Hard Times Come Again No More! American Composers, Stephen Collins Foster (1826-1864)
I am happy that we are focusing on American composers as a blog cycle; there are always new discoveries and new things to learn about our unique country’s history. And sometimes, if you want to understand an atmosphere of a specific era, look to the arts and see how things were being expressed.
One of the special circumstances of our country’s development is how we have embraced and shared folk tunes and melodies. Rural communities in particular appreciated a folk singer passing through their town and presenting them with the latest popular song; a strolling Billboard Top 100, if you will.
Stephen C. Foster filled this spot perfectly. He was (surprisingly) self-taught, and kept his ears open by listening to melodies from the newly arrived immigrants of the Irish, German and Italian communities. What a wonderful trio of influences.
Working with minstrel shows, he produced many standards still sung today such as “Old Folks at Home” and, inspired by his bride, Jane Denny McDowell, “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.” And I can’t even imagine the Kentucky Derby taking place without everyone in the stands singing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
Unfortunately, his personal life and later years unraveled with alcoholism and financial problems, due to the lack of copyright protection for his songs. That seems unbelievable in the current era, but sadly many creative artists were taken advantage of by publishers and other scoundrels.
The NLS Music Section has “Jeanie” at BRM 24313 (line by line and bar by bar formats) and BRM 10858 (choral arrangement, SATB, section-by-section.) “Beautiful Dreamer” is available on BARD at BRM 04156, (voice and piano, paragraph format.) A major source of Foster’s output can be located at “Stephen Foster Song Book: Original Sheet Music of 40 Songs” in four volumes for voice and piano at BRM 29741.
I was recently listening to one of my favorite folk singers, James Taylor and heard “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I couldn’t agree more with the title and sentiment and wondered, “Who wrote that song?” None other than Stephen C. Foster, reaching across generations.