January 1

    Iris DeMent

    Iris DeMent

    On this date in 1961, singer-songwriter Iris Luella DeMent entered the world in Paragould, Ark., the last of eight children born to Flora Mae (Cupp) and Patric Shaw DeMent. She also had six step-siblings from her father’s first marriage (two other children with his wife Lola, who died at 33, didn’t survive infancy).

    Patric DeMent farmed on a small river island inhabited mostly by extended family and worked at an Emerson Electric plant until losing his job after a failed strike. Described as a big man with a small paycheck, he moved the family to Buena Park, Calif., when DeMent was 3. Music and Pentecostal religion were a big part of her early life.

    Her mother filled their home with music, playing the piano and singing gospel and traditional folk music. Her older sisters — Zelda, Reba, Regina and Faye — recorded a gospel album. In an essay she wrote for her second album “My Life” (1994), DeMent said her father was a fine fiddler but gave it up after he found religion.

    She quit high school and moved to the Midwest, supporting herself by cleaning houses and waitressing. In her late 20s, after performing at open-mic nights and garnering a producer’s attention, she landed a recording contract that led to her debut album “Infamous Angel” in 1992, when her father died at 82. (Flora Mae lived until 2011.)

    The album’s “doleful, hushed ‘Our Town’ would’ve sounded as if it were being broadcast from another planet. ‘People call me country,’ she told journalist Ben Thompson while on tour in Britain a couple years later. ‘But country doesn’t call me country.’ ” (Vinyl Me, Please, Dec. 16, 2021)

    Some see its opening track “Let the Mystery Be” as a paean to freethought. Writer David Cantwell called it a “spritely agnostic anthem” (Ibid.) It opened the 1993 movie “Little Buddha” starring Keanu Reeves

    Everybody is a wonderin’ what and where they all came from
    Everybody is a worryin’ ’bout where
    They’re gonna go when the whole thing’s done
    But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me
    I think I’ll just let the mystery be.
    … Well, I believe in love and I live my life accordingly
    But I choose to let the mystery be.

    Years later, discussing the song with NPR interviewer Terry Gross, DeMent said the idea of eternal damnation in a fiery furnace bothered her. “And by the time I was 16, I didn’t believe that story, you know, that there was all this separation between me and all these other people in the world just because they didn’t claim Jesus Christ as their personal savior. I didn’t buy it. And I have to say, it wasn’t my choice to not buy it because it meant having to leave the church, and I loved going to church. I loved the music. I loved, you know, the community and the family. So it was actually a very sad day for me to have to own up to that in myself and know that if I was going to live with any personal integrity, I had to leave. So that’s what I did.” (“Fresh Air,” Oct. 21, 2015)

    It also irked her that she wasn’t allowed to sing in the church choir bare-legged when she was 17: “The Bible never said anything about stockings.”

    DeMent’s third album, “The Way I Should,” was released in 1996. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album, as was “My Life” two years earlier. She had married Elmer McCall, a firefighter and music tour manager, in 1991 before divorcing after eight years. 

    She stopped writing songs for several years but recorded and performed with John Prine and a few others. On Prine’s ribald “In Spite of Ourselves” (1999), her ethereal voice turns downright earthy. She married folk musician Greg Brown in 2002. They adopted a Russian girl, Daria “Dasha” Brown, in 2005 when she was 6, and eventually settled in Brown’s native Iowa, where Flora Mae DeMent also moved. 

    In 2004 she recorded “Lifeline” with 13 gospel songs and hymns, only one of which she wrote. “I sit around and play old church songs a lot,” she said at the time. “For me, it’s kind of like looking through a photo album. They take me back to the comforting aspects of my past. These songs are a spiritual thing for me, but not because they belong to a church or a book or anything. To me, they’re like this link I have to where I come from, and to my mom and dad, and to the people who came before them.” (No Depression, the Journal of Roots Music, Nov. 1, 2004)

    Her lyrics and public statements sometimes raised hackles. “We got politicians runnin’ races on corporate cash / Now don’t tell me they don’t turn around and kiss them people’s ass” from the “Wasteland of the Free” track of “The Way I Should” touched off a boycott and stripping of state funding for a public radio station in Tampa, Fla.

    In March 2003 the day after the U.S. invaded Iraq, she came onstage at the Barrymore Theater in Madison, Wis., to announce she couldn’t in good conscience perform out of respect for those suffering in an unjust war. Most of the audience was supportive, which wasn’t the case around the country. “And when I started getting the hate mail, it felt like the Pentecostal Church of God all over again to me.” (No Depression, ibid.)

    She recorded her fifth album, “Sing The Delta,” in 2012, followed in 2015 by “The Trackless Woods.” The lyrics are poems by the late Russian writer Anna Akhmatova set to compositions by DeMent. She reunited with Prine in 2016 for his second duets album, “For Better, or Worse.”

    “I started reflecting on my beliefs and seeing which ones held up next to my own experience. And when I was able to look at a belief and realize it wasn’t true for me anymore, I tossed it. And I had to leave the church because of that. I mean, I left the church in my heart and in my thinking; there was this period when I was there physically but I was not there. A year or two after that I quit going altogether. But even then, the songs still held up for me, they never let me down. I still loved those songs, and I still sang them.”

    —Interview, No Depression, the Journal of Roots Music (Nov. 1, 2004)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Dave Matthews

    Dave Matthews

    On this date in 1967, David John Matthews was born in Johannesburg, South Africa. After high school he moved to the United States to avoid mandatory service in the South African Army. He moved to Charlottesville, Va., in 1986, where he began to hone his musical talents by playing guitar and singing on stage. In 1991 he formed the Dave Matthews Band, a rock group with jazz influences, along with Carter Beauford, LeRoi Moore, Steffan Lessard, Peter Griesar and Boyd Tinsley.

    The Dave Matthews Band has recorded nine studio albums as of this writing and continues to tour extensively. The latest is “Come Tomorrow” (2018). Several live albums have also been released and Matthews released his solo album “Some Devil” in 2003. He and his wife Ashley were married in 2000 and have three children: twins Stella Busina and Grace Ann, born in 2001, and August, born in 2007.

    Matthews was raised Quaker but lost his faith in his teens after struggling with the idea that most of his loved ones, including his father, would end up in hell. “It would be safe to say that I’m agnostic,” Matthews said in a 2001 Boston Globe article. He elaborated on his agnostic beliefs in an Oct. 4, 2009 Q TV interview: “I can’t believe, in any way, in a god that cares about me. That makes no sense to me, a god that’s watching me and hoping that I make the right choices. That god is impossible.”

    “We owe a faith to the world and to ourselves. We owe a grace and gratitude to things that have brought us here. But I think it’s very ignorant to say, ‘Well, for everything, God has a plan.’ That’s like an excuse. Maybe the real faithful act is to commit to something, to take action, as opposed to saying, ‘Well, everything is in the hand of God.’ ” 

    —Matthews, Boston Globe interview (March 4, 2001)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor; photo by Helga Esteb, Shutterstock.com

    Sean Danielsen

    Sean Danielsen

    On this date in 1982, Sean Danielsen was born in California. He began performing as lead guitarist and vocalist with Smile Empty Soul, an alternative rock band affiliated with Lava Records, in 1998, when he was still a high school student. Danielsen is the band’s primary songwriter. Smile Empty Soul released their popular self-titled album in 2003. Their other albums include “Anxiety” (2005), “Vultures” (2006), and “Consciousness” (2009). Their song “Who I Am” appeared on the “Spiderman 2” (2004) soundtrack.

    Smile Empty Soul is a decidedly freethought band. “Religion is just such a big bad part of my life that it’s going to come out [in my music],” Danielsen explained to journalist Jeff Nall, who wrote about Smile Empty Soul, Bad Religion, Greg Graffin and Ani DiFranco in the October 2004 issue of Freethought Today. The song “Every Sunday” on their first album, “Smile Empty Soul” (2003), contains the lyrics, “I don’t want your religions,” and the video for their song “Nowhere Kids” tackles the issue of sexual abuse by priests.

    Danielsen’s devoutly religious mother sent him to live at a Christian commune in an abandoned summer camp in Maine for three years, beginning when he was only 7. “My mom lets religion rule her life and I feel religion is a kind of safety blanket. If you’re afraid, you cling onto religion, and I just don’t want to be like that,” Danielsen said in a June 25, 2003 interview with MTV.

    In an Oct. 1, 2003 interview with lasvegascitylife.com, Danielsen said that his mother “was blown away by how much the album attacks her beliefs. She just couldn’t understand it at first. I just had to explain to her that this is how I believe, that I have a whole different set than hers and this is how I deal with them.”

    Photo by Jax 0677 under CC 4.0

    * The number of deaths attributable to religion in the quote below is in dispute. One example is here regarding Christianity.

    “I’m definitely against all organized religion just because, when you really look at it, organized religion has caused most of the deaths in the history of this planet. Most of the wars were fought over organized religion.”

    —Danielsen to journalist Jeff Nall, quoted in Freethought Today (October 2004)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Javed Akhtar

    Javed Akhtar

    On this date in 1945, Javed Akhtar (né Jadoo Akhtar) was born in Gwalior, India. His father was an Urdu poet and Bollywood songwriter, and his mother was a teacher and writer. Akhtar earned a bachelor’s degree from Saifia College in Bhopal, then moved to Mumbai in 1964, where he worked as a scriptwriter. In the 1980s he focused on writing lyrics for films. He has written lyrics for over 70 films, for which he has received several National Film Awards. In 2001 he received the National Integration Award from the All-India Anti-Terrorist Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Asian Academy of Film and Television.

