Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears
April 1, 2013 7:04 PM   Subscribe

Recently on BBC America they have been running a promo for the upcoming second season of Copper featuring a compelling cover of Hard Times Come Again No More, a song written more than 150 years ago by the "father of American music" Stephen Foster. If you don't recognize the name, you will certainly recognize his work - "... he virtually invented popular music as we recognize it today ..." reads his bio, and that is not an exaggeration. "Camptown Races", "Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair" -- just a quick scan through this list of his more than 200 songs and you will soon realize that when you think of traditional American folk music, you are probably thinking of Stephen Foster.

As for the song, if you like the short edit of the song in that trailer then you will probably enjoy the complete song, available to stream from Rolling Stone. The artist performing this cover is Sam Beam, better known under his performing name of Iron & Wine. His new album, Ghost on Ghost is due out on April 16th, although it does not include this cover of Hard Times.

Personally, the first time I heard Hard Times was more than twenty years ago, with this a-capella version performed by the Lost Dogs. To my ears that is the "right" version, although I have to admit that this a-capella version by Eclipse is also very good.

But perhaps you prefer musical instruments with your songs. No problem, Hard Times has been covered by a wide variety of artists: You might like this version by the quintissentially American troubador Johnny Cash, or how about Bob Dylan's performance at Willie Nelson's 60th birthday celebration?

Then there is the more traditional country version by Emmylou Harris, who by the way also appears on this definitive interpretation by Kate & Anna McGarrigle, with Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Karen Matheson, and Rod Patterson. If you want something a little more contemporary, with a classical edge, you might also enjoy Yo-Yo Ma and James Taylor's version.

Although Hard Times is to my mind the perfect American folk song, as it turns out it lends itself surprisingly well to a Celtic arrangement, as with this recording by Scottish artist Paolo Nutini. In fact it sounds so natural that when The Proclaimers covered it they mis-atribute it as coming from Ireland. That's mild, though, as mistaken credits go. When Bruce Springsteen made the song a centerpiece in his 2009 "Working on a Dream" tour he mistakenly claimed that the song was written by Francis Scott Key. What can I say, he may be The Boss but he is no music historian.
posted by Lokheed (15 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe you're thinking of Frederic fucking Chopin?
posted by eamondaly at 7:11 PM on April 1, 2013

On a different note, there's Squirrel Nut Zippers' "The Ghost of Stephen Foster".
posted by Doktor Zed at 7:12 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Although Hard Times is to my mind the perfect American folk song, as it turns out it lends itself surprisingly well to a Celtic arrangement....

Not surprising, as much of what we think of as "American" folk music tradition springs from Celtic folk in part. Yes, there are variations - Cajun music has a French influence, Tejano is more Spanish - but all the poor folk who settled in the farms and fields of the Eastern US and Appalachia, took work at sea, and crammed into the Five Points, they were mostly from rural England, Ireland, Wales, or Scotland. A lot of the folk songs Stephen Foster heard growing up were probably 20th-generation re-singings of Child Ballads from England and Scotland. I can definitely see how he'd be thus influenced, and then synthesized it into something new.

Another musician who also drew influence from folk music this way was Lead Belly - a lot of the people who've since covered his stuff think that he composed it, but a lot of the songs he recorded were actually folk songs he'd heard, or were at least of uncertain origin - like Midnight Special or Stagger Lee. Then you have Gallows Pole, which went all the way from being a Child ballad (and may have been even older than that) through Leadbelly and Dylan and then finally to Led Zepplin.

In short: folk music rocks.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:28 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Stephen Foster was better before he sold out.
posted by Foosnark at 7:34 PM on April 1, 2013

If you can track down the Telynor cover of "Gallows Pole," that's the one that is the "right" version to me.
posted by Foosnark at 7:37 PM on April 1, 2013

I saw Springsteen sing Hard Times on that tour and he correctly attributed it to Foster but he was singing in an arena about a mile from the author's birthplace here so people would have booed if he'd gotten it wrong.
posted by octothorpe at 7:38 PM on April 1, 2013

Thanks for this post. My mom often sang me to sleep with "Beautiful Dreamer", and I've been a fan of Steven Foster's music ever since.
posted by Silly Ashles at 8:41 PM on April 1, 2013

I'm partial to Eastmountainsouth's version of Hard Times.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 9:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

thankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou. I love this post.
posted by salishsea at 11:06 PM on April 1, 2013

I recently got this 2cd set of Stephen Foster tunes, originally issues by the Library of Congress (songs played on period instruments). The singing style is very parlor/operatic (i.e., not something I would typically like), but it has ended up being one of the more compelling albums I have listened to in the past several months. I highly recommend it.
posted by OmieWise at 5:26 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

One of my favorite songs. True, Stephen Foster, and Dan Emmett, are such important figures in the creation of American pop music.
posted by Miko at 8:39 AM on April 2, 2013

Very interesting take on this song. Quartette, a Canadian group which includes Sylvia Tyson , has one of the most beautiful renditions of this song I have ever heard. Unfortunately the only link I can find is to their website store where you can hear a trailer.
posted by smudgedlens at 10:05 AM on April 2, 2013

This is gonna be one of those songs I can't listen to in public because of the uncontrollable sobbing.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:13 PM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the shout out to The Lost Dogs version, which is one of my favourites.
posted by jeffen at 7:35 PM on April 2, 2013

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