Mar 1, 2015 3
In a recent visit here we discussed Bad Things that inevitably dot the path of our life’s walk. Sometimes more like speed bumps, roadblocks, or outright broken bridges, that we encounter when we have no alternative but to proceed. The reality of bad things, versus the sometimes-illusory mantra about the “God thing,” if you remember our thoughts.
There have been many reactions to that theme, with suggestions to broaden our discussion to Hard Times – those moments in a nation’s history, or our own, when events conspire to beat us down. Distract us. Threaten to demoralize us. But, Christians, this is for you: …never to defeat us. We can only do that to ourselves.
Stephen Foster was a songwriter, perhaps America’s greatest. He lived from 1826 to 1864. He was born on July 4, on the exact 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; and he died, penniless and fraught with care, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the middle of the Civil War. During his short life, he wrote some of the most popular music ever listened to and sung in these United States.
Many of his songs live today. For a while they were considered moldy or politically incorrect or merely light-weight, but they endure because of their solid, not diaphanous, sentimentality; and their hauntingly beautiful melodies. You know many. They were generally of three categories: Parlor Songs (popular music of many themes); minstrel songs (sympathetic songs inspired by black folk tunes, although Foster never lived in the South); and gospel songs —
Oh! Susanna; Nelly Bly; Camptown Races; Old Folks at Home (Way Down Upon the Swanee River); Old Dog Tray; My Old Kentucky Home, Jeanie With the Light Brown Hair; Hard Times Come Again No More; and Old Black Joe. Foster wrote more than a hundred songs, maybe hundreds; he gave many away. Or he sold the rights for a few dollars. Or he let other people take credit for his compositions. His was a life of penury. He battled alcohol addiction in his last years, after his wife left him. He died of a fall in his tenement bathroom, much loved but much beset.
He experienced hard times yet by all accounts never despaired, always of a cheery and trusting disposition. Hard times didn’t get him down – or not for long – and one of his most enduring songs, if not most famous, is “Hard Times Come Again No More.” It is extremely popular in Ireland, so much so that some people think Foster was Irish. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Mavis Staples, and Nanci Griffith have made it part of their standard playlists.
Its lyrics are more descriptive than pessimistic, and more resigned than hopeful. Yet the prayerful “come again no more” weakly shakes a fist at the hard times we all encounter:
“Let us pause in life’s pleasures and count its many tears, While we all sup sorrow with the poor; There’s a song that will linger forever in our ears; 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.
“‘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.”
These lyrics are at the beginning, not the conclusion, of our meditation on hard times. America is going through Hard Times right now.
I do not refer specifically to the wave of terrorism filling our headlines and TV screens… and maybe, many think, on our doorsteps soon. I do not refer specifically to the fragility of a high-unemployment economy, of the many families living paycheck-to-paycheck. I do not refer to the social cancers of crime, addiction, illegitimacy, illiteracy, abuse – I do not refer to these specifically or even in a group. But I DO refer to all these things as part of our national crisis.
America has been fond, or full of pride, in pointing to statistics that tell us, despite stagnant wages or numbers of people on welfare, that we are better off than many nations around the world. And that our poorest and least educated are still living well, compared to previous eras, other cultures.
These statistics are delusional, self-swindling nonsense. Many nations are racing past the United States in measures of comfort, literacy, proficiency in science and math, health, safety, security, and contentment. These criteria are important, but not essential, yardsticks of a society’s value; or an individual’s.
The United States of America has squandered its inheritance. What once made us rich in these areas, in themselves, and relative to history and other countries – the spiritual values – have been wasted. They are more than unfashionable: our government, our establishment, our media, our educational and legal systems maintain that they are somewhere between irrelevant and despicable.
And those of us who have predicted a social breakdown if we surrender our standards and coddle the enemies of our heritage… we have been proven correct. But that is no comfort.
When people hear the phrase “Hard Times,” they often think of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Indeed times were tough; life was miserable for years for multiple millions. Yet I believe the nation was stronger, morally, and more content overall, than in our recent “prosperous” times. Does anyone disagree?
A world war immediately followed the Great Depression, and virtually every citizen mobilized at home or in uniform, and made unbelievable sacrifices. Do we “have it in ourselves” to respond in that way if another true world war were thrust upon us? Or would selfishness, disagreements, indolence, jealousies, illusory “rights,” and such factors interfere with national unity?
Surely our erstwhile unity has evaporated in these times when it should have been easier to achieve, replaced by the institutionalization of that socially centrifugal force, “diversity.”
Attributed to Georges Clemenceau – but so correct that many vie for authorship – is the observation that America is the only nation in history that miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.
There was an in-between period, of course. When lands and communities were established in the name of Christ, and operated according to biblical principles. When constitutions and laws codified the basic ideas of responsibility and personal liberty. When immigrants were welcomed, according to rules; and immigrants willingly abided by those rules. When horrible flaws like slavery were corrected despite the blood and angst to see it through. When the population was able to find common cause in confronting the contradictions of social and industrial progress; and fighting common enemies.
But we lost our way. We have lost our way. We lost our faith, after losing our faiths by the wayside. We lost self-confidence. We became more concerned with gaining dubious friends than defeating real enemies. We became happier to compromise than to convince. Our priority has become not to offend those who are determined to be offended, instead of standing for something – anything. We pretend that our hypocrisy and weakness will bring security, all the while knowing, deep down, that we are only buying a nervous, temporary security for ourselves… and certain, miserable destruction upon our children.
We can sing the beautiful, haunting Stephen Foster song from the 1850s, “Hard Times, Come Again No More,” knowing that it brought comfort in those troubled times. But for us, in the 21st century, I have the feeling we can hear it only as a musty museum-piece, and nothing more.
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Click: Hard Times, Come Again No More
Another version, if you, like me, cannot get enough of this great parlor song: