By: Joanna Smolko (Athens, GA) //
May 23, 2009, Izod Center, East Rutherford, New Jersey. Bruce Springsteen sings Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” with a spoken introduction asking for people to support local relief efforts. “We’ve gotta stand up, support our neighbors, and please support the local community food bank of New Jersey.”
As Bruce Springsteen’s career unfolded, he became increasingly overt about his political framework and his belief that music can be a powerful means both for illuminating issues of social injustice and for bringing people together in community. Springsteen mined the rich lodes of traditional American music in his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006). Here, he found a treasure trove: traditional songs that glimmered and shone as he gave them roots—rock inspired settings and elements that could also be forged and shaped into new works. Following this album, he continued to explore the ways that traditional songs could be melded together with rock and roll. Springsteen’s performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More” was part of his 2009 Working on a Dream tour, and his subsequent reworking of the lyrics in new songs shows his process of adaptation. In particular, “Hard Times” can be read as a song of mourning in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 and a call to respond with community-based activism and cooperation.
Stephen Foster (1826-1864) was one of America’s most prolific and performed songwriters, and his songs are still sung all over the world. The lyrics of “Hard Times Come Again No More” (1854) focus on poverty and inequity, framed around a passionate appeal for neighborly love and attention. Its melody is memorable; the verbal hook of “hard times” is repeated throughout its verses and chorus, often starting at a high pitch before falling downwards through the line, suggesting both hope and a passionate plea to the listener. The song opens with a direct appeal to its audience: “Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, while we all sup sorrow with the poor.” The chorus depicts the suffering in sonic terms (underlined here for emphasis): “ ’Tis the song, the sigh of the weary, hard times, hard times, come again no more.” Its tone is empathetic, inviting the listener to walk alongside those who are struggling. The piano accompaniment is hymn-like—block chords alternating occasionally with broken chords.
John Wettach performing “Hard Times Come Again No More” with original piano accompaniment. There are a few slight alterations, such as a modulation to a new key in the final verse.
In 2009, spurred by his burgeoning interest in traditional American music after his work on We Shall Overcome, Springsteen began to perform “Hard Times.” Though President Obama’s 2008 campaign had focused on “hope and change,” many were out of jobs and entire communities were collapsing. Springsteen chose “Hard Times” as an anthem of community care; clearly, there was work to do on the national stage, but true recovery could only take place when this was combined with local relief efforts. In his performances, Springsteen consciously chose to preserve the language of the nineteenth century lyrics, rather than adapt them or add his own. Backstage, before Springsteen’s inaugural performance of the song, journalist Geoff Boucher offered an intimate view of Springsteen’s performance decisions:
The dressing room was cluttered. On the table in front of the singer was the night’s set list, his reading glasses and a Sharpie marker. He also had the page with the 19th century Foster song. He initially changed chunks of lyrics, fretting that the language and messages should be more contemporary, but then he crossed out the edits and decided to rely on the song’s innate powers.
By preserving the archaic lyrics, Springsteen creates a sense of historical space around the recent economic collapse. (To quote his song “Jack of All Trades,” this kind of crisis “happened before and it’ll happen again.”) Further, rather than changing the lyrics, he repeatedly gives spoken narratives before the song to contextualize it within the contemporary recession. In Frankfurt (July 3, 2009), he stated, “This is a song written in 1855 by Stephen Foster. Back home, very hard times. Millions of people out of work.” On June 13, 2009 at the Bonnaroo Music Festival (Manchester, Tennessee), he introduced the song with a reference to the collapse of the auto industry: “Every month, we see things that…if anybody ever told me I’d be part owner of General Motors, I wouldn’t have believed ’em…you see things that I never thought I’d see, because many many folks [are] struggling out there.” Frequently, he used the song to draw attention to local relief efforts, especially local food banks, as seen in the opening video. In a particularly long and poignant introduction in Toronto (May 7, 2009), he stated:
We have some friends at home here from Food Share of Toronto. Since 1985, here, Food Share has addressed hunger here in your community. With programs that make good healthy food available for all the citizens of Toronto. We are going through a lot of difficult times, back home we’ve lost millions of jobs over the past few years and hundreds of thousands of jobs just over the past month, and it’s groups like Food Share of Toronto here in the states that provide the only safety net for citizens when they’re struggling through hard times. So we’re gonna do this tonight for the folks with Food Share of Toronto, they’re out on the front line, doing God’s work.