    Akhtar married Honey Irani, with whom he had two children, Farhan and Zoya Akhtar, both film directors and actors. After divorcing, Akhtar married Shabana Azmi, the daughter of Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi.

    Muslims “have to improve their lot by lending strength to secular forces and by becoming more and more secular themselves,” he said in an interview with the Times of India. (“Questions and Answers,” March 28, 2002.) “Arms, drugs and spirituality – these are the three big businesses in the world. … Spirituality nowadays is definitely the tranquilizer of the rich,” he said in a 2005 speech at the India Today Conclave.

    “I am an atheist, I have no religious beliefs. And obviously I don’t believe in spirituality of some kind.”

    —Akhtar, India Today Conclave speech, “Spirituality: Halo or Hoax?” (Feb. 26, 2005)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    David Bazan

    David Bazan

    On this date in 1976, indie rock singer and songwriter David Bazan was born in Seattle. Bazan grew up with a passion for music that stemmed from influential figures in his life, such as his father who was a music pastor. Consequently, he started his singer-songwriter career by performing for church youth groups. Bazan spent his childhood in Christian schools and graduated from Northwest University, a Pentecostal college in Kirkland, Wash.

    Bazan began questioning the logic of his Christian experience around eighth or ninth grade, but did not truly begin to inquire into his faith until his early 20s. “Growing up, Christianity didn’t feel oppressive for the most part, because it was filtered through my parents. They were and are so sincere, and I saw in them a really pure expression of unconditional love and service. Once I stepped away, I could see the oppression of it,” he said in the Chicago Reader (July 30, 2009). The article was subtitled “At the Cornerstone Christian rock festival, a fallen evangelical returns to sing about why he broke up with God.”

    Unsatisfied with the hardcore alternative music scene in Seattle, Bazan formed his own band, Pedro the Lion, in 1995 while still attending Northwest. The music produced by the band followed a path of a struggling believer becoming a restless one, which began to attract a strong secular fan base. His debut album as a solo artist, “Curse Your Branches,” was released in 2009. The album is an autobiographical depiction of the process Bazan went through contemplating his faith. The opening song is set in the Garden of Eden.

    During the summer of 2009, he returned to the Cornerstone stage to perform his new music explaining why he is unable to continue a relationship with God. His other prominent works include “Blanco” (2016), “Dark Sacred Night” (2016) and “Care” (2017). 

    Bazan performing in Sweden in 2008; Håkan Henriksson photo. GNU 1.2

    “One of the interesting parts about Christianity, at least the way that I experienced it, was that you are in a sense responsible for this whole system of thought and belief that you literally don’t have a chance to investigate thoroughly. When you do come in contact with certain bits of information for the first time, it’s not like, ‘Hey, check this out. See what you think. Reject it or accept it.’ It’s always that you’re discovering this system that you’ve already signed on the dotted line affirming.”

    —Bazan interview on Busted Halo, a Catholic website (April 15, 2010)
    Complied by Tolulope Igun

    Jerome Kern

    On this date in 1885, songwriter Jerome David Kern was born in New York City to Fanny (Kakeles) and Henry Kern. His mother, of Bohemian heritage, was born in the U.S. and his father was born in Germany. Although they both had been raised Jewish, “[t]heir marriage at Temple Emanu-El was the last religious function in either of their lives,” wrote Kern biographer Michael Freedland. They gave their son no religious training.

    Kern started playing the piano at a young age. He left high school after his junior year, studied at the New York College of Music, then at Heidelberg University in Germany. At the age of 20 in 1905, Kern composed his first hit song and in 1912 wrote his first Broadway score. The Broadway musical “Showboat” (1927) broke ground by integrating music with story.

    Due to Kern’s remarkable musical influence, he became known as “father of the American musical theater.” Kern, a composer who worked with a variety of lyricists, eventually paired up with lyricist Dorothy Fields. They won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Song with “The Way You Look Tonight” from the movie “Swing Time.” In 1941 he and Oscar Hammerstein II won an Oscar for best song for “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” from the film “Lady Be Good.” Their last Broadway collaboration was in “Very Warm for May” (1939), a show that 9-year-old Stephen Sondheim watched enrapt.

    He wrote close to 700 songs and more than 100 complete scores for both shows and films. Kern classics include “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “Look for the Silver Lining,” “Old Man River,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” “Make Believe,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “I Won’t Dance,” “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “All the Things You Are.”

    While working on the musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” a project initiated by Fields, Kern had a stroke and died a few days later at age 60 in 1945.

    PHOTO: Kern in 1934.

    “His religion was his music and his lifestyle — his enjoyment of elegance and his voracious appetite for having a good time.”

    —"Jerome Kern: A Biography" by Michael Freedland (1981)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    David Gilmour

    David Gilmour

    On this date in 1946, singer-songwriter David Jon Gilmour was born in Cambridge, England. His father lectured in zoology at Cambridge University and his mother worked as a teacher. Gilmour and Roger “Syd” Barrett played guitar together at the Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology. Gilmour formed several bands and in 1967 joined Barrett’s band Pink Floyd. Gilmour’s unique guitar and vocal talents were featured in the third-most successful studio album of all time, “The Dark Side of the Moon” (1973).

    Gilmour led Pink Floyd after Roger Waters left in 1985. Under his direction, Pink Floyd recorded the albums “A Momentary Lapse of Reason” (1985), “The Division Bell” (1994) and “P.U.L.S.E.” (1995). Pink Floyd won a Grammy for the instrumental “Marooned,” composed by Gilmour and Richard Wright for “The Division Bell.” It’s the only track by the band to ever win a Grammy. In 1996 the band was inducted into the U.S. Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and received the same honor in the United Kingdom in 2005. Their last album, “The Endless River,” was in 2014. Wright died in 2008. 

    Gilmour had several hit solo albums, including a self-titled chart-topper in 1978 and “About Face” in 1984. His third solo album, “On An Island” (2006), went multi-platinum. He was honored in 2005 with the distinguished CBE title (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) for his services to music and his philanthropic work. Notable among his charitable deeds, he sold his London home in 2003 and gave the £3.6 million proceeds to a homeless charity.

    In a Chicago Tribune story (March 31, 2006), Gilmour said: “When you get to 60, one of your preoccupations is that the life you have ahead of you is quite a lot shorter than the life you have behind you. You can’t help thinking about that. It’s something inside all of us, even though I’m not a believer in God or an afterlife. I’m an atheist. I’m sort of resigned to my lot in life, and content in it.”

    Gilmour’s most recent albums as of this writing are “Rattle That Lock” (2015) and “Live at Pompeii” (2017). Gilmour in 2022 blocked all sales of his digital recordings and much of the Pink Floyd catalog in Russia after Russia invaded Ukraine, and reunited with Pink Floyd to record “Hey, Hey Rise Up” featuring singer Andriy Khlyvnyuk of the Ukrainian band Boombox.

    Gilmour married American-born model and artist Virginia “Ginger” Hasenbein in 1975. They have four children and divorced in 1990. In 1994 he married writer and lyricist Polly Samson, with whom he has four more children.

    He raised $21.5 million in 2019 from a Christie’s sale of over 120 of his instruments and artifacts. He donated the proceeds to ClientEarth, a charity which fights legal battles to preserve a sustainable global climate and environment.

    PHOTO: Gilmour in 2005; Andy MacLarty photo. CC 2.0

    “This earthly heaven is enough for me.”

    —Gilmour lyrics from “This Heaven,” a song from his solo album "On An Island" (2006)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    James McMurtry

    James McMurtry

    On this date in 1962, singer-songwriter James Lawrence McMurtry was born to Josephine (Ballard Scott) and Larry McMurtry in Fort Worth, Texas. “My folks divorced when I was about 7. We all wound up in Virginia in different parts of the state. I lived with my dad, so I learned to get along with him pretty good,” McMurtry later said. (hobotrashcan.com, April 17, 2008)

    His father, award-winning novelist Larry McMurtry, gave him his first guitar at age 7, and his mother, a college English professor and Shakespeare scholar who read Proust in French, taught him how to play it. After divorcing, his father taught creative writing and college English while writing novels. His first novel in 1961 was adapted for film as “Hud,” starring Paul Newman. “The Last Picture Show” (1966) was also adapted for film. Later works, the 843-page novel “Lonesome Dove” and the script for “Brokeback Mountain,” brought him a Pulitzer Prize and an Oscar.

    James made his film debut at age 12, playing Cybill Shepherd’s bratty brother in director Peter Bogdanovich’s “Daisy Miller,” a role he thinks his dad arranged. He began performing in his teens and studied English and Spanish at the University of Arizona in Tucson before settling in San Antonio. His debut album, “Too Long in the Wasteland” (1989), focused on Americana and “roots” music and was co-produced by John Mellencamp.

    Work on his second album “Candyland,” released in 1992, took a back seat to dealing with the arrival of newborn son Curtis. McMurtry and his artist wife Elena Eidelberg split up when Curtis, now a successful performer and songwriter, was 10.

    Eleven more albums have followed “Candyland” as of this writing in 2022. McMurtry says Steve Earle is his role model on how to write good political songs without turning them into sermons no one wants to pay to hear. His main influences as a songwriter? “Kris Kristofferson and John Prine, mostly.” An example is “State of the Union” with its lines about his sister leaving a restaurant before a family argument got worse: “Went to Wednesday night prayer at the new Christian church / With a cross on her neck and a nine in her purse / She might be the wisest of us.” (The “nine” is a 9-mm handgun.)

