By Leonard A. Luizzi
When this page was written, the year was 2004, and it was the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary of the publication of "I Dream of Jeanie, with the Light Brown Hair," by Stephen Foster. Fifty years prior, Hoboken held a celebration for the song's 100th anniversary. Let's look back to 1954.
Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864), one of America's greatest songwriters, lived in Hoboken from 1853 to 1854. The author of "Jeanie," "Camptown Races," and many other beloved songs, lived at 233 Bloomfield St. (The number of the house is now 601 Bloomfield, after all the numbers were changed in 1890).
When Foster moved to 601 Bloomfield, it was a one-family house, but it was later expanded into a three-family dwelling. According to the New Jersey Historical Society, the building is the only house standing today in which Foster is known to have lived.
In 1954, local businessmen planned a celebration to honor Foster. On February 13 of that year, a notice appeared in a local newspaper, which said, "A committee of the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce will meet Monday at Meyer's Hotel to further plans for the 100th anniversary of Stephen Foster's residence in Hoboken." The men planned a week-long festival that would end on June 15, the 100th anniversary of publication of the song "I Dream of Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair."
Many events were planned. One of them, a barbershop quartet competition, was held in Church Square Park on June 2. First place went to a quartet from the Franklin Baker Division of General Foods, which called itself the "Coconotes." The group, comprised of Frank KeCorcia, Thomas Domineck, John Coppinger, and Paul Licota, edged out some tough competition: a quartet including Mayor John J. Grogan, Public Safety Director Arthur Marotta, Deputy Director Jim Bailey, and Business Administrator Daniel Carmody.
The committee wanted to ensure that 601 Bloomfield would always be remembered as Foster's former Hoboken home, so they decided to place a plaque on the building, and invite a Foster descendent to the unveiling. The famous composer's granddaughter, Mrs. Jessie Welsh Rose of Pittsburgh, came to Hoboken with her daughter, Mrs. Ralph Melady, and Foster biographer John Tasker Howard, who also served as secretary of ASCAP, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. A crowd of about 1,000 people watched as Mrs. Rose unveiled the plaque to honor her grandfather.
After the unveiling, the crowd moved to Castle Stevens for a Foster Music Festival. Foster songs were performed by participants, including the 40-member Hoboken Police and Fire Glee Club, children from the Brandt Public School, and tenor Frank Luther and soprano Rose Bampton, both of whom were from New York City. Mayor Grogan, Mrs. Rose and Mr. Howard then spoke about Hoboken's famous son, and, to the delight of the youngsters, soft drinks were served.
It is believed that Hoboken provided the inspiration for "I Dream of Jeanie" in much the same way that Florida did for Foster's "Swanee River", and Kentucky did for his "My Old Kentucky Home." While living at 601 Bloomfield, Foster's wife, Jane, and daughter, Marion, came to live with him. Eventually they all moved from Hoboken to New York City.