Songwriter’s local roots


Stephen Collins Foster, the first great internationally acclaimed songwriter, is long thought to have had Derry roots but thanks to the research of one man, it has been established that the Collins clan had lands from Ballougry to Moville.

In fact Martin McDonald’s research uncovered what he believes are Collins’ distant relatives. The Canning family still live near lands once owned by the Collins-Foster line near Termonbacca. Though, due to the fact the relevant geneaological records were lost in the Four Courts fire of 1921, this can’t be stated categorically, Mr. McDonald believes a number of factors including, Christian names used by both sides of the family, lead him to believe it is two strands of the same family. Mr. McDonald has been researching the writer for the last two years. Stephen Collins Foster’s great grandfather, Alexander Foster, emigrated from Derry to Pittsburgh in 1767.

Mr. McDonald explains: “This wasn’t a case of a poor destitute Irish family looking for a new start. This was a wealthy land owning Free Presbyterian family who owned 600 acres in Moville, property in Newtowncunningham, a line of houses along the East Wall, Derry and a number of acres in Ballougry and Termonbacca on the City side, moving to the USA.” The Foster family plot in the City Cemetery amounts to some 18ft, indicating their wealth and prestige.

Stephen Collins Foster died in January 1864 but he left such a legacy that he is often referred to as the father of American music. His music was played all over the world and includes Oh! Susanna, Camptown Races, Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair and Beautiful Dreamer. Collins Foster’s work has been recorded by Al Johnson in the 1920s, Bing Crosby in the 30s, Frank Sinatra in the 50s, Roy Orbison and The Beatles in the 60s. Collins-Foster’s songs were awarded a Grammy in 2005, ‘Beautiful Dreamer - The Songs of Stephen Foster,’ a compilation album featuring, among others, Alison Kraus and John Prine collected the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. In doing so it proved that the songs have a resonance which has lasted since his death in 1864.

In true rock and roll style the songwriter, though made famous and rich thanks to his songwriting, died a penniless alcoholic, aged 37.

Mr. McDonald, a former Ulster Bank manager, explains: “His music has never really waned and and is still a part of American popular culture. Little wonder as he was the first songwriter to make a living from such a pursuit.”

The songwriter, who worked in an age before sound recording, has his roots locally and as such his life is to be celebrated by a specially commissioned play at The Playhouse. ‘Kind Hearts and Gentle People - the Story of Stephen Collins Foster’ written by Mr. McDonald’s son Peter, opens on Wednesday October 12 and runs for four nights.