    “[McMurtry] does admit to being a lifelong confirmed atheist, much like the cheerful narrator of his anthemic song, ‘If It Don’t Bleed,’ who toasts, ‘Save your prayers for yourself, I raise my glass to your health!’ ” (The Paper, Sept. 3, 2021) The song, on his album “The Horses and the Hounds” (2021), continues: “But I wouldn’t get down on my knees on a bet / I’m near enough to Jesus as I ever want to get / Seeking salvation isn’t part of my general plan.”

    Larry McMurtry also lacked religious belief, he said in an interview with writer Benito Vila shortly before his death in 2021 at age 84: “I am in no way a spiritual person. I wrote a letter to the pastor of my Methodist church when I was in the fourth grade, explaining to the pastor I was quitting the church. I am a realist, an atheist, and I have no thoughts or opinions about spirituality or the after life, or what inspiration the stars may hold.”

    As of this writing in 2023, McMurtry lives south of Austin in Lockhart, Texas. His song “The Horses and the Hounds” (the album’s title track) was nominated for Song of the Year in 2021 at the Americana Music Awards. He performed while wearing a dress in May 2023 in Nashville to protest a Tennessee law banning “male or female impersonators” from performing in public spaces or in the presence of children.

    PHOTO: James McMurtry in 2017 in Eppstein, Germany; Christian Düringer photo under CC 4.0.

    “I’ve never been religious. But most people seem religious, and it gets more and more bothersome as religious language invades common, spoken English. … Politicians have always tried to out-Christian one another. It was a big deal having a Black president, but it would be a bigger deal having an atheist president.”

    —James McMurtry interview (The Absolute Sound, Nov. 23, 2021)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Stephen Sondheim

    Stephen Sondheim

    On this date in 1930, composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim was born in New York City to nonreligious Jewish parents. “As for religious instruction, Stephen Joshua Sondheim received none at all. He never had a bar mitzvah ceremony, he knew nothing about the observances of the Jewish calendar, and he did not enter a synagogue until he was nineteen years old.” (From “Stephen Sondheim: A Life” by Meryle Secrest, 1998)

    He apparently hasn’t spoken or written publicly about his personal religious views, but his song lyrics are perhaps a good indicator. New York Times theater critic Stephen Holden wrote in April 2010 that “Now You Know” (excerpted in quote below) encapsulates “Sondheim’s skeptical worldview as tartly as anything the composer has written.”

    Sondheim’s father manufactured medium-priced dresses. His mother was the firm’s designer. His fascination with the theater started at age 9 when his father took him to see the Broadway musical “Very Warm for May.”  (Time magazine, Dec. 7, 1987) Composed by Jerome Kern with libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, it was their last Broadway pairing and featured “All the Things You Are,” which became an American standard. 

    After his parents divorced the next year, he moved with his mother to Pennsylvania, where Hammerstein was their neighbor. Serving as sort of a surrogate father, Hammerstein took him under his wing and helped inspire him to write music, critiquing his childish work and giving him invaluable pointers. Sondheim later majored in music at Williams College in Massachusetts and studied with composer Milton Babbitt.

    His songs range from singable show tunes such as “Send in the Clowns” to densely lyrical, operatic pieces. “Complex polyphony” (independent melodies working harmoniously together) is a phrase applied to some of his work. At age 25 he wrote the lyrics for the musical “West Side Story.”

    In 1959 he wrote the words to the musical “Gypsy.” His first score as composer/lyricist was for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” (1962), a successful musical farce. That was followed by many other musicals, including “Anyone Can Whistle” (1964), “Pacific Overtures” (1976), “Company” (1970), “Follies” (1971), “A Little Night Music” (1973), “Sweeney Todd” (1979), “Merrily We Roll Along” (1981), 1984’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (honored with a rare-for-musicals Pulitzer Prize for Drama), “Into the Woods” (1987), “Assassins” (1999) and “The Frogs” (2004).

    Sondheim has been described as introverted and solitary. In an interview with Frank Rich, he said, “The outsider feeling — somebody who people want to both kiss and kill — occurred quite early in my life.” He lived with dramatist Peter Jones for eight years in the 1990s. As of 2010 he was in a relationship with Jeff Romley. In a 2019 interview, Romley’s friend Randy Rainbow, a satirical songwriter, referred to Romley as Sondheim’s husband. They had married in 2017, it was later revealed.

    Sondheim died at age 91 at home in Roxbury, Conn. (D. 2021)

    “It’s called flowers wilt / It’s called apples rot / It’s called thieves get rich / And saints get shot / It’s called God don’t answer prayers a lot / Okay, now you know.”

    —“Now You Know,” from the 1981 musical “Merrily We Roll Along”
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor and Bill Dunn

    E.Y. (Yip) Harburg

    E.Y. (Yip) Harburg

    On this date in 1896, lyricist and social justice poet Edgar Yipsel (Yip) Harburg, known as “Broadway’s social conscience,” was born of Russian-Jewish immigrant parents. Raised in poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, he later attended City College of New York, and struck up a lifelong friendship with classmate Ira Gershwin. Harburg began writing lyrics for Broadway revues in the 1930s, including the classic anthem of the depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” (with composer Jay Gorney, 1932) and “April in Paris” (with Vernon Duke, 1932).

    Harburg conceived and wrote lyrics for book musicals with political and social themes, including “Hooray for What!” (1937, with an anti-war theme, music by Harold Arlen) and “Bloomer Girl” (1944, feminist, anti-racist theme, music by Arlen). He co-wrote the book (with Fred Saidy) and wrote the lyrics for “Finian’s Rainbow” (1947, music by Burton Lane), which, despite its slyly subversive message, won the Henderson and George Jean Nathan Awards for Best Musical Comedy.

    He called himself a “rebel by birth.” “The House of God never had much appeal for me. Anyhow, I found a substitute temple — the theatre,” Harburg said in Who Put the Rainbow in the Wizard of Oz? (1993). His most famous Hollywood work was in “The Wizard of Oz” (1939, music by Arlen) with his Academy Award-winning song, “Over the Rainbow.” In 1962 he and Arlen scored the animated feature “Gay Purr-ee” (featuring the voice of Judy Garland).

    From 1951 to 1961 during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations and the McCarthy hearings, Harburg was “blacklisted” for his political views from film, television and radio but kept working on Broadway. He wrote the lyrics to over 600 songs with a variety of composers, including: “It’s Only a Paper Moon” (1932, with Arlen), and “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” (1943, Arlen, from the film “Cabin in the Sky”). With Lane, he wrote “Old Devil Moon” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” The team of Arlen and Harburg also wrote Groucho Marx’s signature song, “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady” (1939, from “At the Circus”).

    His volume of satiric light verse, Rhymes for the Irreverent (1965), was reissued in 1999. A second volume, At This Point in Rhyme (1976) was reissued in 2000 under the title More Rhymes for the Irreverent. He died at age 84. For more detail, see Dan Barker’s excellent long essay “The Theater Was His Temple.” (D. 1981)

    Do Unto Others?
    Love thy neighbor as thyself?
    Hide that motto on the shelf!
    Let it lie there, keep it idle
    Especially if you’re suicidal.
    For what we are about to receive,
    Oh Lord, ’tis Thee we thank,
    Said the Cannibal as he cut a slice
    Of the missionary’s shank.

    —Harburg, "Rhymes for the Irreverent" (1965)

    Tom Lehrer

    Tom Lehrer

    On this date in 1928, satiric songwriter Thomas Andrew Lehrer was born to a secular Jewish family in New York City. A precocious student, he earned a degree in math from Harvard at 18 and a master’s the following year. Lehrer recorded “The Songs of Tom Lehrer” in 1953, followed by “An Evening (Wasted) With Tom Lehrer.” He performed on stage reluctantly, finally bowing out altogether.

    After writing for NBC’s “That Was The Week That Was” (1964), Lehrer cut his third and most political album, “That Was The Year That Was.” A musical revue of his work, “Tomfoolery,” later opened in London. Lehrer has taught at MIT, Harvard, Wellesley and at the University of California-Santa Cruz.

    One of his most famous quips: “Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.” His claim to fame in the freethought community is the perennial favorite “The Vatican Rag” (lyrics below). Lehrer has said: “I firmly believe all religion is bullshit, but I don’t think I would have gone and written a song expressing that, unless I could figure out a way to make it funny.” (Telephone interview with Jeremy Mazner, Nov. 21, 1995)

    PHOTO: Lehrer at about age 30.

    “First you get down on your knees,
    Fiddle with your rosaries,
    Bow your head with great respect,
    And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

    Do whatever steps you want, if
    You have cleared them with the Pontiff.
    Everybody say his own
    Kyrie eleison,
    Doin’ the Vatican Rag.

    Get in line in that processional,
    Step into that small confessional,
    There, the guy who’s got religion’ll
    Tell you if your sin’s original.
    If it is, try playin’ it safer,
    Drink the wine and chew the wafer,
    Two, four, six, eight,
    Time to transubstantiate!

    So get down upon your knees,
    Fiddle with your rosaries,
    Bow your head with great respect,
    And genuflect, genuflect, genuflect!

    Make a cross on your abdomen,
    When in Rome do like a Roman,
    Ave Maria,
    Gee it’s good to see ya,
    Gettin’ ecstatic an’
    Sorta dramatic an’
    Doin’ the Vatican Rag!”

    —"The Vatican Rag," words and music by Tom Lehrer (1965)

    Irving Berlin

    Irving Berlin

    On this date in 1888, Irving Berlin (né Israel Baline) was born in Russia. He immigrated with his family to New York City at age 5. After his first wife died, Berlin, at 37, eloped with 22-year-old Ellin Mackay, a socialite and Roman Catholic, in a secular, civil ceremony. Her father disinherited her for marrying outside the faith. All three of their children shared “our father’s agnosticism and sidestep our husband’s faiths,” his daughter Mary Ellin Bennett wrote in her book, Irving Berlin: A Daughter’s Memoir.

