What a beautiful Derby Day. The sun cooperated, the flowers were in bloom, the ladies were beautiful, the gentlemen dapper, the hats flamboyant, and, once again, the thoroughbreds magnificent. Last but certainly not least, as with each year, the heartrending sound of “My Old Kentucky Home” grabbed our hearts and brought tears to our eyes.
This year was even more poignant for me. I had been researching the life of Stephen Foster, the great American music composer, who wrote “My Old Kentucky Home.” I found that his beautiful music was published by a number of unscrupulous publishers who never gave him a cent, using his music to make huge amounts of money for themselves. In a time when being professional songwriter was not a recognized career, he tried to make a living as one…and failed. Today, with the system of royalties that rewards songwriters of popular songs, he would have been a millionaire with the right representation.
However, I learned he had practically nothing. After his family left him to return to Pittsburgh, he was living down and out on the Bowery at the North American Hotel in New York City. He was ill and had had a fever for several days. He had tried to call the chambermaid but fell against the wash basin which was next to his bed and shattered it, also smashing his head. In that era there were no antibiotics or transfusions and he died three days later. In his wallet was a scrap of paper with these words written on it: “Dear Friends and Gentle hearts,” along with thirty-eight cents in civil war scrip and three pennies.
He was buried in Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at the age of 37. Perhaps, one of his most beautiful songs, “Beautiful Dreamer,” was published just shortly after he died.