This Historic Day In Music: Stephen Collins Foster

Stephen Collins Foster – America’s first professional songwriter – was born on July 4, 1826 in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania.

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Stephen Foster’s songwriting career started in December, 1844, with the publication of “Open Thy Lattice Love.” Over the next decade he became well known as a composer of both minstrel songs and parlor ballads. His catalogue of original songs included “Oh! Susanna” (1848), “Gwine To Run All Night” aka “De Camptown Races” (1850), “Old Folks At Home” (1851), “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night!” (1853) and “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” (June, 1854). But in December of 1854, Foster wrote his first political protest song: “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

Since the previous October, Foster had been living in Allegheny City (now part of Pittsburgh), Pennsylvania. The area had been hard hit by unprecedented levels of unemployment and a summertime outbreak of cholera that had killed hundreds in two weeks time. Foster was well aware of the poverty, distress and suffering in the world around him.

The first verse of “Hard Times Come Again No More” begins:

“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears,

while we all sup sorrow with the poor”

The chorus continues:

“‘Tis the song the sigh of the weary;

Hard Times, Hard Times, come again no more;

Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;

Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.”

The fourth verse concludes:

“‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,

‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore,

‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave,

Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.”

“Hard Times Come Again No More” was published in 1954 by the New York music publisher Firth, Pond & Co. The song was registered for copyright on January 17, 1855.

The song was recorded for the first time in 1905 by the Edison Male Quartette for the Edison Manufacturing Company. It was released on an Edison Gold Moulded cylinder, #9120.

Amazingly, here it is! (being played on an actual Edison Home Phonograph)

 

“Hard Times Come Again No More” is today revered as one of Stephen Foster’s greatest songs and has been recorded and performed by a long list of contemporary musicians. Among those on that list are Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Mavis Staples, Iron & Wine, Kristin Chenoweth and Mary J. Blige.

One of my favorite renditions of “Hard Times Come Again No More” is from the 2000 album Appalachian Journey. This is the second album by the string trio of fiddler Mark O’Connor, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bassist Edgar Meyer. The trio is joined on this track by singer/guitarist James Taylor.

 

Stephen Collins Foster passed away, impoverished and destitute, in New York City’s Bellevue Hospital on January 13, 1864.

The sources for the information used in this post were: Doo-Dah! Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture (1997) by Ken Emerson; Stephen Foster & Co.: Lyrics of America’s First Great Popular Songs (2010), edited by Ken Emerson; and the Wikipedia page for “Hard Times Come Again No More.”

P.S.: This is sixstr stories’ 300th post.

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