    The celebrated composer of 1,500 popular songs wrote “God Bless America” as a show tune in 1918 for the musical ” Yip, Yip Yaphank,” but discarded it. He later revived and revised it when Kate Smith was looking for a peace anthem to sing in 1938. His daughter wrote that her father was “not a religious person” and opposed the drive to turn “God Bless America” into the national anthem.

    As Thousands Cheer biographer Laurence Bergreen wrote: ” ‘God Bless America’ revealed that patriotism was Irving Berlin’s true religion. It evoked the same emotional response in him that conventional religious belief summoned in others; it was his rock.” One of Berlin’s lesser-known songs reveals his irreverent side, the rollicking “Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades.” D. 1989.

    “Paradise doesn’t compare.
    All the nice people are there
    They come there from everywhere
    Just to revel with Mister Devil.”

    —Berlin, "Pack Up Your Sins and Go to the Devil in Hades" (1922)

    Cole Porter

    Cole Porter

    On this date in 1891, Cole Albert Porter was born in Peru, Indiana, to Sam Porter and Kate Cole Porter. He began studying piano at age 6, wrote his first song at age 10 and was class valedictorian at Worcester Academy in 1905. He graduated from Yale, where he wrote many college productions and performed with the glee club. Although he was gay, Porter married the woman who became his lifelong best friend, Linda Thomas, in 1919, and they remained together until her death in 1954.

    Porter’s sophisticated, romantic and witty songs include: “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Anything Goes,” “Night and Day,” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” “You Do Something to Me,” “In the Still of the Night,” “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To,” “All of You” and “Friendship.” His musicals included “Kiss Me Kate” and “Can-Can.” He wrote the music for such movies as “Silk Stockings” and “High Society” (starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby).

    In 1937 he had a tragic horse riding accident, fracturing both legs, which left him with debilitating pain. One leg had to be amputated a year later. Friends, colleagues and biographers confirm that Porter was not religious. A woman who briefly dated him recalled him as “one of the most irreverent persons I’ve ever encountered, but so charming.” The several songs he composed referencing deities always referred to them pejoratively and as “the gods,” in plural. Musicals such as “Anything Goes” (“You’re a Nathan panning / You’re Bishop Manning / You’re broccoli”) raised the ire of religionists.

    The tremendously successful tunesmith lived a lavish lifestyle and engaged in a lifelong battle with Puritanism and censorship. As is true for many musicians, “His art becomes almost a religion,” noted British poet Alfred Noyes. When Porter was admitted to the hospital for the final time, dangerously ill and miserable, friend Bobby Raisin overheard an encounter between him and the staff. When he was asked his religion, he replied, “Put down none.” The clerk asked, “Protestant?” Porter repeated, “Put down none.” (Quotes from Cole Porter by William McBrien, 1998) D. 1964.

    “Although later in life Cole briefly considered embracing religion, he was never a believer, and his several comments about his mother’s attachments to Peru churches were dismissive.”

    —Porter biographer William McBrien, "Cole Porter" (1998)

    Dan Barker

    Dan Barker

    On this date in 1949, Dan Barker was born in California. His father, Norman Barker, a professional trombonist, played with Hoagy Carmichael and appeared in a cameo with Judy Garland in the movie “Easter Parade.” (See Norman with Garland starting at 12 seconds in this video clip.) More is here on his family background.

    His mother, Patricia, was a talented amateur singer and the family often used music in their volunteer evangelism. Barker, who became a piano player and songwriter, worked as a volunteer missionary as a teenager, going to Mexico with youth groups and becoming fluent in Spanish.

    He attended Asuza Pacific College, majoring in religion. Ordained by a Christian congregation, he worked as an assistant minister in several churches but mainly freelanced with a musical ministry, also writing secular children’s music. Many of his songs and two Christian children’s musicals were produced by Manna Music and other Christian publishing houses.

    In his early 30s he started a course of reading in science, liberal theology and rationalism that led to “an intense inner conflict.” Finally, “I just lost faith in faith.” In 1983, he publicly left religion. He joined the staff of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in 1987, where he has served as public relations director, becoming co-president with his wife Annie Laurie Gaylor in 2004. FFRF published his book Losing Faith in Faith (1992), as well as three freethought/humanist books for children, including Just Pretend, and more than 70 freethought songs, including “You Can’t Win with Original Sin,” “None of the Above” and “Nothing Fails Like Prayer.” He collaborated with lyricist Charles Strouse on the song, “Poor Little Me.”

    Barker has recorded his songs and other traditional and contemporary freethought music on three CDs for FFRF: “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” “Beware of Dogma” and “Adrift on a Star.” He also freelances as a busy keyboardist and piano player in Madison, Wis., performing jazz and the Great American Songbook, much of which he has discovered was written by secular songwriters.

    He has participated in more than 100 public debates with Christian clergy, religious scholars and even an imam or two. His most recent books include Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists, foreword by Richard Dawkins (2008); The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God, foreword by Julia Sweeney (2011); Life Driven Purpose: How an Atheist Finds Meaning, foreword by Daniel C. Dennett (2015); GOD: The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction, foreword by Dawkins (2016); Free Will Explained: How Science and Philosophy Converge to Create a Beautiful Illusion (2018); and Mere Morality (2018). Barker’s books are available here.

    He has appeared on many national television talk shows, including “The Daily Show,” “The Phil Donahue Show,” “Oprah,” national Fox TV, ABC’s “Good Morning America,” “Religion & Ethics News Weekly” and “60 Minutes Australia.” He has co-hosted FFRF’s radio and TV shows and is a frequent speaker on college campuses and freethought conferences. He has four children from his first marriage and a daughter with Gaylor.

    “I threw out the bath water, and there was no baby there.”

    —Dan Barker, "Losing Faith in Faith" (1992)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Tim Hughes

    Richard Rodgers

    Richard Rodgers

    On this date in 1902, songwriter Richard Rodgers, one of the great composers of musical theater, was born on Long Island, N.Y., to a prosperous Jewish family (with an atheist grandmother). While attending Columbia University, he met his first major writing partner, lyricist Lorenz Hart, then studied serious music at the Institute of Musical Art, known today as Juliiard. After the success of “The Garrick Gaieties revues (1925-30), Rodgers and Hart became a huge Broadway songwriting force. During the 1920s and 1930s they produced the musicals “Babes in Arms,” “Pal Joey” and “The Boys From Syracuse.”

    After Hart’s early death, Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II to produce “Oklahoma!” (1943) and 10 more musicals, including “Flower Drum Song,” “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I” and “The Sound of Music” plus the movie “State Fair.” He wrote 39 Broadway musicals and vastly improved the musical theater by seamlessly weaving music, words and dance. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals earned a total of 34 Tony Awards, 15 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes, two Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards. After Hammerstein’s death, Rodgers collaborated with Stephen Sondheim, Sheldon Harnick and Martin Charnin.

    Rodgers wrote many of the standards in the Great American Songbook: “Blue Moon,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Getting to Know You,” “Have You Met Miss Jones?” “If I Loved You,” “Isn’t it Romantic?” “It Might as Well be Spring,” “Manhattan” “My Favorite Things,” “My Funny Valentine,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Spring is Here,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “This Nearly Was Mine,” “With a Song in my Heart,” “You Took Advantage of Me” and many more. Rodgers’ wife, Dorothy, said: “We are not religious. We are social Jews.”

    He died at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack and a laryngectomy. His ashes were scattered at sea. (D. 1979)

    PHOTO: Rodgers watching auditions in 1948 at the St. James Theatre.

    “Those around him knew that … Rodgers was an atheist. At the age of twelve, Mary Rodgers Guettel [his daughter] asked her father whether he believed in God and he answered that he believed in people. ‘If somebody is really sick, I don’t pray to God, I look for the best doctor in town.’ ”

    —Biographer Meryle Secrest, "Somewhere For Me: A Biography of Richard Rodgers" (2001)

    Frank Loesser

    Frank Loesser

    On this date in 1910, Frank Loesser was born in New York City. Loesser came from a musical family. His father taught classical piano, and his brother, Arthur Loesser, was a concert pianist. Loesser wrote his first song when he was 4 and soon taught himself to play harmonica and piano. He briefly attended the City College of New York but dropped out and turned to various jobs, including newspaper editing. In 1931 he teamed up with William Schuman to write his first lyrics for the song “In Love With a Memory of You.”

    Loesser became an accomplished lyricist for such well-known songs as “Moon of Manakoora” (1943), with music by Alfred Newman, “Two Sleepy People” (1938) and “Heart and Soul” (1938), both with music by Hoagy Carmichael. His musical work is just as famous, including such hits as “If I Were a Bell” (1950), “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” (1944), “Luck Be A Lady” (1950) and “On a Slow Boat to China” (1948).

    Loesser contributed scores for many celebrated Broadway musicals, including “Guys and Dolls” (1950), “The Most Happy Fella” (1956) and “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (1961). He also wrote the score for the film “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952), comprised of songs such as “Wonderful Copenhagen” and “Anywhere I Wander.”

    He married twice and had three daughters and a son. In daughter Susan Loesser’s book A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life (1993), she wrote that his family was not religious. His grandparents “were Jewish by blood, but not by thought or deed. No religion was practiced at home.” Loesser’s father, Henry Loesser, “cultivated intellectual, not theological, fields.” Before Loesser died, he wrote that he wanted his body to be disposed of “without benefit of ceremony, [or] religion.” D. 1969.

