As a bookend to February's Black History month, Stephen Foster's Camptown Races song offers an insight into the composer's times, which spanned a brief 39 years and reflected the uneasiness of the northern whites with southern black issues in the years leading to the Civil War.
Stephen Foster (1826-1864), the "father of American music," was known for his popular hits: Oh! Susanna, Swanee River, My Old Kentucky Home, and Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair. He was born in Lawrenceville, Pa., and in the late 1830s and early 1840s attended private academies in Athens and Towanda, Pa. towns not very far from Camptown in Bradford County. The site of the Camptown Races is 30 miles from Athens and 15 miles from Towanda.
In the late 1840s and the 1850s Foster began writing songs for the blackface minstrel shows that were published as Foster's Ethiopian Melodies, followed by a contract to write songs for the Christy Minstrels. Although many of his songs had Southern themes, Foster lived most of his life in Pennsylvania and only visited the South for his honeymoon riverboat cruise in 1852.
Minstrel shows became popular in the 1830s and 1840s as it provided a musical and comic rendering of how white America viewed black America. The minstrels, typically white actors in blackface makeup, created a burlesque lampooning blacks as carefree buffoons. These portrayals of "happy slaves" were decried by integrationists and abolitionists.
Foster saw the minstrel shows as an opportunity to bring music to the American stage, and chose to be a songwriter, a field that had not previously existed in the U.S. a poorly paying field as copyrights and royalties were generally ignored at that time.
In 1850, Foster published the song "Gwine To Run All Night, or De Camptown Races," and published another edition in 1852 with guitar accompaniment under the title, "The Celebrated Ethiopian Song/Camptown Races".
There is a controversy over whether Foster was referring to a generic camptown of migrant workers or Camptown, Pa., a town that had five-mile long horse races between Wyalusing and Camptown.
During that period, horse racing was considered to be a shady activity, one that attracted ladies of the evening having one commentator wondering if "Doo-da! Doo-da!" may have been an entreaty of a member of the oldest profession.
Camptown in Bradford County, is 14 miles from where Foster briefly lived and studied. The town was founded in 1793 by Captain Job Camp, a Connecticut carpenter and hunter. In 1795, he built a barn for himself, which is still standing.
In 1860, Foster moved to New York City. A year later, his wife and daughter left him to return to Pennsylvania. He began writing patriotic songs for the Civil War before passing away in 1864.
In Pennsylvania there are six historical markers dedicated to Foster, two near his hometown in Allegheny County and four in Bradford County near Camptown.
One reads, "Camptown Races Stephen Foster's title for the well-known song is said to have been taken from nearby Camptown. Foster's residence at Towanda and Athens may have created the association."
Another begins, "Stephen Foster's well-known song, Camptown Races, was probably inspired by the horse races run from this village to Wyalusing."
Each fall for the past 44 years, visitors to Camptown can view the Camptown Races except the race is not five miles long, it is 6.1 miles long, and the race is not run by a bob-tailed nag and a bay horse, but by footracing men and women.