"Let us pause in life's pleasures ...
While we all sup sorrow with the poor."
“Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.”
Of all of the songs written by Stephen Foster, “Hard Times Come Again No More” is one of the most popular and enduring. Oddly, at the time of its writing, the song was not especially popular. While “Hard Times” may not have been very popular during Foster’s own lifetime, the song was popular with many Folk Revival singers and has remained popular since. The more recent roots music movement has renewed interest in this ode to the downtrodden.
I have heard some criticize the works of Stephen Foster as precursors to the contrived, folksy songs of Tin Pan Alley, those songs written not so much from the heart, but more from the purse. Some of Stephen Foster’s songs are even regarded today as racist, but nothing could be further from the truth. One must take into account the times in which Foster was writing, and look a little deeper into the man that has left us with a rich collection of truly American music.
Stephen Foster began writing professionally in 1846 and continued until his death in January of 1864. Many of Foster’s songs were performed in the blackface minstrel style popular at the time. Unlike many songwriters for the minstrel shows, Foster had compassion for the plight of slaves. In his own words, he wanted to "build up taste...among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order." Stephen Foster often instructed white performers that played his songs not to deride slaves, but to help their audiences understand their plight. This was the period leading up to the Civil War, and the Foster family had never owned slaves.
Although born, on the fourth of July, 1826, to a respected middle class family, Stephen Foster would come to know hard times. His father, William Foster, was a prosperous merchant in the growing frontier city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. William Foster had supplied provisions to the army during the War of 1812, but when he entered a claim for reimbursement, the War Department disputed his claim. The legal battle over the disputed amount would last for many years and would eventually end when the Bank of United States foreclosed on the family homestead and business. From that point on, the Fosters would move frequently along the Allegheny Valley, to wherever work is available. The nationwide financial panic of 1837 worsens the Foster’s financial situation and William’s distrust of American federalism.
In 1844, at the age of eighteen, Stephen Foster published his first song, “"Open Thy Lattice Love." The song is a flop and earns Stephen no more than a pittance. Fortunately, Stephen’s older bother, Dunning, offers him a bookkeeping position with a merchant firm in Cincinnati. Stephen Foster moves to Cincinnati to work as a bookkeeper, but continues to write music.
In 1847, just before the California Gold Rush was to begin, Stephen Foster publishes “Oh! Susanna,” earning a total of $100. A respectable sum considering he earned only two cents royalties for each 25 cent sheet of music sold. The song sweeps the nation as hopeful prospectors head for the golden hills of California and the largest westward migration in American history. Prospectors and settlers travel west in covered wagons were singing “Oh! Susanna” and dreaming of riches at the end of the long trail.
Stephen Foster’s next two songs are the ones most often cited as being racist, but the accusation could not be further from the truth. “Old Uncle Ned” is a sentimental blackface ballad that Fredrick Douglass said would help to “awaken sympathies for the slave.” In the lyrics to his song, “Nelly Was a Lady,” Foster notably refers to an African-American woman as a “lady,” unheard of for the times. Sure, these songs contain language, such as “darkies,” that is unacceptable today, but in the common vernacular of the day, it was polite acceptable speech, especially when compared to many other minstrel songs of the era. Foster’s family was never slave owners and, in fact, sympathized with the anti-slavery movement.
Even though his music is often associated with the south, Foster spent his entire life along the Allegheny Rivers in Pennsylvania and along the Kentucky/Ohio banks of the Ohio River. His only visit to the Deep South was a riverboat trip to New Orleans with his bride, Jane, on their honeymoon. The publication of his song "My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” strengthens the belief that he is a Southerner.
Stephen’s father, William, suffers a stroke and is left an invalid the same year that Stephen and Jane become a family with the birth of their daughter, Marion. Two years later Jane leaves Stephen, taking Marion. Foster moves to New York, which is fast becoming a music publishing center. The family is reunited and moves to Hoboken, New Jersey, but the stay is cut short as they decide to move back to Allegheny to help Stephen’s ailing and nearly destitute father.
A nationwide economic downturn in 1855 prompts Stephen to write “Hard Times, Come Again No More.” The following day Stephen’s mother, Eliza, suffers a massive stroke and dies. His father, William, follows a few months later. Short on cash, Stephen sells the rights to all of his songs to his publisher, Firth, Pond & Co., for $1,872.28, a decision he would later regret. Within a year he, Jane and Marion move to Warren, Ohio to live with Stephen’s sister, Henrietta.
The family decides to return to New York and its growing sheet music publishing business to try to rebuild their lives. The following February, southern sates secede to form Confederate States of America and by April the nation is at war. By summer, Jane has left with Marion again. This time she has moved to Pennsylvania and the family will not be reunited again.
During the Civil War, Stephen writes many songs, most are forgettable, possibly due to his affair with the bottle. His once thriving career and notoriety are long gone, as are his wife and daughter. Stephen Foster takes sick and is bedridden in a flophouse in New York City. He attempts to get out of bed on his own, as no chambermaid answers his call. As he rises from bed he stumbles and falls into a wash stand. The bowl shatters and deeply gashes his neck and head. He dies January 13, 1864 at New York's Bellevue Hospital with 38 cents in his pocket.
A month following Stephen Foster’s death, his publisher prints "Beautiful Dreamer, the last song written by Stephen C. Foster. Stephen Foster’s wonderful music has endured the test of time to become American classics. Unlike so many of the for-profit songwriters that would follow in what has become known as Tin Pan Alley, Stephen Foster’s songs were written from the heart and from his life experience.
"Hard Times, Come Again No More"
Literally thousands of artists have recorded Stephen Foster’s timeless reflections on the struggles of poverty. Here are but a few.
Boyhowdy has posted a beautiful version by James Taylor, Yo Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor from the wonderful Appalachian Journey CD. Give a listen at Cover Lay Down