American composer Stephen Foster (1826-1864) experienced a life filled with hard times. Foster was born into an affluent family, but his father’s repeated failed business ventures led to the loss of his family home and an unstable income. Later in life, Stephen became a songwriter, specifically the first pop songwriter to make his living purely from music. However, because of the few and vague copyright laws in his time, Foster made little money from the music he wrote. Eventually, he also started drinking, his marriage fell apart, and he died young and alone. It was out of these experiences that Stephen Foster wrote “Hard Times Come Again No More”, published in 1854. “Hard Times…” is the most recorded Stephen Foster song to this day. The song itself is a parlor song; yet we can find the song in music albums today of many different genres, movies, and even modern video games. What draws musicians and listeners alike to resonate with this song?
The lyrics share a few different pictures of hardship, including one of Foster’s favorite images: a “pale drooping maiden”. These pictures allow us to envision what hard times might look like, and it also allows us to empathize with the characters. Foster’s own life fueled the music that he wrote. So what about his music has helped it maintain popularity in the public sphere for so long? What attributes does this song include that has America including it in movies and games? I believe that there are three primary assets that this song has that compel us to listen and relate to “Hard Times…”
For the full lyrics, visit the lyrics page for “Hard Times…” on Song of America.
Perceived Status as a Folk Song
Stephen Foster was a prolific composer, but vague, unformalized copyright laws and bad business decisions contributed to a mostly failed career, at least monetarily. He died poor, and his name became obscured in people’s minds. However, this was necessary for his music to become folk music.
What is folk music? Here is a definition from Oxford dictionary:
“Folk‐songs are songs of unknown authorship passed orally from generation to generation, sung without acc. …”
“Hard Times…” doesn’t quite fit this mold. However, because Stephen Foster himself never gained appropriate recognition, even though his songs became popular, Foster’s songs took on a life of their own. Now, his songs are considered folk songs, and they have been embedded into American culture.
Also, Foster’s music, because of copyright and public domain legalities, gives media creators royalty-free music. Producers from the beginning of film up to the modern day have used his music to avoid copyright issues that they would come up against with more contemporary works. The exposure that Foster’s music gets from being featured in films and albums serves to make his music more popular.
Nostalgia has different definitions depending on who you ask. It is a mixed emotion, which is an emotion with both positive and negative elements. So if sadness has a part to play in nostalgia, why do people enjoy it? Does it have a purpose? Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at LeMoyne College, says that nostalgia serves the primary purpose of unifying. It can unify the experiences that a person has lived through, and then it can allow us to connect with others over their collective nostalgic experiences.
One layer of nostalgia comes from the lyrics; the text itself expresses the emotion of nostalgia. In “Hard Times…”, the characters aren’t necessarily pining for a past without hard times. However, they are looking to a different life or existence. The life without hard times might not have been a life that the characters have experienced, but there is the idea of being in a state of dissatisfaction and yearning for a better place. This isn’t the textbook definition of nostalgia, but the ideas are similar enough to trigger the same emotional feelings. So the characters encounter this nostalgia, and the listeners feel it as well.
Additionally, remember that the song is a folk song. People have been singing this song for more than a century now, and even approaching two centuries. Many artists who currently perform this song have memories of their parents or grandparents listening to or performing Foster’s songs. This also contributes to feelings of nostalgia.
There are a few different types of people mentioned in this song: the poor, the “frail forms” (sick?), and the “drooping maiden” (exhausted from work?). Note that these characters only get a handful of lines each. So while there are characters in the song, we do not really know much about them or their situations. This allows listeners to fill in their own interpretations. So the specifics of the scenarios are not known, but the general idea is very applicable to most people.
How would the song have turned out if Foster had given us specifics? What if the frail forms came with a backstory? What if we knew more about the maiden who sighs? I would argue that the song would not carry as much meaning to the audience. Listeners might find it harder to find themselves in the song. I believe that there is a healthy amount of ambiguity in the song that allows the song’s meaning to evolve to many different people. It is as if the song has a base emotion or message to convey, but listeners can build on the song with their own experiences and memories.
This idea of applicability and relatability is not something that is foreign to us. Songs about love, heartbreak, and death are still sung today because of the ubiquity of these concepts. The concept of difficult events in life is also a pervasive theme in life, and “Hard Times…” allows listeners to connect with other people through their shared experiences of hard times.
Listening and Conclusion
This section features some of my favorite versions.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle
This version was part of the Transatlantic Sessions, Volume 1. The Transatlantic Sessions involve a group of artists getting together in a secluded place and making music. “Hard Times…” is one of the many songs that the artists on the first volume decided to perform. I think that this version shows a healthy reverence to the meaning of the song.
Civilization 6: Ancient
Civilization 6: Medieval
Civilization 6: Industrial
Civilization 6: Atomic
This is a suite of four covers. They come from a 2016 video game called Civilization 6, which is a strategy game based on developing a small nation into a much greater global force. The United States is one of many countries that are in the game. Each country has its own set of songs, with one song being the representative song for that nation. These songs are folk songs or other songs that are very important to that specific culture. In Civilization 6, the representative song is “Hard Times Come Again No More”. It was interesting to find out that this song is so ingrained in American culture.
This cover is by Israeli musician Shuli Natan. Something unique about this cover is that the song is sung in Hebrew as opposed to the regular English. It’s a testament to how widespread Foster’s influence is.
“Hard Times Come Again No More”, though composed over 150 years ago, has become a part of the bedrock of American culture thanks to its perceived status as a folk song, its ability to elicit the emotion of nostalgia, and the universal applicability of its message. And over the years, “Hard Times…” will likely continue to find a place in many people’s hearts.
– Gil Dhason
This essay was written as part of the University of Michigan’s UROP 20-21 program. Gil is a Computer Engineering major at U of M, and he is passionate about music. He plays keyboard, guitar, bass, and drums; he enjoys composing and recording his own songs.
Emerson, Ken. Doo-Dah!: Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture. Da Capo Press, 1998.
Emerson. “Stephen Foster and American Popular Culture.” American Music, vol. 30, no. 3, 2012, p. 397., doi:10.5406/americanmusic.30.3.0397.
Garrido, Sandra. Why We Are Attracted to Sad Music. Palgrave MacMillan, Cham, 2017
Marling, Karal Ann. “Stephen Foster’s World Was Truly Sad and Dreary.” New York Times, 3 Sept. 1997, p. C14.
TheAPAVideo, director. Does Nostalgia Have a Psychological Purpose? with Krystine Batcho, PhD. YouTube, YouTube, 6 Nov. 2019, www.youtube.com/watch?v=T_NulVf7YqA.