More dream linguistics

Every so often I have a spectacularly vivid dream in which the solution to some linguistic puzzle that’s been deviling me explodes in my mind. All I have to do is save it, in my mental cloud storage, until I can enter it into my computer. The idea is not only good and true, it is also very beautiful. Unfortunately, when I shake myself fully awake, I see that it is in fact crackpot crap.

So it was yesteday morning, after a sleep primed by a moving performance of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times, Come Around No More” on my iTunes. The conviction that yes, that was it, that song was the answer to everything, persisted through three hazy toilet breaks, until I actually woke up and faced the hard truth that I didn’t even know what the question was. But, having had Anonymous 4 and Bruce Molsky take me to 1865 and into the world of the song, I was deeply sorrowful: hard times would surely come around again, and my linguistics was helpless against that bleak future.

I ended up spending the morning with Foster’s “Hard Times”, specifically mourning the tragedy of American chattel slavery, disasters of the 1850s, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the poverty of Appalachia and the Ozarks, but then dissolving into free-floating anxiety over everything from the Babylonian captivity to the madness of our king (and there’s an awful lot to weep over in between).

All this driven by the music.

The crucial chorus of the song:

‘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.

Lamenting the hard times of the past and pleading that they not return.

The performance that I heard in the night: Anonymous 4 with Bruce Molsky “Hard Times Come Again No More”, on the album 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War (2015) — 1865 marking the end of the Civil War; it can be viewed here (#1).

Now, about the song, from Wikipedia:

(#2) Sheet music from 1854; the title has no comma after Hard Times, so it could be interpreted as ‘may hard times come again no more’ or even the optimistic ‘hard times will come again no more’ (some later printings have the comma, making clear that come again no more is an imperative, conveying anything from a plea to a demand)

“Hard Times Come Again No More” (sometimes, “Hard Times”) is an American parlor song written by Stephen Foster. It was published in New York by Firth, Pond & Co. in 1854 as Foster’s Melodies No. 28. Well-known and popular in its day, both in America and Europe, the song asks the fortunate to consider the plight of the less fortunate and ends with one of Foster’s favorite images: “a pale drooping maiden”.

It’s significant that 1854 was in the lead-up to the Panic of 1857, an American financial crash that turned into the first worldwide economic crisis.

More details from the Ballad of America site:

This song was written by Stephen Foster and published in 1854. In the mid 1850’s, Pittsburgh was in the grip of out of control unemployment and disease; cholera one summer killed 400 people. To help ends meet, the Foster family took into their already crowded home a minister.

Out of the blue and if only briefly, Foster saw poor people as his neighbors. Suddenly, their “pleading looks” created a demand for his attention. Their “frail forms fainting at the door” called for companionship — “while we all sup sorrow with the poor.”

Relevant biographical background on Foster, from Wikipedia:

Many of Foster’s songs were of the blackface minstrel show tradition popular at the time. He sought [in hs words] to “build up taste… among refined people by making words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some songs of that order”. In the 1850s, he associated with a Pittsburgh area abolitionist leader named Charles Shiras … Many of his songs had Southern themes, yet Foster never lived in the South and visited it only once during his 1852 honeymoon.

Foster’s South was a sentimental fabrication, a piece of imaginative fiction, peopled by stage folk: dreamy elegant whites and simple but oppressed blacks. Yet the song could be folded into other, different, narratives of terrible pasts and uncertain futures. It could, for instance, be sung by blacks, for blacks:


Eventually, by singers of the caliber of Mavis Staples, in a version (from the album Beautiful Dreamer (2004)) informed by the black experience but illustrated by images of the Great Depression, with both white and black subjects; it can be viewed here (#4).

It can be worked into a lament for the hardness of life in the Southern mountains, combined with passionate affection for the place, as in the Anonymous Four + Molsky version in #1 above, or in the astonishing re-imagining of the song in a live performance by a trio of Yo-Yo Ma, Marc O’Connor, and Edgar Meyer, with James Taylor on vocals (on the album Appalachian Journey (2000)), which you can view here (#5).

Or it can carry the whole weight of our past sorrows and fears for the future, displayed (apparently) without reference to any particular history, as in a heart-breaking live performance by Kate & Anna McGarrigle and friends (Rufus Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Karen Matheson, and Rod Paterson), which you can view here (#6).

But everything comes with a context, everything has a history. It’s relevant that the folksinging McGarrigle sisters grew up in Montreal, with parents of Irish and French-Canadian descent; their music grows out of the experience of the Scots and Irish in Canada, and more generally in North America, and of the French-Canadians. Kate McGarrigle’s American-Canadian son Rufus Wainwright: openly gay. Emmylou Harris: Southern country and folk singer, with Appalachian roots. Mary Black: Irish. Karen Matheson and Rod Paterson: Scottish (and the video was shot on the Atlantic coast of Scotland). Everybody brings a past to this occasion, and there is sorrow in all of those pasts, which the singers draw on in their performance.

(I haven’t discovered when the video was made, but it must have been before 2010, when Kate McGarrigle died.)

What is to come. In Foster’s song, the singer has uneasy hopes for the future, that it will not bring a return of the past, but no specific expectations about what is to come. My impression is that, in contrast, American folk music lamenting the hurts and pains of the past generally has a religious grounding, and looks forward to a future free from sorrow, a future of delight in the Lord after the release of death.

Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Pretty much the paradigm. From Wikipedia:

“Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is an African-American spiritual song that originated during the period of slavery but was not published until 1867. The song is well known and many cover versions of it have been done by artists such as Marian Anderson, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Harry James, Paul Robeson, Sam Cooke among others.

A version of the traditional lyrics (everything can be varied in performance):

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve been through
Nobody knows my sorrow
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen
Glory hallelujah!

Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down
Oh, yes, Lord
Sometimes I’m almost to the ground
Oh, yes, Lord

Although you see me going ‘long so
Oh, yes, Lord
I have my trials here below
Oh, yes, Lord

If you get there before I do
Oh, yes, Lord
Tell all-a my friends I’m coming to Heaven!
Oh, yes, Lord

The singer pours out his sorrow, and then immediately shifts into resurrection mode.

Many famous performances to choose from. You can listen to one of Paul Robeson’s here (#7).

All Is Well. Sometimes it’s all about the resurrection, with the pain and suffering as mere background detail. As in the moving “All Is Well” from the 1991 Denson Sacred Harp:


The text for first two verses (with chorus set off)  :

What’s this that steals, that steals upon my frame!
Is it death? is it death?
That soon will quench, will quench this mortal flame.
Is it death? is it death?
— If this be death, I soon shall be
From every pain and sorrow free,
I shall the King of glory see.
All is well! All is well!

Weep not, my friends, my friends weep not for me,
All is well! All is well!
My sins forgiven, forgiven, and I am free,
All is well! All is well!
— There’s not a cloud that soon shall be
From every pain and sorrow free,
I shall the King of glory see.
All is well! All is well!

You can view a singing of SH122 here (#9) (from the Seventh Ireland Sacred Harp Convention (2017)).

Especially because of the second verse, SH122 is often sung as a memorial for singers or their family members who have died; weep not for me is supposed to be comforting to the bereaved. But it almost always causes me to burst into tears — because I’m never actually going to believe that all is well.

I’m willing to pray in song that hard times, and all the trouble I’ve seen, will not come around again, but I’m not going to suppose that all is well.

One Response to “More dream linguistics”

  1. Tim Evanson Says:

    Then there’s “Pain Makes You Beautiful” by the Judybats.

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