    “What a blessing to know there’s a devil, and that I’m but a pawn in his game / that my impulse to sin doesn’t come from within, and so I’m not exactly to blame.” 

    Frank Loesser (ironically) in “What a Blessing” (1960)

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Stephen Foster

    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)

    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.

    —Foster, “There’s a Good Time Coming” (1846)
    Compiled by Sarah Eucalano from “The Good Atheist: Living a Purpose-Filled Life Without God” by Dan Barker (2011)

    Mick Jagger

    Mick Jagger

    On this date in 1943, Michael Philip Jagger was born in Dartford, Kent, England. He was one of the founders of the iconic band the Rolling Stones in 1962 and became its lead singer and songwriter. Jagger has toured with the band in many different countries. The Stones were awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1986.

    In 1971 Jagger helped create the Rolling Stones Records label. He achieved further fame as a solo artist with five albums, including “She’s The Boss” (1985) and as an actor and producer who founded the Jagged Films company. He has acted in films such as “Performance” (1968) and “Ned Kelly” (1970), and his music appeared in the 2004 film “Alfie.” In 2003, Jagger was knighted as Sir Michael Jagger for his Services to Music. He has married twice (common law with Jerry Hall) and has eight children with five women, the most recent in 2016.

    “Like most English people I’m not a great believer,” Jagger said in a 2007 interview with The Independent. “I’ve read Richard Dawkins’ book and it’s very persuasive. I’m more in awe of the universe and that’s not really a belief in God.” Jagger has also spoken out about the harm of religion. “Killing for ideas is the most dangerous form of killing at all. Being willing to die for your ideas rather than your country is another concept, but dying for an idea, like in religion, is absurd,” Jagger said in an interview with High Times in 2003. Some sources say that Jagger practices Buddhism.

    “I don’t have belief in the Holy Book. I don’t think many English people do.” 

    —Jagger, to The Independent, 2007

    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Vanessa Carlton

    Vanessa Carlton

    On this date in 1980, musician Vanessa Lee Carlton was born in Milford, Pennsylvania, the oldest in a family of three with a Russian-Jewish heritage. Her father is a pilot and her mother is a pianist and teacher who taught Carlton how to play the piano.

    Carlton started ballet at age 9 and was later accepted to study at the prestigious School of American Ballet in New York City. She became discouraged by ballet’s high-pressure environment and found solace in music and writing lyrics. She started playing at gigs in Manhattan clubs while working as a waitress. This led to a deal with A&M Records in 2001.

    Her first album, “Be Not Nobody,” launched her into the spotlight at age 21 with the pop anthem “A Thousand Miles.” The album achieved monumental success, selling over 100,000 copies in the first week and earning Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s). Carlton’s second and third albums, “Harmonium” (2004) and “Heroes & Thieves” (2007), did not match the commercial success of the first and she left the major label system in 2008.

    Carlton has said that she “self-destructed” before transforming her career by taking a more organic approach to music making. Her fourth album, “Rabbits on the Run” (2011), is where Carlton mastered her creative aesthetic. It was partially inspired by Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book on cosmology A Brief History of Time. The album’s exploration of cosmology, neurology, physics and a sense of reverence toward the Earth carried over to her fifth album,” Liberman” (2015).

    In 2011, when asked what role faith plays in her music, she replied “I’m an atheist.” Carlton married John McCauley of the band Deer Tick in 2013 in a ceremony officiated by Stevie Nicks. Carlton and McCauley live in Nashville with a daughter, Sidney, born in 2015. 

    “I’m an atheist.”

    —Carlton, live-streamed performance (June 7, 2011)
    Complied by Molly Hanson

    Pierre-Jean de Béranger

    Pierre-Jean de Béranger

    On this date in 1780, Pierre-Jean de Béranger was born in Paris. Although he briefly attended a school based on the principles of Rousseau, he was largely unschooled and illiterate when he was apprenticed at age 14 to a printer who educated him. Béranger was an eyewitness to the storming of the Bastille and was a lifelong republican.

    By 1802 he was living in a garret in Paris in great poverty, where he wrote lyric poetry, songs and epics. He became a protegé of Lucien Bonaparte, who sent him money and gave him commissions, eventually helping him find work as a clerk at a university.

    By 1813 Béranger was a highly popular songwriter. His first collection of songs, including many high-spirited satires on the clergy, was published in 1815. The song “Le Roi d’Yvetot,” a satire about Napoleon, literally traveled by word of mouth and was sung throughout France. His second collection of songs, also including anti-clerical works, was published in 1821 and lost him his university position.

    He was tried, found guilty, fined 500 francs and imprisoned for three months. Reportedly, he found his warm jail cell preferable to his own cold lodgings. Béranger was imprisoned for nine months after publication of his fourth collection of songs. In 1848 he was elected by near acclamation to the Constituent Assembly. Reluctantly he was seated but later quietly resigned. (D. 1857)

    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Roger Waters

    Roger Waters

    On this date in 1943, English rock musician and songwriter George Roger Waters, best known for his 20-year career in the band Pink Floyd, was born in Great Bookham, England. Waters met fellow Pink Floyd member and first lead singer Syd Barrett while growing up in Cambridge. David Gilmour, who would replace Barrett as lead singer in 1967 (the band formed in 1965), attended a different school on the same road. Waters met the other band members, Nick Mason and Richard Wright, while studying architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

    After Barrett’s departure, Waters gained creative control over the band’s music, writing almost all of the lyrics. It was also his idea to create “concept albums” such as The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall and The Final Cut. A series of albums the band produced in the 1970s are among the best-selling records of all time. The original band dissolved in 1985 due to creative conflicts but Gilmour ultimately won the legal right, after a contentious public battle with Waters, to continue to use the Pink Floyd name and a majority of the band’s songs.

    Since the dissolution, Waters and Pink Floyd have made attempts at reunion shows, benefit concerts and tours. Waters embarked on a solo career after Pink Floyd, with the critically acclaimed album Amused to Death (1992) and a solo world tour starting in 1999, which became so successful it extended to three years. Waters worked on an opera, “Ça Ira,” for 16 years, which was released in 2005.

    In an interview with Mark Brown of the Rocky Mountain News, Waters said: “Please, God — I’m an atheist so maybe I shouldn’t be asking God — but let Barack Obama finally win the Democratic nomination and elect a person who seems to be not just enormously intelligent but also deeply humane and seems to have an imagination.” (April 25, 2008.) From his lyrics for “What God Wants, Part I”: “Through the power of money, And the power of your prayers, What God wants God gets God help us all. God wants dollars, God wants cents, God wants pounds shillings and pence. … What God wants God gets God help us all.” (Amused to Death, 1992.)

    Waters performing in 2007 in São Paulo, Brazil; Daigo Oliva photo under CC 2.0.

    “I had some pretty dark and desperate moments all those years ago. … I didn’t ever smash up a hotel room or throw a TV out a window. That was Led Zeppelin. Thank god. If there was a god, you know, which there isn’t.”

    —Waters interview from "The Wall Tour," America Online
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch

    Richard Marx

    Richard Marx

    On this date in 1963, singer/songwriter Richard Noel Marx was born in Chicago to Ruth (née Guildoo), a singer, and Richard Henry “Dick” Marx, a jazz musician of German-Jewish descent who wrote advertising jingles and music for movies. His son started singing in some of the jingles at age 5, sometimes with his mother. Products included Peter Pan peanut butter, Nestlé Crunch candy, Ken-L Ration dog food, Arm & Hammer baking soda and many others.

    When he was 17, a tape of his songs came to the attention of singer/music producer Lionel Richie, who convinced him to move to Los Angeles, where he worked as a background vocalist and started writing songs for other artists and then for himself. His 1987 debut album “Richard Marx” yielded four hit singles and went triple platinum. 

    “Right Here Waiting” from 1989’s “Repeat Offender” album was Marx’s first No. 1 hit on the U.S. adult contemporary chart and his first big hit outside North America. He has sold over 30 million albums worldwide, and as of this writing in 2022 is the only male artist whose first seven singles reached the Top 5 on the Billboard charts.

    He has written a No. 1 single in each of the last four decades, an accomplishment achieved previously only by Michael Jackson. His memoir “Stories to Tell,” which included a soundtrack, was released in 2021. “Songwriter,” his 13th studio album, debuted in 2022.

    Marx married actress Cynthia Rhodes, who appeared in “Staying Alive,” “Flashdance” and “Dirty Dancing,” in 1989. They had three sons: Brandon (b. 1990), Lucas (b. 1992) and Jesse (b. 1994). They divorced in 2014 and Marx married former MTV VJ Daisy Fuentes the next year in Aspen, Colo.

    His charitable causes have included the American Cancer Society, Ronald McDonald House, ASPCA, Humane Society, St. Jude Children’s Hospital and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for which his foundation events have raised over $4 million.

    Tweeting at @richardmarx, he wrote: “So … there’s an invisible man in the sky watching everything we do and ‘protecting us’ but also keeping mass murderers alive and healthy while letting sweet innocent 3 year olds die painful agonizing deaths? Yeah, no. I don’t buy that. But you can.” (Twitter, March 23, 2019)

    At Huffington Post on July 4, 2014, he wrote, “I’m a spiritual man but I’m not religious. I’m not really connected to any major organized religion and I think that’s okay.” 

    PHOTO: Marx in 2016; Casino Regina photo under CC 4.0.

    “As an atheist, I believe at the moment of death it’s just lights out. Done. Because, I dunno, brain waves … science. But if I’m wrong, I have ZERO doubt that the folks who claim to be ‘Christian’ but live their lives in opposition of Christ’s teachings are gonna be first to burn.” 