Throughout the tour he supported food banks through donations from ticket sales and support of local drives.
While preserving the original lyrical structure, Springsteen forgoes the simple piano-and-voice setting composed by Foster for elements drawn from multiple stylistic streams. He often opens the song with only his voice, slowly gaining other singers and instruments, and sometimes inviting the audience to join in. The closely-spaced, improvisatory harmonies of the backup singers recall elements of black gospel music (especially when Cindy Mizelle’s voice leaps above Springsteen on melody), the saxophone solo suggests blues traditions, and the accordion and fiddle echo elements of bluegrass or even zydeco music. Springsteen’s version suggests that our neighbors are not just the families next door, but the diverse people who intersect within our local communities.
After the many performances of the song on the Working on a Dream tour, Springsteen absorbed it into his songwriting vocabulary, and borrowed its lyrics in two songs from his Wrecking Ball (2012) album, “Wrecking Ball” and “Rocky Ground.” In the title track, he transforms the lyrics of the chorus of “Hard Times” within the song’s final bridge. Here, even though hard times come and go “just to come again,” the protagonist and his community face the metaphoric wrecking ball with solidarity and strength.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball” from the eponymous 2012 album. Though he returns to the rock style characteristic of his albums prior to We Shall Overcome, he borrows text from “Hard Times” within the song’s narrative (3:36-3:58).
Springsteen also recycles “Hard Times” in “Rocky Ground.” With backup vocals from the Victorious Gospel Choir, the song fuses elements from the black gospel tradition and hip-hop. In the portion rapped by Michelle Moore (3:03-3:28), the chorus of “Hard Times” becomes an invocation, “You pray that hard times, hard times come no more.”
Bruce Springsteen, “Rocky Ground,” Wrecking Ball (2012). This song combines gospel-influenced musical and textual elements with a rapped bridge that borrows lyrics from “Hard Times.”
While Springsteen continues to perform traditional repertoire in live performances and occasional recordings, “Rocky Ground” and “Wrecking Ball” model Springsteen’s continued transformation of traditional American music to address current social and political concerns. Springsteen’s new songs allude to lyrics and formulas used in traditional songs and frequently borrow content from them. Some, like “Death in My Hometown”—which incorporates Sacred Harp singing—sample from recorded performances. Others quote fragments of other songs, such as “This Train,” which borrows the lyrics and melody from an African American spiritual. By tapping into the history of American song, Springsteen also placed his own voice within the context of those who sang for change—Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and an unnamed multitude. Springsteen’s lasting contribution to this American song tradition is his fusion of traditional songs with his distinctive vision of an America that, though flawed, still has a possibility for living up to its potential.
1. “Hard Times” took on a new life at the end of the 20th century with performances meandering across a plethora of genres, with covers by pop, opera, bluegrass, gospel, and country singers. It was even performed by Bob Dylan. Search YouTube, or choose two of the links above to compare and contrast two versions of “Hard Times” in different genres. How is the song transformed in the different styles? How does each reflect the elements of its genre (instrumentation, style, vocal timbre)?
2. Springsteen often contextualizes his songs in concert performance by introducing them with a spoken narrative. Search YouTube and find an example of a live Springsteen performance with a spoken introduction (one of the most famous examples is his narration over the beginning of “The River” ). How does this shape the way that you hear the song and its narrative? Do you find the technique effective? Why or why not?