Stephen Foster

The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State park

White Springs, FL

April 15, 2004

We spent the winter in Florida during which we stayed at several music parks.  Open mike jams were held almost every night. When not playing backup, I would play my harmonica and Laura would sing, while other musicians who had come for the winter would play backup.  The harmonica is a wonderful instrument to play those old campfire songs and I often opened up with "Old Folks at Home". Now, with the winter behind us, we headed out of Florida, on to other adventures.  Just before we passed through the top of the state into Georgia, we  crossed over the Suwannee River. As we reached White Springs, Laura spotted a sign announcing the Stephen Foster Folk Center.  Well, we definitely had to check this out.  We arrived at the front of the main building which is a museum.  This is a stately white old southern plantation-style building with great live oaks casting long shadows across its front. The day was bright and the weather beautiful.  We wandered around the front for a few minutes, peeking into the windows before going in. Stephen Foster glorified the old south in dozens of songs, especially naming the Suwannee River, and the museum projects the feeling of the old south with its 6 giant Roman columns that support the front, reaching to the second floor.  Inside, is a very large foyer with two adjacent large rooms. It was so spacious that there was a slight hollow sound, as of a great hall.  The walls of the rooms were taken up by a combination of dioramas and old pianos.  There were, scattered about, a number of memorabilia and photographs. A handout gave a short history of Stephen Foster's life.  He was born to a family of 10 children in 1826 in a cottage overlooking the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh.  His  parents were sufficiently well off to send him to private academies in different places in Pennsylvania.  Although never acquiring a college education, he became a well educated person.  His actual musical education is subject to interpretation, as little record of it exists.  He moved to Cincinnati for a short time and then at the age of 24  returned to Pittsburgh to marry Jane McDowell, with whom he would remain for the rest of his life.  They had one daughter, Marion, in 1851.  In 1852 Steven and his wife took a month long trip to New Orleans with friends.  This would be his only trip into the south, but it was sufficient to influence his music for the rest of his life.  He was never a prosperous man, preferring to work at menial jobs while writing music which he compiled in a thick copybook.  He  finally moved to New York, and continued his writings until at the age of 37 he was struck down by a fever and died. He had only 38 cents in his pockets. By today's standards with its copyrights and royalties, he would be a millionaire. There are very few Americans who do not know some of his music and some of the lyrics to at least one of his songs. In 1931 drug manufacturer Josiah Lilly, recommended that a memorial be created for America's most loved music writer and the river he made famous.  With donations gathered by the Florida Federation of Music Clubs, 650 acres were purchased in Florida near the Georgia border, along the west bank of the Suwannee River. We continued on into the right wing of the museum, to examine the various pianos.  Now I'm not a pianist, but Laura is, so I was familiar with the old 88 keys in a line making up the keyboard.  I just assumed it had always been that way.  So it came as somewhat a surprise when I found a piano with a different kind of keyboard. 

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