Stephen Foster

On this date in 1826, Stephen Collins Foster was born in Lawrenceville, Pa. Foster wrote the first great American popular songs and is remembered as the “father of American music.” He 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.

His 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 “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.”

Little is known of 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 they had one child together, Marion. Foster earned only small commissions on even his best-selling work and because there were no copyright laws, he never was given his fair share from publishers and died with only 38 cents in his pocket. (D. 1864)

Freedom From Religion Foundation