The dates of Stephen Foster’s life bracket the transformation of U.S. culture from a patrician society with a stable hierarchical structure to a democratic society stressing individual responsibility and freedom.
The dynamic interaction of individual alienation, cultural idealism, and popular culture assumed a particularly vivid dimension in music; the portrayal of bittersweet emotions stimulated by the contemplation of something lost to the narrator became the favorite device of 19th-century songwriters.
Nostalgic topics in Foster’s songs include the middle-class domestic woman, the Old South, and traditional Celtic ballads.
This according to “Sound and sentimentality: Nostalgia in the songs of Stephen Foster” by Susan Key (American music XIII/2 [summer 1995] pp. 145–166).
Today is Foster’s 190th birthday! Below, Gentle Annie, one of the songs discussed in the article.