Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864), was born July 4, 1826, in Lawrenceville, PA East of Pittsburgh as the ninth child of his parents. Steven was a composer, one of the first professional songwriters in America and he had his first big hit with a song titled ‘Oh! Susanna’. Jane McDowell was born in 1829, the daughter of Dr. Andrew N. McDowell, a leading Pittsburgh physician. She was an attractive young woman with auburn hair. The pretty Jane McDowell was known affectionately as “Jenny”, and she became the girl in the song ‘Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair’. Jane showed no particular fondness for music, and Stephen had no interest in displaying physical affection, so it is a mystery why they were attracted to each other. After they had a whirlwind courtship in Cincinnati, Steven and Jane returned home to Pittsburgh where they got married, but they did not live happily ever after.
In 1850, Stephen Foster married Jane Denny McDowell and they had a daughter nine months later. In 1851, Stephen and Jane moved to New York City at the request of his music publishers. Foster won the admiration of prominent people in the music business, but his musical productivity started to decline, as most of his big hits were already published. Since his songs were not protected by copyright, he received very little income from them. In Foster’s day copyrights were entered in the federal district courts, rather than in the copyright office of the Library of Congress, as they are today.
Jane and her daughter Marion moved to Pennsylvania, where she took a job as a telegraph operator with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Foster’s marriage was strange for the era that he lived in, as the couple stayed married yet spent many years living apart in separate States, him in NYC and Jane in Pennsylvania. Foster returned to New York City, which had become the epicenter of American music publishing. They kept in contact and frequently visited each other, and Jane tried to help Stephen stay afloat.
Stephen had a drinking habit and he was unable to provide a steady livelihood to support his family. Jane went to work transmitting war news over the telegraph wires, while Stephen stayed at home working at the piano. Jane sent him money so he could purchase these so-called cures that he saw advertised in the newspapers. These quack medicines were made with alcohol and more powerful drugs like opium. He took them, but they did not work, and Foster continued to drink heavily. Their marriage was short-lived, as the pair suffered numerous conflicts and they ultimately separated in 1853.
When the Civil War began, nobody was interested in Foster’s romantic ballads anymore and his once-promising song writing career seemed to be doomed. Stephen spent the remaining few years of his life in New York, living alone in lodging houses and theater district hotels. His trunk of manuscripts and letters was lost somewhere in these moves. Because of the uncertain economy of war time, he could no longer get a publishing contract. Foster was not well known to the public during his lifetime, and his songs were often referred to as folk songs. Stephen Foster died on January 13, 1864, at the age of thirty-seven. Jane traveled to New York to claim the body. After the funeral, she returned to her telegraph work. Jane McDowell Foster died of burn injuries in 1903, after her clothing caught fire as she sat near the hearth in her home. Stephen Foster is referred to as the father of American music and his songs are a big part of our country’s heritage. He composed 285 songs, hymns, arrangements and instrumental works, and wrote the lyrics for most of them as well.
This song holds a place in history, due to the American broadcasters getting new frequencies mandated by North American Regional Broadcasting Agreement NARBA, which required radio stations to retune their transmitters on March 29, 1941 and the uncertainty that developed in the music industry at this time. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers ASCAP which was formed in 1914 to enforce the 1897 copyright law began a boycott over broadcast fees, which started on January 1, 1941, and lasted until October 29, 1941. Therefore, as of January 1, 1941, most of the stations’ existing music libraries could not be used. This included both recorded music and the sheet music used in the still common live performances by orchestras and studio pianists and organists. Stations could make use of public domain material. This is why the Lone Ranger rode to the tune of the public domain William Tell Overture, and the Green Hornet flew to the music of The Flight of the Bumblebee. One notable beneficiary for the radio stations was that they were able to play ‘Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair’, as Time magazine quipped that the song had received so much airplay that Jeannie’s hair turned gray, thus radio stations were able to list this song as being a public-domain song.
Foster composed ‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’ in 1854, probably as an attempt to win back his wife. The song was originally written as ‘Jennie With The Light Brown Hair’, but by the time it was officially published in 1854, the name had changed to ‘Jeanie’ with only one ‘n’. Somewhere along the way, the other ‘n’ was added and her name became ‘Jeannie’. This song is classified as a parlor song which means that it is meant to be performed in people’s living rooms in a more casual setting for fun and enjoyment. Before this Foster had been writing mostly minstrel songs, and this was one of the first songs written that was intended for amateurs and professionals for singing along with the sheet music.
‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’ remains one of Foster’s most beloved parlor ballads, although the song was virtually unknown during its time. When it was first published, the royalties on the ten thousand copies sold earned just over $200 dollars for Foster. Foster experienced financial difficulty through most of his career, so he had to sell the rights to “Jeanie” as well as other songs, including ‘Old Folks at Home’ to make ends meet. After his death, the rights to ‘Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair’ were reverted back to Jane Foster and their daughter Marion in 1879.
I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Borne, like a vapor, on the summer air;
I see her tripping where the bright streams play,
Happy as the daisies that dance on her way.
Many were the wild notes her merry voice would pour.
Many were the blithe birds that warbled them o’er:
Oh! I dream of Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.
I long for Jeanie with the daydawn smile,
Radiant in gladness, warm with winning guile;
I hear her melodies, like joys gone by,
Sighing round my heart o’er the fond hopes that die
Sighing like the night wind and sobbing like the rain,
Wailing for the lost one that comes not again:
Oh! I long for Jeanie, and my heart bows low,
Never more to find her where the bright waters flow.
I sigh for Jeanie, but her light form strayed
Far from the fond hearts round her native glade;
Her smiles have vanished and her sweet songs flown,
Flitting like the dreams that have cheered us and gone.
Now the nodding wild flowers may wither on the shore
While her gentle fingers will cull them no more:
Oh! I sigh for Jeanie with the light brown hair,
Floating, like a vapor, on the soft summer air.