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People & Events: Uncle Tom's Cabin Takes the Nation by Storm

Although it was first published as a newspaper serial, many Americans encountered Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin for the first time as a musical play. Not surprisingly, the plantation songs of Stephen Foster often accompanied such musicals.

Stowe's story of an African American family's oppression under the "peculiar institution" of slavery struck an immediate chord with Northern readers, most of whom had never witnessed Southern slavery firsthand. First presented serially in the National Era, an abolitionist newspaper, in 1851 and 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin became an instant success. Published as a novel in March 1852, it sold some 300,000 copies in that year alone.

If the book exposed many Americans to the horrors of slavery, it also depicted African Americans in a new way -- not as the carefree, shuffling caricatures of the minstrel shows, but as they were: fully human, and capable of the same range and sophistication of thought an emotion as their white counterparts. The story deeply affected white audiences in the North, including composer Stephen Foster, who had gained fame writing blackface minstrel songs such as "Uncle Ned" and "Camptown Races."

By the time Uncle Tom's Cabin made its debut, Foster had begun to distance himself from such blackface minstrel songs, which mocked African American speech patterns and almost universally portrayed blacks as buffoons. In his 1850 composition "Nelly Was a Lady," Foster afforded an African American woman dignity in song that she would likely not be afforded in life. Two years later, he wrote E. P. Christy, leader of a minstrel troupe that performed Foster's songs, that "by my efforts I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian song among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order."

Foster undoubtedly recognized some of his own feelings about African Americans and slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel inspired "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!," one of Foster's most enduring hits. Written in standard English rather than dialect, and expressing deep, authentic emotion, it represented another move away from blackface. In the song's original draft, Foster titled it "Poor Uncle Tom, Good Night," and included a chorus:

Oh, good night, good night, Poor Uncle Tom Grieve not for your old Kentucky home Your [sic] bound for a better land Old Uncle Tom.

Given the popularity of Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is not surprising that it was soon adapted into a play -- without Stowe's permission. The first significant production, directed and with songs written by George Howard, premiered in Troy, New York, on September 27, 1852. By the following year, the play had hit New York City; soon, companies across the North were producing their own versions. Many productions featured Stephen Foster songs, notably "My Old Kentucky Home, Good-Night!," "Old Folks at Home," and "Massa's in the Cold Ground."

The Civil War put an end to slavery in America. Still, "Tom shows," as the plays came to be known, drew large audiences through the end of the century. As song and theater changed, so did Uncle Tom's Cabin. In the 1870s, the Fisk University Jubilee Singers popularized African American spirituals. Soon, productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin featured such songs. Some productions even added the kind of variety acts that would later typify vaudeville shows. Still, Stephen Foster's songs often found their way into later productions. Stephen Foster and Harriet Beecher Stowe were gone, but their work, among the first to bring dignity to African Americans, lived on.

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