“Hard Times” forms a framing device for the 1995 film Georgia, which chronicles the troubled relationship between Mare Winningham, who plays a successful folk/Americana singer (Georgia) and her sister Sadie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is a perennial screw-up. The film shows them surviving the shared traumas, betrayals, jealousies, and other challenges of their individual lives. Leigh’s Sadie isn’t really such a bad person, she just makes poor life decisions…over and over again.
The film opens with a concert sequence in which we see Georgia perform “Hard Times” before an enthusiastic audience. The performance (actually recorded by Winningham, who is a singer) is well paced, opening and closing on Winningham’s voice with spare acoustic guitar backing, swelling in between into a solid country/folk/rock number.
Sadie sits watching in the audience, and we cut away several times to watch her reaction to the performance. We see the energy that she pulls from the music and we sense her empathic feeling for the song itself. As the film unfolds we discover that Sadie has been through some pretty rough times recently and we begin to understand the extent to which she identifies with the song and her sister’s performance.
We also learn that Sadie has musical aspirations herself, and that she has been in bands on the local bar scene and recently came off the road touring as the companion of a bluesy performer named Trucker (played by Jimmy Witherspoon), and that she has substance abuse problems.
While she’s staying with Geogia, Sadie hooks back up with a local band (that includes X’s John Doe) to try to get her career going again. Sadly, we find out that Sadie can’t really sing and we know that her hopes of a musical career are out of the realm of possibility.
In one very sad scene we see Sadie in front of an audience of a couple of people in a rundown bar performing a version of “Hard Times.” Her growling, grating vocal performance is contrasted with throwback clips of Winningham’s performance from the film’s opening concert sequence. We confront the contrast between the heartfelt but professional performance of the song and its actual embodiment.
At the end of the song there is barely a smattering of applause as Leigh looks out at the imaginary crowd and says “No one does that song better than my sister.” But Sadie has lived it, director Ulu Grosbard seems to be saying in this scene. She will continue to live it and this song is the touchstone for her life and for her relationship with her sister Georgia: the relationship between performance and life, between being an artist and being a wannabe, between being middle class and being poor, between success and failure, between living on the edge and playing it safe.
While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay There are frail forms fainting at the door: Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
There’s a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away With a worn heart whose better days are o’er: Though her voice would be merry, ’tis sighing all the day Oh! Hard Times, come again no more.
Georgia was released in 1995, and it coincided with the rise in recordings and performances of “Hard Times Come Again No More” that began around 1989 with indie singer Syd Straw’s recording on her Surprise album. From there the song was heavily covered throughout the 1990s and 2000s by a diverse group of acts: Kate and Anna McGariggle (1991), Emmylou Harris (1992), Bob Dylan (1992), Nanci Griffith (1998), Johnny Cash (2003), Mavis Staples (2004), Mary J Blige (2010), Iron and Wine (2012), Kristen Chenoweth (2014), and Madeleine Peyroux (2016).
But it was a series of live performances of the song by Bruce Springsteen during his 2009 Working on a Dream Tour that has enshrined Foster’s song as a genuine people’s song of protest. Coming during the horrible and frightening recession that began with the collapse of financial markets in 2008, Springsteen used the tour and the song “Hard Times” to comment on what was happening in the United States at the time.
His performances of the song would usually start with a freewheeling monologue, a device that Springsteen uses periodically during his live shows to bond with the audience as well as to give himself a bit of a break during lengthy performances. But these monologues were pretty much political. They had a lot to say about the working man (and woman) and how the American Dream had abandoned them. Sometimes he would give a shout out to a local charity or soup kitchen that was doing a lot of good in the community and exhort his local audience to help them out with donations.
Springsteen came upon “Hard Times” as a result of his deepening interest in American folk music which came on the heels of his album We Shall Overcome: The Pete Seeger Sessions. Springsteen and a group of handpicked musicians reworked a group of songs recorded or made famous, but not written by, Pete Seeger. The result was energizing for Springsteen, both as a songwriter and as a performer. The joyous energy that was captured on the album made it The Boss’ most acclaimed album since Born In the USA.
In 2008, two years after The Seeger Sessions release, the U.S. economy melted down as predatory lending practices and shaky financial instruments came home to roost. The resulting Great Recession saw a huge reduction in wealth from people’s stock market and other investment accounts, resulting in a shrinking economy, fewer jobs, and a record number of home foreclosures.
In 2009 Springsteen embarked on the Working On a Dream Tour, and as a songwriter who had always championed and written about working class Americans, he was deeply concerned about their plight. He had come across Foster’s song “Hard Times Come Again No More” and felt that it fit with his American folk theme as well as articulating the strife of the moment.
He performed the song many times during the tour. It was captured live on the DVD concert London Calling, but never appeared on any studio or live album. Springsteen absorbed the song deeply into his mind, as there are lyrical references to it within songs on The Wrecking Ball, his 2012 studio album.
It’s interesting to contrast Pete Seeger, blacklisted during the McCarthy era and supporter of a number of left wing causes in the 1960s, with Foster, the writer of songs for minstrel shows and sentimental parlor ballads. Foster was a unionist who supported the Civil War as a means to preserve the Union, not an abolitionist.
What they did have in common was that they became part of the American music vernacular. Foster, who had barely spent any time in the South wrote songs that idealized its life and people. Many assumed that the songs he wrote using a false Negro dialect were, in fact, real folk songs sung by slaves, making Foster one of the first in a long line of white songwriters and artists who would make money by misrepresenting another culture.
Although Seeger wrote a large number of songs, his biggest project was to preserve, present, and perform actual American folk songs so that they might become an inspiration to future generations. He carefully chose his repertoire in order to put songs by writers like Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie in front of the American public.
By doing the same himself, Springsteen places himself into the pantheon of American folk music, where the craft and conservation of this distinct part of music history is contained. It’s summed up by Joanna Smolko on The Avid Listener blog:
“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.”
It’s recounted in nearly every version I’ve read of Foster’s life that in his declining years he would often sing “Hard Times Come Again No More” softly to himself, fixing his gaze balefully into the distance. Or maybe he was looking into the future. Because “Hard Times” is as much a prayer as it is a complaint. It hearkens to that time and place where hard times will be banished, where there will be peace and our difficulties and disappointments will be reversed, whether in this lifetime or in heaven.