Author: Daniel, Bert

Hard Times

The words "Hard Times" appeared the other day in our local newspaper as a crossword puzzle entry. That got me thinking about our recent hard economic times and it got me wondering about whether or not this new year would finally bring an end to them. Since the economic recession began in 2008, recovery has been pretty sluggish.

When the bubble popped, I watched with frustration as a sizable amount of my paper "wealth" just sort of disappeared. Others had it even worse, living paycheck to paycheck and I have heard many a story of lost work and or lost homes.

When the crash hit, I remember thinking of the old Steven Foster tune, Hard Times:

'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

During 2009, I often thought about calling Foster's song at jams because it's such a great tune. But it just didn't seem like the tune of the moment. After all, we were just headed into the hard times. We didn't know how long they would last or how rough they would be. Maybe a more appropriate song would have been this one:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built a railroad; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?
Once I built a tower, up to the sun, brick, and rivet, and lime;
Once I built a tower, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

My dad was raised during the Great Depression of the 1930's. I heard him tell many stories about how people were desperate and how hobos would come to their house asking for handouts. My grandparents would always try to find something useful for those down-on-their-luck people to do, and then they'd give them something to eat. They were better off than most but still the stress of trying to figure out if you could continue to find work and feed your family, send six kids through school, etc; that must have been tough.

Despite the national hardship that was the Great Depression, my dad used to say that, in many ways, the depression was a good thing. What he meant by that was that it forced people to meet adversity head on. They appreciated what little they had. They knew the value of a dollar. They drew together as a community because they had to look out for each other. And when a great conflict threatened to destroy the freedom of mankind, they were ready to answer the call. The Great Depression nurtured what many have called our greatest generation.

Most people have heard the expression a "mark", meaning a person who can be easily manipulated. Nowadays that term has a bit of a negative connotation. It's a gullible person, a chump. But in the 1930's a mark was a person who lived in a house where a line had been marked on the curb as a sign to the next homeless vagabond that might pass by. That mark on the curb said "The family that lives here is kind. You might get some bread here. You won't be turned away unless they are truly desperate now too."

I'm going where there's no depression,
To the lovely land that's free from care.
I'll leave this world of toil and trouble,
My home's in Heaven, I'm going there.

The Carter Family had some of their most successful years during the Great Depression. Music is a balm that has soothed the pain of many a poor soul over the years. And the new technology of radio and phonograph brought their music to millions who really needed it. Woody Guthrie's music was a product of the depression too:

California is a garden of Eden
A paradise to live in or to see
But believe it or not, you won't find it so hot
If you ain't got the do re mi.

And lesser known minstrels like Jim Garland became popular too:

Now, I don't want your Rolls-Royce, Mister,
I don't want your pleasure yacht.
All I want's just food for my babies,
Give to me my old job back.

In the mid fifties, Ralph Stanley recorded an instrumental called Hard Times. Gary Reid, in his liner notes to the Stanley Brothers Collection has speculated that the title was inspired by Ralph's realization that the Elvis phenomenon was upon us and that the music business would never be the same for Ralph's type of musician. Hard times were indeed ahead for many Bluegrass musicians, but when I listen to Ralph's Hard Times, I hear backwoods sounds that make me think of mountain people, and other people, who have hard times no matter what the world economy happens to be doing at the time. Ralph himself was very much a child of the depression. And he was a child of Appalachia, where people have a tough time scraping together a living no matter how good the times. Hard times persist for some fraction of us always. The depression never ends, it's just a matter of degree.

Hard time songs always resonate with everyday people. Think of Workin' Man Blues by Merle Haggard. Think of all those hardscrabble and labor songs that Hazel Dickens wrote. No matter who we are, or who we think we are, I believe we should all strive to have some of that "every day people" within us. We've all seen presidential contenders who get burned at debate time because they don't know the price of bread at the grocery store. Well whether we're in an economic recession, depression or boom time, there are always people out there having hard times. We should all have a sense of community and no matter how well or how poorly some of us are doing, we should all keep in tune with each other.

Hard times, come again no more. Here's wishing you all a very happy and prosperous new year!

Posted:  1/13/2013

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