Foster belongs to a class of songwriters whose melodies are more familiar than the names of their composers. Many people think Foster’s melodies came from traditional American folksongs. They did not, except perhaps in a most indirect way.


Unlike most writers of early folk music, Foster did not remain anonymous, although little is known about his life or personality. This is due in part to the efforts of Foster’s family to improve his image by suppressing unpleasant facts. The mystery surrounding Foster also has its roots in the sentimental legend which lingers about him. Our impression of a romantic artist grew out of misinterpretations throughout many generations.


It is considered just as probable that Foster wrote My Old Kentucky Home at a remote place and from his own imagination. Many songwriters and poets did the same thing both before and after Foster, composing very good songs and stories. Karl May, for example, is a well known representative of this genre in the German-speaking countries.


Federal Hill

The songs My Old Kentucky Home and The Old Folks at Home are current examples of the legend as American history. Federal Hill, which stands next to a golf course in Bardstown/Kentucky, is believed by many to be the inspiration for My Old Kentucky Home. No one can knows for sure whether it is true, but the visitors streaming to the site like to believe the story.


There is actually a lot to be said for the argument that Foster never stayed in Bardstown. It is even very probable that the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin provided the reason for the song.




“Foster is a composer and not this simple balladier for which I had always taken him.”
Morton Gold




“We have our national hero in Stephen Foster. More songwriter than composer, and with a naturalness of feeling that places his melodies with the folk song, his simplicity and honesty are not easy to imitate. But this same simplicity and naturalness inspired a definite type of our own music.”
Aaron Copland


Way down upon the Swanee ribber,
Far, far away
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere’s wha de old folks stay.
All up and down de whole creation,
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary,
Ebry where I roam,
Oh! darkies, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home.

All round de little farm I wandered
When I was young
Den many happy days I squandered,
Many de songs I sung.
When I was playing wid my brudder
Happy was I.
Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,
Dere let me live and die.

One little hut among de bushes,
One dat I love,
Still sadly to my mem’ry rushes,
No matter where I rove
When will I see de bees a humming
All round de comb?
When will I hear de banjo tumming
Down in my good old home?

Swanee monument

manuscript - swanee

Part of the manuscript of
 »Old Folks at Home«










Without this small but very decisive change for the song Old Folks at Home the Swanee River would never have become so famous.