” and “Oh Susannah,” Foster was born in Lawrenceville on July 4, 1826 and died in New York 1864. His timeless melodies have influenced musicians such as Irving Berlin, Tommy Dorsey and Ray Charles, according to Root.

“What was inspiring to them was not so much his music because it seemed so simple, it was how he did it,” Root said. “How did this man with no financial resources, with no legal network to support him, how did he make a profession out of songwriting?”

The University of Pittsburgh will also commemorate the life of Stephen Foster by displaying some of his original manuscripts, photographs, notebooks, his flute and even the change purse he was carrying when he died. The Hillman Library exhibit will remain open through January.

Root said the themes of Foster’s music continue to be internationally relatable.

“He picked up the whole idea of individual freedom and world exploration and all of this from all of these different cultures that were mingling right here in Pittsburgh,” he said.