I enjoy folk music, but my enjoyment wasn’t fully contextualized until I took Music and Ideas: Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger with Jim Kimball last fall. The class gave roots to Folk’s heritage in Sorrow/Freedom Songs as well as its place in labor and social movements. I’d been aware of the movement songs in the Civil Rights movement and in labor movements and this class really connected disciplines of organizing and music.
I also got thinking about Dr. Cope’s lecture about the criminalization of poverty and the idea of poverty as a result of one’s character or with something bad happening to you. Stephen Fosters “Hard Times Come Again No More” illustrates this. At the end of each verse comes the title of the song and the refrain goes like this: “‘Tis the song, the sign of the weary / Hard times, hard times, come again no more / Many days you have lingered all around my cabin door / Oh hard times, come again no more.” So this makes me think about who can actually have a hard time. What’s central to it is its temporality, that the singer believes that the said time could end. And those who don’t have their misfortune prescribed to their personalities are white people, while people of color aren’t allowed that sort of compassion to their circumstances. Additionally, because white people aren’t held by racialized structural barriers, they should supposedly be able to move upwards socioeconomically
The song holds that as long has the imposition of a hard time is taken off, the subjects should be able to return to their life as it was meant to be. But how can the song apply to people whose hard times aren’t merely temporal, but structural and from birth? The idea of a hard time simply not coming back or leaving without any struggle or fight to make it leave, that’s not indicative of stopping oppression. Under racialized capitalism, poor white people can find their way out of oppression through upwards social mobility. Class is mutable in this case, but race isn’t. So Stephen Foster was writing for a white audience, whose way out of a hard time was just strikin’ rich.