Amidst talk of the 9-11 anniversary, and bad economic news, and the health-care “crisis” in the US, I actually wonder whether Americans know what “hard times” are. I have been through some difficult patches, but I cannot say that I have known Hard Times in the sense that every previous generation in history, virtually everywhere in the world, has experienced.
I have been sad, but not in sorrow. I have been in debt, but never destitute. I have had regrets, but never grief. How many of us can share such relatively comfortable testimony? In my case, to whatever extent I rightly judge my insulation, it is largely due to my standing as a Christian – receiving joy that passes understanding — but we also have to credit modern life, in America, with its technology, medicine, and general prosperity.
Hard Times come in America, but somehow all the wars and crises have the lengths of TV mini-series, and if not, the public grows impatient. The public has a sound-bite mentality. We used to face our challenges; but now we are distracted with the modern equivalents of the Romans’ “bread and circuses” — pop entertainment, push-button gratification.
In many ways this indicates that we are not advancing as a culture. I’m not sure we are “going backwards,” either, because that might actually be beneficial. Giuseppi Verdi (yes, the composer otherwise known as Joe Green) once said, Torniamo all’antico: Sara un progresso — “We turn to the past in order to move forward.”
I got thinking of Hard Times in America when I pulled an elegant old volume off my bookshelf. Folk Songs was published in 1860, before the Civil War. This book is leather-bound, all edges gilt, pages as supple as when it was printed, a joy to hold. The “folk songs” of its title refers not to early-day coffee houses, but to poems and songs of the people, in contradistinction to epic verse or heroic sagas; the way the German word Volk refers to the shared-group spirit of the masses.
Many of the titles are charming: “The Age of Wisdom,” “My Child,” “Baby’s Shoes,” “The Flower of Beauty,” “The First Snow-Fall”… However, such sweet titles mask preoccupations with children dying in snow drifts, lovers deserting, husbands lost at sea, fatal illness, mourning for decades, unfaithful friends. No need to guess the themes other titles from the index:”Tommy’s Dead,” “The Murdered Traveller,” and “Ode To a Dead Body.”
It reminded me that people 150 years ago were not gloomy pessimists: they were not. But Hard Times were a part of life, and therefore part of poetry and song. On the frontier, life could be snuffed out in a moment. In the imminent Civil War, roughly every third household was affected by death, maiming, split families, or hideous disruption; yet anti-war movements never gained traction; life went on. Abraham Lincoln almost lost his mind over an unhappy love affair; his wife likely did lose her mind when her favorite son died in the White House. Theodore Roosevelt’s young wife (in childbirth) and mother (of salmonella) died on the same day in the same house. Hard Times.
Also before the Civil War, a composer named Stephen Foster wrote a song called Hard Times. He is barely recalled today, sometimes as a caricature, but he might be America’s greatest composer. He wrote My Old Kentucky Home; I Dream of Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair; Old Black Joe; Carry Me Back to Ol’ Virginia; Way Down Upon the Swanee River / Old Folks At Home; Oh, Susanna; Camptown Races; Beautiful Dreamer … and Hard Times, Come Again No More. This last song has been resurrected lately to a certain repute, or at least utility. In some circles it has become an anthem for charities and lamentation of poverty. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, even the Squirrel Nut Zippers, have sung it. It has taken on the air of a secular anthem. But in fact, although Stephen Foster did not embed a Gospel message in the lyrics, he had written many hymns in his life, and — if we can turn back our minds to the world of 150 years ago — it is clear that the Hard Times he wrote of were the world’s trials, to be relieved in heaven. It is clear that the “cabin,” and its door, in the song are metaphors.
Here is a memorable video to evoke the reality of life’s Hard Times, the promise heaven holds, and the beauty of Stephen Foster’s music to you. The seven singers are from the amazing project of a few years ago, “The Transatlantic Sessions” — singers and musicians from America (US and Canada), Ireland, and Scotland singing old and new “folkish” songs in a living-room setting.
(By the way, they are, left to right, Rod Paterson, Scotland; Karen Matheson, Scotland — hear her incredible soprano harmony on the left channel; Mary Black, Ireland; Emmylou Harris, US; Rufus Wainwright, his mother Kate McGarrigle, and her sister Anna McGarrigle on the button accordian, all Canadians. The other musicians are fiddler Jay Ungar — he wrote the haunting “Ashokan’s Farewell: tune of the PBS “Civil War” series — and his wife Molly Mason on the bass; and the project’s shepherds Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, and American dobro player Jerry Douglas.)
Listen to the wonderful performance, the amazing music, and the important reminder that we should keep Hard Times in perspective… but also that God provides a joyful relief from life’s disappointments when they come. By and by, they will “come no more.”Rick Marshall is the author of more than 60 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him “perhaps America’s foremost authority on popular culture”) to history and criticism; country music, television history, biography, and children’s books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. Request a free weekly mailing of Monday Morning Music Ministry to your inbox! Write the word Subscribe in the subject line to AmericaCiv@aol.com.
Thank you Rick for sharing your blog with us today. I hope many will find encouragement and refreshment at Monday Morning Music Ministry.