    —Marx tweet (Twitter, Oct. 26, 2022)
    Compiled by Bill Dunn

    Ani DiFranco

    Ani DiFranco

    On this date in 1970, punk folksinger Ani DiFranco was born in Buffalo, N.Y. Ani (pronounced AH-nee) started singing Beatles covers in local bars as a youngster. By 15 she had begun writing her own material and was living on her own. She graduated at age 16 from the Visual and Performing Arts High School in Buffalo and moved to New York City at 18.

    She has released over 20 albums as of this writing. Sing Out calls her lyrics “jaw-dropping.” Spurning offers from indie and major labels alike, DiFranco started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records. She not only writes and publishes her own songs and produces her own recordings, but even creates the artwork. An in-demand artist, she tours acoustic, college and rock club circuits, winning over a diverse audience.

    Her freethought views are revealed in such songs as “Animal” from “Educated Guess” (2004), in which she sings about growing up “surrounded by willful ignorance” and “the religions of men.” She said in a May 2000 interview with The Progressive: “I’m not a religious person myself. I’m an atheist. I think religion serves a lot of different purposes in people’s lives … but then, of course, institutional religions are so problematic.”

    DiFranco in 2017 in Napa Valley, Calif. Photo via Shutterstock by Sterling Munksgard. 

    “I’m an atheist. … How unfortunate it is to assign responsibility to the higher up for justice amongst people.”

    Ani DiFranco, interview by Matthew Rothschild, The Progressive (May 2000)

    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    George Gershwin

    George Gershwin

    On this date in 1898, composer George Gershwin (né Jacob Bruskin Gershowitz) was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. Of the three boys in the family, only his older brother Ira, later George’s lyricist, had a bar mitzvah. According to biographer Rodney Greenberg, “This religious milestone apparently meant little to Ira himself. The fact that Rose and Morris never imposed it upon George and Arthur means that, by the time they became teenagers, the family had left their East European Jewish origins behind and were living a secular existence in New York’s cosmopolitan melting pot.”

    Gershwin’s named sources of “inspiration” were not gods or prophets but two other nonbelieving songwriters: Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern, according to biographer Edward Jablonski in Gershwin: A Biography. Self-taught on the piano, Gershwin started writing songs as a teen, quickly advancing from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway musicals. Considered by many to be America’s greatest composer, he wrote memorable standard after standard, including “Lady, be Good!” “Strike Up the Band,” “Funny Face,” “The Man I Love,” “Embraceable You,” “Somebody Loves Me” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” His more serious work included “Rhapsody in Blue” (1924), “Piano Concerto in F” (1925), “Porgy and Bess “(1934), and “Three Preludes” (1926).

    At the height of his career at age 38 in 1937, he died during surgery to remove a brain tumor. He had never married and at the time of his death lived in a house owned by lyricist Yip Harburg. (D. 1937)

    It Ain’t Necessarily So

    It ain’t necessarily so, (repeat)
    De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
    To read in de Bible,
    It ain’t necessarily so.

    Li’l David was small, but oh my! (repeat)
    He fought big Goliath
    Who lay down an’ dieth!
    Li’l David was small, but oh my!

    Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale, (repeat)
    Fo’ he made his home in
    Dat fish’s abdomen.
    Oh, Jonah, he lived in de whale.

    Li’l Moses was found in a stream, (repeat)
    He floated on water
    Till Ole Pharaoh’s daughter
    She fished him, she says, from that stream.

    It ain’t necessarily so, (repeat)
    Dey tell all you chillun
    De debble’s a villun,
    But ’tain’t necessarily so.

    To get into Hebben don’ snap for a sebben!
    Live clean! Don’ have no fault.
    Oh, I takes dat gospel
    Whenever it’s poss’ble,
    But wid a grain of salt.

    Methus’lah lived nine hundred years, (repeat)
    But who calls dat livin’
    When no gal’ll give in
    To no man what’s nine hundred years?

    I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show,
    It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
    ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa,
    Ain’t necessarily so.

    —Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin (1935)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Charlie McDonnell

    Charlie McDonnell

    On this date in 1990, Charlie McDonnell was born in Bath, England, where he grew up. In 2007, while bored studying for exams, he started making videos for his YouTube channel, “charlieissocoollike.” The channel became incredibly popular and in 2013 reached 2 million subscribers.

    As a musician he was a member of the  Doctor Who-themed rock band Chameleon Circuit and of the short-lived project Sons of Admirals. He directed a series of short films in 2013-14 and co-hosted the YouTube breakfast show “Cereal Time” with fellow vlogger Jimmy Hill in 2015-16. In 2016 he published his first book, Fun Science.

    McDonnell occasionally performs humorous songs, usually accompanying himself on the ukulele. He addresses scientific themes in songs like “A Song About Monkeys,” about evolution, and “Chemical Love,” on the physical origins of human emotion. In “A Song About Monkeys” he tells a gorilla: “You’re my favorite animal, but I’m biased I guess, because you look quite a bit like me. … You’re just like me, ’cause I’m an animal. We’re of the same biology.”

    McDonnell often addresses scientific ideas from a rational perspective in his videos and calls himself an atheist. In 2017 he moved to Canada, his girlfriend’s homeland. He announced on Twitter in March 2019 that he was quitting YouTube posting to pursue screenwriting.

    PHOTO: By Gage Skidmore under CC 3.0.

    FAN BLOG (rating McDonnell’s “hotness points”):
    FAITH: Unknown but believed to be an atheist.
    McDONNELL: I am an atheist.
    FAN BLOG: Minus 50 points.
    McDONNELL: Oh well, reason loses again.

    —2010 video on McDonnell's YouTube channel
    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski



    On this date in 1951, musician Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner (Sting), was born to a milkman and hairdresser in Wallsend on Tyne, Northumberland, England. Sumner took the name Sting after someone told him he looked like a bee wearing a striped sweater. He became a husband and father before turning 20 and moved to London hoping to launch his musical career. He and two others started the band The Police in 1976. As lead singer, he wrote most of the music and lyrics.

    The group had early hits with “Roxanne” and “Message in a Bottle” but struck musical gold with the 1983 hit “Every Breath You Take.” Sting began acting in such films as “Quadrophenia” (1979), “Dune” (1984) and “The Bride” (1985). The Police broke up in 1984 after winning six Grammys and Sting released his first solo album the next year, “The Dream of the Blue Turtles,” which was nominated for a Grammy. He continued to perform and record and collaborate with other artists, including a 2014-15 world tour with Paul Simon and the next year with Peter Gabriel. His 14th album, “My Songs,” was released in May 2019.

    He was married to actress Frances Tomelty from 1976-84. They had two children: Joseph and Fuchsia Katherine. He married actress and film producer Trudie Styler in 1992 after they had been together for a decade. They have four children: Brigitte Michael, Jake, Eliot Pauline and Giacomo Luke.

    Sting’s activism has persisted throughout his career. Since the 1980s, he has actively supported Amnesty International, and co-founded the Rainforest Foundation in 1989, in an effort to save the Brazilian rainforest. He has authored books including Jungle Stories: The Fight for the Amazon (1989), with co-author Jean-Pierre Dutilleux, and Spirits in the Material World (1994), with Pato Banton.

    In the CD booklet of his Winter Solstice album, “If On A Winter’s Night” (2009), Sting twice identified himself as an agnostic. Answering “What do you think happens when we die?” he once said: “It’s only conjecture, but I imagine it’s the same as it was before I was here. Which makes it incumbent upon us to create a heaven on Earth, now, and not hell.” (“The Late Show with Steven Colbert,” Dec. 10, 2021)

    Public domain photo: Sting at the 2014 Kennedy Center Awards.

    “[I]f ever I’m asked if I’m religious I always reply, ‘Yes, I’m a devout musician.’ Music puts me in touch with something beyond the intellect, something otherworldly, something sacred.”

    —Sting, commencement address, Berklee College of Music in Boston (May 15, 1994)
    Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch and Scott Grinstead

    Joe Hill

    Joe Hill

    On this date in 1879, union organizer and songwriter Joe Hill (né Joel Hagglund) was born in Gavle, Sweden. His parents were devout Lutherans who enjoyed music, filling their home with song. Only 9 when his father died, Hill had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. At 20 he was diagnosed with skin and joint tuberculosis. His mother died of complications from a back operation when Hill was 22 and he and a brother emigrated to America.

    He worked at various laborer jobs and as a union organizer while writing songs about the working class that became part of the International Workers of the World’s (the Wobblies) “Little Red Song Book.” Hill’s songs include “The Tramp,” “There Is Power in the Union,” “Rebel Girl” and “Casey Jones, Union Scab.” His irreverent classic, “The Preacher and the Slave,” parodied the hymn “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and lampooned the Salvation Army as the Starvation Army. (See lyrics below and listen here.) 

    In 1914 a Utah grocer and his son were killed in their store and police picked up Hill, an unpopular newcomer to the Utah scene who had just been treated for a gunshot wound by a physician. Hill didn’t help himself, refusing (gallantly, his defenders maintained) to provide details about his alibi involving being shot in a woman’s room by a rival. Although the evidence was circumstantial and contradictory, he was found guilty. An international outcry ensued. Helen Keller came to his defense. President Woodrow Wilson intervened twice to try to prevent the execution but on Nov. 19, 1915, he was executed.

