What’s the Matter Stephen Foster?

The Civil War probably killed Stephen Foster.  The most notable American composer of his time, in a day when copyright enforcement was nil, Foster always just managed to scratch out a precarious living.  As the beginning of the song indicates, with the coming of the War many of the songs he had written in peace were no longer in demand.

Broke and suffering from a persistent fever, deserted by his wife who had taken their daughter to live in Pittsburgh in 1861, Foster fell in his hotel room in New York City on January 10, 1864 and gashed his head on a wash basin.  He was admitted to Bellevue and died three days later, at age 37.  Ironically his most successful song, Beautiful Dreamer, was published a few months after his death:

We live in hard and stirring times,

Too sad for mirth, too rough for rhymes;

For songs of peace have lost their chimes,

    And that’s what’s the matter!

The men we held as brothers true

Have turned into a rebel crew;

So now we have to put them thro’,     

And that’s what’s the matter!


That’s what’s the matter,

The rebels have to scatter;

We’ll make them flee, by land and sea,

And that’s what’s the matter!

Oh! yes, we thought our neighbors true,

Indulg’d them as their mothers do;

They storm’d our bright Red, White and Blue,

   And that’s what’s the matter!

We’ll never give up what we gain,

For now we know we must maintain

Our Laws and Rights with might and main;

   And that’s what’s the matter!


The rebels thought we would divide,

And Democrats would take their side;

They then would let the Union slide,

   And that’s what’s the matter!

But, when the war had once begun,

All party feeling soon was gone;

We join’d as brothers, ev’ry one!

   And that’s what’s the matter!


The Merrimac, with heavy sway,

Had made our Fleet an easy prey —

The Monitor got in the way,

   And that’s what’s the matter!

So health to Captain Ericsson,

I cannot tell all he has done,

I’d never stop when once begun,

   And that’s what’s the matter!


We’ve heard of Gen’ral Beauregard,

And thought he’d fight us long and hard;

But he has play’d out his last card,

   And that’s what’s the matter!

So what’s the use to fret and pout,

We soon will hear the people shout,

Secession dodge is all play’d out!

   And that’s what’s the matter!


Published in: on January 10, 2020 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , ,


  1. Nobody expects a war song to be totally precise,but one has to say that the idea that party feeling had gone,that no Democrats were disloyal, and that General Beauregard was finished, all in – what? 1863? – do sound a bit on the hopeful side.

    I read about Foster’s wretched lonely death. Not a particularly novel ending, alas, for a musician in the romantic age, but in his case it’s the appalling copyright laws that Dickens and other European authors fought tooth and nail that must be given credit. America’s first outstanding musician, not even unsuccessful with the public, but killed by bad law.

    • It is not a particularly accurate song, and I doubt if Foster’s heart was in it. His day was in the 1850’s and the Civil War must have seemed to him as a terrible transmogrification of his world.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: