Hard Times Come Again No More

Words and music by Stephen Foster, 1855

What financial practices made this era particularly prone to "hard times"? Overspeculation; banks and state governments printing currency without backing by gold and silver; child labor; no safety measures in factories and mines. How did these practices filter down to regular folks? Unemployment; loss of savings in bank failures; loss of homes, farms when debts couldn't be repaid, etc.

What groups were trying to "sup sorrow with the poor" and reform some of the "hard" conditions? Dorothea Dix; abolitionists; temperance workers, etc. What practice is verse three's "pale drooping maiden" referring to? Employment of children and young women in factories.

What would happen to the poor and others who fell upon hard times in the early 1800s? People were imprisoned for debt, lunacy, feeblemindedness; relied on family, church.

What are some of the deadly diseases of the early 1800s that could leave families singing a "dirge ... around the lowly grave"? Cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, etc. What has become of those diseases today? How are we protected against these diseases? Sanitation, sewers, clean water, clean air, industrial safety, antibiotics, vaccination, antiseptic surgery.

What are the "safety nets" for hard times today? Unemployment, health insurance, disability, welfare, effective medical treatments. How effective are they? Who still falls through the "cracks" today? What "hard times" should we be helping others through that we aren't? Homelessness, mental illness and retardation, people without health insurance, etc.


"Hard Times Come Again No More," performed by Jay Ungar and Molly Mason on Civil War Classics, Fiddle & Dance Records, © 1994. Available on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube.

Although originally composed as a parlor song, "Hard Times" has been absorbed into mainstream folk music and is often performed with folk instruments. In this recording, the solo fiddle introduction and the simple guitar accompaniment bring out the sorrowful images presented by the text.

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason achieved international acclaim when their performance of Jay's composition, "Ashokan Farewell," became the musical hallmark of Ken Burns' The Civil War on PBS. The soundtrack won a Grammy and "Ashokan Farewell" was nominated for an Emmy.

In recent years Jay and Molly have reached an ever widening audience through their appearances on Great Performances, A Prairie Home Companion, their own public radio specials, and through their work on film soundtracks such as Brother's Keeper, Legends of the Fall, and a host of Ken Burns' PBS documentaries.

View the lyrics for "Hard Times Come Again No More."

View the published score.

Stephen Collins Foster

This song was originally advertised as “just the song for the times.” When Stephen Collins Foster began writing it in 1854, there was widespread unemployment and a cholera outbreak in Pittsburgh, where he lived. Composed in the months following the publication of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times, it is likely that Foster was inspired not only by the current hardships that surrounded him but also by the novel.

Even before the publication of the novel, “hard times” had become a popular phrase to describe the challenges of the period. Foster himself used the words in “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1853 to describe a slave being sold down the river from Kentucky to the Deep South, a potent invocation of the horrors of slavery in the decade leading up to the Civil War (however, it was not necessarily a condemnation of the institution of slavery; see “My Old Kentucky Home”). The year 1854 also witnessed violence erupt between pro- and anti-slavery activists following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed new states to vote to become “slave” or “free.”

Although it may have been “just the song for the times” when it was written, Foster’s characteristically vague lyrics have made it a perennial classic. The song is not geared toward a specific economic class. Foster’s invitation to “sup sorrow with the poor” is welcoming of everyone from the poor to the wealthy who sympathize with or relate to their plight. He refers to “life’s pleasures” and “its many tears,” as well as the “the song, the sigh of the weary,” without ever specifying a cause of weariness. Such vagueness about universal emotions—sadness, weariness—have made the song relevant in a variety of contexts.

“Hard Times Come Again No More” has been recorded by hundreds of artists over the years, including Johnny Cash, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, and Rufus Wainwright. The song inspired Dolly Parton’s “Hush-a-bye Hard Times” in 1980. It has spoken to people in times of economic hardship, war, labor strikes, civil rights activism, and pandemics.

Compare this song to songs from the Great Depression (Unit 7):

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime"

"Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out"

"Seven Cent Cotton and Forty Cent Meat"

Hard Times by Charles Dickens.

 

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