    Just before his death he had written to the former president of the Western Federation of Miners, Bill Haywood, “Goodbye Bill: I die like a true rebel. Don’t waste any time mourning, organize!” Then he quipped, “It is a hundred miles from here to Wyoming. Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” Following his wishes, his ashes were distributed to every IWW local except for the one in Utah. More than 30,000 people attended his funeral. According to an article in the Deseret Evening News, “No creed or religion found a place at the service. There were no prayers and no hymns, but there was a mighty chorus of voices singing songs written by Hill.”

    The mournful but hopeful ballad “Joe Hill,” written by Alfred Hayes and set to music by Earl Robinson, commemmorates his work: “I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / Alive as you and me / Says I but Joe you’re ten years dead / I never died says he / I never died says he.” … “From San Diego up to Maine / In every mine and mill / Where workers strike and organize / It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill / It’s there you’ll find Joe Hill.”

    The Preacher And The Slave

    Long-haired preachers come out every night
    Try to tell you what’s wrong and what’s right;
    But when asked about something to eat,
    They will answer in voices so sweet:

    You will eat, by and by,
    In that glorious land in the sky.
    Work and pray; live on hay.
    You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (That’s a lie!)

    Oh, the Starvation Army they play
    And they sing and they clap and they pray
    Till they get all your coin on the drum,
    Then they’ll tell you when you’re on the bum.

    If you fight hard for children and wife,
    Try to get something good in this life,
    You’re a sinner and bad man, they tell;
    When you die you will sure go to Hell.

    Holy Rollers and Jumpers come out,
    And they holler, they jump, and they shout.
    “Give your money to Jesus,” they say,
    “He will cure all diseases today.”

    Working folk of all countries, unite!
    Side by side we for freedom will fight.
    Then the world and its wealth we have gained,
    To the grafters we’ll sing this refrain:

    You will eat, by and by,
    When you’ve learned how to cook and to fry.
    Chop some wood — ’twill do you good.
    And you’ll eat in the sweet by and by. (That’s no lie!)

    —Lyrics by Joe Hill
    Compiled by Jane Esbensen

    Tim Minchin

    Tim Minchin

    On this date in 1975, Timothy David Minchin was born in Northampton, England, to Australian parents. On his website he describes himself as a “comedian, actor, composer, songwriter, pianist, musical director and huge rock ‘n’ roll megastar.” He grew up in Perth, Australia, where he attended the University of Western Australia and received a bachelor of arts in English and theater in 1995. He went on to obtain an advanced degree in contemporary music at the Conservatorium of Western Australia in 1998.

    In 2002 he began his career as a musical comedian in Melbourne in shows where he sang original songs while accompanying himself on piano and incorporating more traditional stand-up elements. Minchin came to prominence at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2005 and went on to win the Perrier Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that same year. Living in London, he toured the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and North America. He has also written the book and lyrics for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda,” which premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in December 2010.

    Minchin is outspoken in his opposition to religion and to nonscientific claims made by New Age groups and others. His comedy and songs cover a wide range of topics, from love and sex to political controversies and language use, but a primary focus is on religion. Many contain strong language but some are safe for radio play, including “Peace Anthem for Palestine,” which Minchin says sums up his views on religious conflict: “We don’t eat pigs, you don’t eat pigs, it seems it’s been that way forever. So if you don’t eat pigs and we don’t eat pigs, why not not eat pigs together?”

    He does express fondness for the music of his upbringing in the Anglican Church and the secular and family aspects of Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere in his 2009 single “White Wine in the Sun.” But its hard-hitting lyrics created a firestorm in Australia when the song was released as part of a charitable seasonal album in 2010. Themes of his work include his contempt for unscientific thinking (“If You Open Your Mind Too Much Your Brain Will Fall Out (Take My Wife)” and for the beauty of scientific thinking in the comedy routine “Tony the Fish.”

    Minchin returned to touring in 2019 after a seven-year break. The  BACK tour visited Australia and New Zealand in March and April, with performances scheduled in October and November in Europe.

    Photo: Minchin at the 2012 Reason Rally; FFRF photo by Andrew L. Seidel

    “And yes I have all of the usual objections
    To the miseducation of children who, in tax-exempt institutions,
    Are taught to externalize blame
    And to feel ashamed and to judge things as plain right and wrong
    But I quite like the songs. ”

    Tim Minchin, “White Wine in the Sun,” (2009)

    Compiled by Eleanor Wroblewski

    John Lennon

    John Lennon

    On this date in 1940, John Lennon was born in Liverpool, England. A guitar player, Lennon first teamed up with Paul McCartney at age 15. In 1960 they founded the Beatles, a pop foursome that took the world by storm in 1962. On March 4, 1966, the London Evening Standard published an interview with John Lennon in which he claimed that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus: “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and I will be proved right. We are more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock and roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

    Lennon’s comments were greeted in the U.S. with record burnings and boycotts and he eventually apologized.

    Despite hit after hit, the Beatles broke up when McCartney left in 1970. Lennon married Yoko Ono in 1969 and released his hit album “Imagine” in 1971. When his son Sean was born, he became a famous “house husband.” In 1980 he came out of retirement to do some recordings. He was shot to death by Mark David Chapman outside his Dakota apartment building in New York City on Dec. 8, 1980. Sentenced to serve 20 years to life, Chapman in 2022 was denied parole for the 12th time.

    In an interview Lennon and Ono gave to Playboy that was published posthumously in January 1981, he said, “[T]his whole religion business suffers from the ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ bit. There’s too much talk about soldiers and marching and converting. I’m not pushing Buddhism, because I’m no more a Buddhist than I am a Christian; but there’s one thing I admire about the religion: There’s no proselytizing.”

    Lennon also wrote lyrics saying “I don’t believe in Bible” or Jesus: “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” (D. 1980)

    PHOTO: Lennon the month before his death; Jack Mitchell photo for The New York Times under CC 3.0.


    Imagine there’s no heaven,
    It’s easy if you try,
    No hell below us,
    Above us only sky.
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today.

    Imagine there’s no country,
    It isn’t hard to do.
    Nothing to kill or die for,
    And no religion, too.
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace–

    You may say I’m a dreamer.
    But I’m not the only one.
    I hope someday you’ll join us,
    And the world will be as one.

    —Words and music by John Lennon. 1971 Northern Songs Ltd. (Maclen Music)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Thelonious Monk

    Thelonious Monk

    On this date in 1917, the American jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk was born in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. When he was 5, his family moved to Manhattan, where he started playing the piano, largely self-taught. His compositions “Round Midnight,” “Well, You Needn’t,” Straight, No Chaser,” “Blue Monk” and others have become standards in the jazz repertoire. “Round Midnight” is the most recorded jazz standard written by a jazz musician, appearing on more than 1,000 albums.

    Monk’s idiosyncratic style utilized unexpected melodic twists, dissonant harmonies (which are pleasing to jazz players), erratic percussive phrases punctuated by unexpected hesitations and silences. Despite these unorthodox qualities, Duke Ellington is the only jazz composer who has been recorded more often than Monk, who is one of only five jazz musicians to have been on the cover of Time (along with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck and Wynton Marsalis).

    Like his music, Monk’s views on religion were also unorthodox. As a teenager, he played the organ for a traveling evangelist, but it appears he was an agnostic who held no religious beliefs of his own. Biographer Robin D. G. Kelly wrote that “Monk clearly was not a true believer” and that “most people who knew Monk remember that he rarely attended church and did not speak about religion in the most flattering terms.”

    According to his niece Charlotte, “He was never into religion. Religion was not his thing. … He never went to church or any of that. And his kids, he never took them to church. He said they had to have their own mind about things.” But he was tolerant of religion and sometimes accompanied his mother on the piano as she sang her beloved hymns while she was dying of cancer.

    He was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. (D. 1982)

    PHOTO: Monk in 1947. William P. Gottlieb photo, Library of Congress.

    INTERVIEWER: “Do you believe in God?”
    MONK: “I don’t know nothing. Do you?”

    —"Thelonius Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original" by Robin D. G. Kelley (2009)
    Compiled by Dan Barker

    P.G. Wodehouse

    P.G. Wodehouse

    On this date in 1881, humorist Pelman Grenville (“Plum”) P.G. Wodehouse was born. He lived with his parents in Hong Kong as a toddler, then was sent to be cared for by aunts in England. Wodehouse (pronounced “Woodhouse”) was educated at Dulwich College. His first novel was published when he was 21 in 1902.

    The humorist, who wrote for Punch and other magazines, introduced the characters of the foppish, foolish Bertie Wooster and his invaluable valet Jeeves in The Man with Two Left Feet (1917). The series Wodehouse wrote about the pair became favorites with Bertrand Russell and other famous fans. In addition to his 120 books, Wodehouse occasionally moonlighted as a lyricist, writing the words for the song “Bill” in “Showboat,” for instance.

    Living in occupied France in 1940, Wodehouse became subject to a Nazi decree that all English males under age 60 were to be immediately interned. He was sent to camps in Belgium and to Tost in Upper Silesia, where he remained until June 1941. He naively agreed to give light-hearted and innocuous interviews broadcast by the Germans, poking fun at his plight. The interviews were met with cries of treason in England, although he had many defenders. He moved to the U.S. and became a citizen in 1955 and was knighted in England in 1975.

    Like many humorists, Wodehouse, known as “English literature’s performing flea,” was not religious. Biographer Robert McCrum wrote that Wodehouse was “agnostic towards matters of faith.” (D. 1975)

    “In March 1972 [Wodehouse] was invited to attend Sunday service with President Nixon, but turned it down as ‘too much of a strain.’ He had no desire to leave Basket Neck Lane and, apart from his year in Tost, had never bothered much with religion, remaining strenuously agnostic.”

    —Robert McCrum in "Wodehouse: A Life" (2004)



    On this date in 1965, recording artist Björk (née Björk Gudmundsdottir) was born in Reykjavík, Iceland. Her mother, an environmental activist, and her father, a union electrician, divorced when she was 6. She moved with her mother to a commune. She studied classical piano as an elementary student. When her teachers submitted a tape of her singing “I Love to Love” to Iceland’s Radio One, it became a hit.

    Her first album was released when she was 11. She had formed two bands by age 14. She sang with an avante-garde pop band, The Sugarcubes, in 1986, which became successful internationally. Bjork ventured on a solo career in 1993, which has encompassed the dance and club culture, punk, jazz standards and ballads. She won the 2000 Best Actress Award at Cannes for playing the lead role in “Dancer in the Dark,” for which she also composed the score. “Dancer” also won Best Picture at Cannes.

    Several of Björk’s albums have reached the top 20 on the U.S. Billboard 200 chart, the most recent being “Vulnicura” (2015). “Utopia” was released in 2017. She has had 31 singles reach the top 40 on pop charts around the world, with 22 top 40 hits in the UK, including the top 10 hits “It’s Oh So Quiet.” “Army of Me” and “Hyperballad.” She is reported to have sold between 20 and 40 million records as of 2015.

    Björk met guitarist Þór Eldon in the early ’80s. They married in 1986 and had a son, Sindri, that same year but divorced soon after his birth.  

    When asked if she believes in God, she replied, “I do not believe in religion, but if I had to choose one, it would be Buddhism.” (Les Inrockuptibles No. 14, June 16, 1995.) Earlier she told the Irish magazine Hot Press, “If I get into trouble, there’s no God or Allah to sort me out. I have to do it myself.” (“Björk on the Wild Side,” 1994)

    Björk at the premiere of “Dancer in the Dark” at the Cannes Film Festival; Paul Smith/Featureflash Photo.

    “I was sure that I was an atheist, but as I matured I realized nature is my religion.”

    —Björk Facebook post (Dec. 9, 2012)
    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor; photo by Featureflash / Shutterstock.com

    Randy Newman

    Randy Newman

    On this date in 1943, singer-songwriter Randall Stuart Newman was born in Los Angeles to nonobservant Jewish parents Irving and Adele (Fox) Newman. Growing up in New Orleans, Newman was greatly influenced by the music he heard as a child. He began playing piano at age 7. His uncles wrote film scores for a living and one, Al Newman, wrote the now-famous 20th Century Fox fanfare.

    At age 17 he started work as a songwriter for a publishing company and released his first single in 1962. He studied music at UCLA but dropped out with just one semester left. His first album, ”Randy Newman” (1968), was critically acclaimed. In 1972 his songs “Sail Away” and “You Can Leave Your Hat On” gained him further recognition. Newman’s first major pop hit, “Short People” (1977), reached number two on the Billboard charts. His song “I Love L.A.” (1983), can be frequently heard at L.A. sports events.

    Newman has released 12 studio albums, most recently “Dark Matter” in 2017. Since the 1980s he has worked mostly as a film composer and has scored nine Disney-Pixar animated films. He has won three Emmys and seven Grammy Awards and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

    Newman’s instantly recognizable voice came to be associated primarily with his acerbic, irreverent themes and lyrics on politics and religion. His song “Old Man” demonstrate lessons he learned from his father: “Don’t need no god to comfort you, you taught me not to believe that lie.” During a hospital visit, his father pointed at the patients and said, “That’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there and that’s God’s will over there …”

    AllMusic critic Mark Deming called “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind),” albeit quietly sung in a slow tempo, “one of the most bitter rants against religion that anyone committed to vinyl prior to the punk era.”

    He was married to German-born Roswitha Schmale from 1967 to 1985 and they had three sons. In 1990 he married Gretchen Preece. They had two children.

    “Clearly, the Newmans weren’t what you would call observant and the revelation of his Jewishness prompted in Randy a study of comparative religion that made him a devout atheist (‘except when I’m sick’).”

    —Newman quip quoted in Pop Matters online (Feb. 22, 2016)
    Compiled by Noah Bunnell; photo by S. Bukley, Shutterstock.com

    Kristin Lems

    Kristin Lems

    On this date in 1950, folksinger and songwriter Kristin Lems was born to an acclaimed concert pianist and a Dutch immigrant father. She grew up in Evanston, Illinois. She was a National Merit Scholar and a Fulbright Scholar and has earned a Ph.D. Accompanying herself on guitar, Lems became the troubadour at 1970s rallies for the Equal Rights Amendment and women’s rights, also writing topical songs on many progressive issues, such as safe energy, peace and racial equality.

    She has shared the stage with two presidential first ladies, Maya Angelou, Jacques Cousteau, Pete Seeger, Malvina Reynolds, Holly Near, Peter, Paul and Mary and many others. Gloria Steinem called her “a one-woman argument against the notion that the women’s movement doesn’t have a sense of humor.” She has traveled widely and also performs in Farsi (Persian). Lem’s albums include “Upbeat!” and “Oh Mama — plus!” with many of her early hits. She sings an original song on “The Best of Broadside,” a CD anthology issued by the Smithsonian/Folkways label.

    Lems also appeared on FFRF’s first musical album, “My Thoughts Are Free,” with FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. She has been named a “Woman of Illinois Repute,” Humanist Heroine of the American Humanist Association and an FFRF Freethought Heroine. She and Barker sing together on this recording of the freethought anthem “Die Gedanken Sind Frei.” It’s included on Barker’s album “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”

    PHOTO: Lems on FFRF’s “Freethought Matters” in February 2019.

    Days of the Theocracy

    First they fight abortion,
    Birth control is next,
    Then comes sex if you’re not married,
    Finally, out goes sex.
    Put the prayers back in the schools,
    Install parochiaid,
    Allow for corporal punishment,
    And then you’ve got it made!

    We’re going back, back
    To the good old days,
    When men were really men
    And women knew their place;
    Back, back a couple of centuries,
    And welcome back the days
    Of the theocracy!

    The family is so holy
    There must be no divorce.
    And if a wife is not content,
    She must adjust, of course.
    And if he’s forced to beat her
    It’s all for her own good;
    She must know what her limits are
    As any woman should!


    The next to go is daycare,
    It’s all a commie plot!
    What could be more fulfilling
    Than a child, wanted or not?
    The woman’s work is housework–
    God wanted it that way!
    A salaried job degrades her, since
    She never works for pay!  …

    Kristin Lems. (c) 1979 Keline Ding Music (BMI). All rights reserved. Used by permission. Special courtesy Kristin Lems from her album "In the Out Door."

    Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

    Ira Gershwin

    Ira Gershwin

    On this date in 1896, Ira Gershwin (né Israel Gershowitz) was born in New York City. He attended the College of the City of New York (1914–16), where he became interested in writing and music. His first foray into writing lyrics for Broadway plays was in 1921 for “Two Little Girls In Blue,” under the pseudonym Arthur Francis. Gershwin, a renowned lyricist, achieved worldwide fame with his brother George.

    The Gershwins often composed scores for Broadway plays, including “Lady, Be Good” (1924), starring Fred Astaire, and the popular opera “Porgy and Bess” (1935). Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics for classic songs such as “ ’S Wonderful” (1927), “I Got Rhythm” (1930) and “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (1937). He continued writing lyrics after George’s death in 1937, collaborating with other well-known composers. In 1932 he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work with the musical “Of Thee I Sing” (1931), making him the first lyricist to earn a Pulitzer.

    Gershwin was born to a secular Jewish family that practiced no religious rituals besides Passover. On Sabbaths, Gershwin’s mother made sure to close the curtains so her neighbors would not notice that she had not lit the Sabbath candles. Gershwin seemed to share his mother’s lack of faith. According to Gershwin by Rodney Greenberg (1998), during one Passover, Gershwin “wore a silly top-hat like a vaudeville comedian, and had rewritten the ancient text for maximum comic effect.” In 1935, Gershwin wrote the lyrics for the song “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which is strongly atheist, ridiculing improbable bible stories such as the story of Jonah. (D. 1983)

    “De t’ings dat yo’ li’ble
    to read in de Bible
    it ain’t necessarily so.”

    —Ira Gershwin, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (1935)
    Compiled by Sabrina Gaylor

    Jay Gorney

    Jay Gorney

    On this date in 1894, songwriter Jay Gorney (né Abraham Jacob Gornetzsky) was born in Bialystok, Russia (now part of Poland). His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was 9, settling in Detroit. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in 1917 but practiced law only briefly before moving to New York City to write songs on Tin Pan Alley.

    The composer of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” was a nonbeliever who ended up being blacklisted for his liberal views. He discovered Shirley Temple, for whom he wrote her first movie song “Baby, Take a Bow” (in “Stand Up and Cheer”). He wrote such standards as “You’re My Thrill” and “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” plus hundreds of popular songs for theater, film and television. “We were not a religious family,” his widow Sondra Karyl Gorney said in a telephone interview. She wrote the 2005 biography Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? The Life of Composer Jay Gorney.

    Gorney had a son with his first wife, Edelaine Roden, and two children with Sondra, whom he married in 1943 before a justice of the peace. Earlier that year, his first wife had married his collaborator, lyricist Yip Harburg. Gorney’s memorial was held at the New York Public Shakespeare Theater. D. 1990.

    Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion,
    Or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,
    Or abridging the freedom of speech
    Or of the press
    Or the right of the people peaceably to assemble
    And to petition the government for a redress of grievances —
    That’s the Bill of Rights.
    Don’t lose it!

    —A verse Gorney sang during his 1952 testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" by Sandra K. Gorney (2005)

Freedom From Religion Foundation