Stephen Foster

On this date in 1826, Stephen Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania. Foster wrote the first great American popular songs and is remembered as the “father of American music.” Foster received little formal musical education and taught himself music composition and song writing. He was the first American songwriter to support himself from music sales, propelling the industry in its infancy. He produced a body of songs that have been remembered and sung longer than the works of any other American songwriters. Foster’s most famous songs include, “Oh Susanna,” “Camptown Races,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.” Irving Berlin honored Foster by quoting part of the “Swanee River” in his first hit, “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (he had a picture of Foster on his office wall). George Gershwin paid him a similar tribute with his first hit song, “Swanee.” They knew that if you wanted to tap into the culture of America, you had to start with Stephen Foster.

Little is known of Stephen Foster’s inner religious views, but he lived and worked as if he were not a believer. A nonconformist, he never joined a church and rarely attended services. The songs that he chose to write of his own volition were purely secular. Toward the end of his life, he accepted an assignment writing Sunday School songs. He hadn’t found God, but he had found a publisher. The songs were part of an endeavor to indoctrinate children with “catchy” music, sometimes setting religious words to secular melodies.

Foster married Jane Denny MacDowell in 1850 and the couple had one child together, Marion. Foster earned only small commissions on even his best-selling work and because there were no copyright laws at the time, he never was given his fair share from publishers and died with only 38 cents in his pocket. Stephen Foster may not have been an atheist—it is hard to know—but he certainly lived like a nonbeliever and wrote as a humanist, inspired by a hope for this world. D. 1864.

Shameful rivalries of creed
Shall not make the martyr bleed,
In the good time coming.
Religion shall be shorn of pride,
And flourish all the stronger;
And Charity shall trim her lamp;
Wait a little longer.

—⎯Stephen Foster, “There’s a Good Time Coming,” 1846.

Adapted from Dan Barker’s book, “The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God,” (2011). Compiled by Sarah Eucalano.

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