Track of the Year: ‘Hard Times Come Again No More’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Rick Jones, writes:

This video of Stephen Foster’s great song “Hard Times Come Again No More” seems to tie together some of Notes’ recent themes. It’s a cover (the song was written in 1856) by the Familia McGarrigle (including a teenage Rufus and Martha) and it speaks to coming troubles and the need for perseverance that Fallows has been evoking in his writing.

If you have a version of “Hard Times” that particularly resonates with you and have a memory associated with it, please send us a note: (The McGarrigle/Wainwright clan also did a version of Stephen Foster’s sunnier “Better Times Are Coming.”) Update from a reader who flags a rendition of “Hard Times” from Mavis Staples:

From another reader, Peter:

What a great song, unfortunately, it seems timeless. I first heard it in 1981, sung by the outstanding Chapel Hill string band The Red Clay Ramblers. Their wonderful harmony singing frames the song with a warmth that counterbalances the bleakness of the lyrics you can here them here.

Another reader recommends a version that isn’t available on YouTube:

My favorite is somewhere in my library of Bill Frisell bootlegs, but it’s something along these lines. I’m fascinated by songs like this that are just so old and remain in the repertoire. For example, “St. James Infirmary” is based on “The Rake’s Lament,” an 18th century British naval song. It’s also the parent of “Streets of Laredo,” the Johnny Cash tune. That’s nuts!

One more reader, Sydney:

Greetings from just south of Raleigh, NC, as I read all the news I missed last night because often, playing with babies beats knowing more details of terrorism. When I saw your post on “Hard Times” I immediately thought of the Yo Yo Ma and James Taylor cover that I had on repeat this time last year while waiting for morning sickness to magically disappear in the second trimester of a twin pregnancy, but instead got more pains and swelling. I resigned myself to only focusing on seeking the good in life, that hard times would pass.

Proud to say I’ve now got two happy healthy baby girls, one of whom wants to keep me company now. Keep up the great work.

The covers keep arriving from long-time readers, namely Barbara:

It has been so great to see the McGarrigle thread spin into Stephen Foster land with “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I like sentimental songs and apparently have a high tolerance for pathos, especially if rhyming lines are involved. I thought the song’s Wikipedia entry, describing it as a “parlor song,” was a nice touch that avoided the judgement implicit in “sentimental,” even if the judgement is right on target.

The song is one of my favorites from Foster, who is one of my favorite composers. I learned to play some of his songs on the piano from a tattered copy of a collection of his work. I learned a lot of other folk songs and sentimental favorites from an even more tattered hardcover copy of the Fireside Book of Folk Songs I still have, although the book now begins halfway through the song “Cockles and Mussels” and ends partway through the index, with no hardcovers in sight. (I was able to get another copy of the book, covers and all, when a family member passed away, but I still play from the spineless copy that opens flat and stays open.)

I am not an accomplished pianist and I’ve grown increasingly rusty. Early in elementary school, I only progressed partway through John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano: The Second Grade Book: Something New Every Lesson. The “something new” that killed my progress was syncopation, in the form of dotted eighth notes in a version of James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” (I understood the mathematics just fine, but my mind had decided on a rhythm that seemed pleasing to my fingers, and no amount of repetition and no lack of a gold star got me to play the song correctly. After weeks of intractable stubbornness on my part and the part of the only piano teacher in town, we parted ways. I did take more lessons in high school when the wife of a new music teacher at the central school offered them. I explained my history, and we started out lessons with Bach. It was more successful, but I stopped taking lessons when I left for college.

Anyway, I liked all the versions your readers provided; it was interesting to hear a range of interpretations. I like Emmylou Harris’s performance of “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I don't know if the cut I listen to is online, but in this video from a concert, she says that “this is probably the oldest song in my repertoire.”

The performance of “Hard Times” I play most often is by Thomas Hampson, because I like to listen to the album in the car and am very fond of his “Beautiful Dreamer.” (The album is American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster, and performers include Jay Ungar on violin, Molly Mason on guitar, and David Alpher on piano.)

Unlike some other covers, Hampson’s doesn’t sound like he’s actually been through hard times. His performance instead fits the Wikipedia description; I imagine he sings the song just as a gentleman with a good voice would have done years ago in some parlor, playing piano with more finesse than I have and trying to impress the guests at a party, particularly the woman he has his eye on. The rendition is smooth, and if you enjoy Hampson’s voice, you may not realize how awful some parts of the lyrics are. The chorus is what makes the song great, not the verses.

Of all the versions, the Mavis Staples cover is my new favorite.

Thanks everyone!

Here’s a final update, from the reader who started this “Hard Times” series. Rick indicated in our email exchange that he was a long-time reader of The Dish, the blog I helped edit for seven years—three of which were at The Atlantic. If you ever followed the blog, Rick’s retrospective here is poignant:

Well that post is having a pretty good run! I knew of some other versions (e.g.Taylor/Ma), but many were new. The video I sent originally is not the best musical quality and it has a kind of awkward family Christmas card feel, which I thought fit the season as well. Glad I could contribute.

A “View From Your Window” I just dug up from the Dish email archives, taken by Rick in 2012 around 9pm in Sacramento

It would be inaccurate to call me a Dish reader … Dish obsessive is more likely. I checked the site dozens of times a day, every day. About a year ago I made a list of all the wonderful things that The Dish introduced to me and I began to weep halfway through, finally stopping after a page full. I defy anyone to find me a site today with the depth, reach, humor, and intellectual courage of The Dish. Where else could I discover Wislawa Szymborska AND Dina Martina, Frederick Seidel AND Robert Earl Keen AND Jack Gilbert, Rod Dreher AND Jennifer Michael Hecht? Go ahead, I’ll wait for the answer.

I can still recall exactly where and when I read the post from Andrew that you all were closing shop: January 28, 2015, 10AM PST, at a very Dishy location: Sacramento Convention Center, men’s bathroom in the northwest corner, first stall in. (Yes I was alone. Still oversharing, I know, but in the best Sully tradition). Reading that post felt like getting the news that a good friend was very ill.

I came to The Dish from an unlikely source: Kendall Harmon, who is the Canon Theologian of the Anglican diocese of South Carolina, and a robust opponent of gay marriage. In 2003, my Episcopal parish was in the midst of tearing itself apart after Gene Robinson’s ordination and, bewildered, I was seeking dialogue and enlightenment. Kendall had a link to Andrew on his blog roll. Through those years of struggle in the church, Andrew was a bright light of courage, compassion, insight and humor. I was finally received into the Catholic church on Easter Saturday 2006, and some of my discernment was informed by the idea that a church that could nourish Andrew Sullivan was also a home for me.

The Dish was the greatest experience I had on the web and one of the greatest intellectual adventures of my life. As one of the essential parts in that, thank you from the bottom of my heart. If you ever see Andrew, Patrick, and the rest of the gang, let them know how much the blog meant to me. And should such a project ever be attempted again, please know that you have my intellectual, emotional, and financial support.

Thanks for listening, and have a blessed Christmas and Happy New Year.