064 -“Hard Times”

Episode 64
“Hard Times.” 
Good As I Been to You. Blockhouse.
Recorded August 18, 2018. 

Daniel returned from a week in Virginia after surprising his Mom for her birthday. He was ready to talk about “Hard Times” because, after a week of floating down the Shenandoah River and laughing at the Nazis that showed up in DC last week, it was time to get back to work.

Context (3:30)

“Hard Times” was recorded in the summer of 1992 in Malibu. This is our second track from Good As I Been to You, in particular, and his early-90s acoustic dalliances, in general (“Little Maggie” being the other). He performed this 30 times during the 1993 run of the Never Ending Tour and has not returned to it since.

Stephen Foster (6:00)

To understand this song, we must understand Stephen Collins Foster. Kelly took us into the life and times of one of the more prolific and famous songwriters in American history. Foster in interesting because of how long ago such mainstays like “Oh! Susanna” and “Camptown Races” and “My Old Kentucky Home” were written. Even if you haven’t heard these songs, you know these themes and characters because they’ve become American institutions. Kelly also talks about the changing of language and how to approach that so far removed from the antebellum world Foster inhabited. From Russel Nye in The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America:

Though he died at thirty-seven with a few cents and the manuscript of “Beautiful Dreamer” in his pocket, Foster was and still is the most popular of all American songwriters…. Beyond his really great talent for melody, Foster’s effectiveness lay also in the close integration of his lyrics with his music, and in their content, which dealt with the verities of home, love, peace, security, and nostalgia…

Song Itself (24:00)

“Hard Times” itself was first published in 1854 as Foster’s Melodies No. 28. It was an international success. The first audio recording came in 1905 on wax cylinder from the Edison Manufacturing Company. It’s relation to Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (published in 1854 as well) seems obvious with both texts being preoccupied with the those “frail forms fainting at the door” of rapid industrialization. Yet the song avoids the pitfalls that make so much of Foster’s output unpalatable to modern world, from the Library of Congress:

Melodically, it belongs to the category of minstrel songs; a four-part chorus is included. However, there is no dialect, no mention of slavery or other minstrel themes, and the song is described on the cover simply as one of “Foster’s Melodies.” In fact, the most “ethnic” feature of “Hard Times Come Again No More” is its basis in a melody that Foster heard as a child in an African-American church in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.

That said: neither liked the song all that much. Kelly liked his playing style, which for the moment, if you were a life-long Dylan fan and this is his first solo acoustic album since 1964, would be incredible. Otherwise, it’s fine. Dylan’s vocals are rough, but not unexpected. The treat was diving into Foster and admiring the nuances of the lyrics, which was unexpected.

Recommendations (30:00)

Kelly dove into the record shops this past week and bought some music from long defunct Portland labels. She also had time to listen to Joy Division (and blow our minds that New Order is Joy Division without Ian Curtis!) and new albums from H.E.R. and Nine Inch Nails. She, like everyone, also watched (and loved, sans standoffs) Killing Eve.

Daniel listened to new albums from Lucero (Among the Ghosts) and Amanda Shires (To the Sunset). Also Fiddlehead’s Springtime and Blind and AJJ’s b-side collection Ugly Spiral: Lost Works 2012-2016. But, sadly, the end of the week was consumed by the Queen of Soul, Arthea Franklin, who died on August 16 at 76, who had just too much wonderful music to pass on.

Endings

We’re down to 446 songs. No more chances to be culled so we’re kinda locked in. Kelly guessed “Father of Night” from New Morning but it’s “Shelter from the Storm” off Blood on the Tracks, our second track after Episode 3’s “Tangled Up in Blue.” Wow, how time flies!

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