For this weeks entry I've selected to do There's A Hard Time Coming, based on a version recorded by Fiddling John Carson in 1925.
There is copy of the John Carson version on youtube, and I've also attached it to this posting. In that recording he follows the song with a tune, perhaps "West Virginia Gals?"
John Carson(1868-1949), who generally introduced himself as "Fiddlin' John himself" on his recordings, is an important name in the history of country music. He was one of the earliest to be recorded, and was the first successful country recording artist. There is a great biography on Bluegrass Messengers, and if you want more information there is an excellent biography written by Gene Wiggers titled "Fiddlin' Georgia Crazy: His Real World and the World of His Songs." I believe it is out of print, but I had an easy time finding a used copy. Good read. Anyway, I've been enjoying Fiddln' John over the past several months. He is not like most well-known fiddlers, particularly of today: he is not fast, he usually sings, and he'll change melody & timings to match what he wanted to sing.
This song is one of comic complaint, listing a series of people who are out to cheat you in some way. They could be particular occupations (blacksmith, preacher, doctor) or age/gender (old men and old maids), all of whom will say one thing, but do another. The erudite folks at mudcat have discussions on this song, as well as the related Dodger Song. The first link is actually a version published by C. F. Sussdorff in 1843. The thread includes a full listing of the Sussdorff version, plus also another 19th century over 20 job descriptions of people that are out to cheat you! These occupations include the fiddler:
The Fiddler will tell you he'll play such a night,
For four dollars he'll play till it's broad day light,
But before two o'clock he is sleepy and dull--
He takes some more grog, then he won't play at all.
I have included an image of the big list of lyrics below, from the Library of Congress collections. That Dodger Song link takes you to the lyrics for a version performed by Neal Morris for J. Q. Wolf in Mountain View, Arkansas in 1959. You can get the field recording from Lyon College.
Other songs of of complaint, such as "Down on Penny's Farm" often share verses, phrases, and the general sentiment of this song. Archie Green, in his extraordinarily detailed liner notes of Mike Seegers Folkways album. Tipple, Loom and Rail notes for the tune "Cotton Mill Blues":
“Cotton Mill Blues” is a twig on the multi-branched tree “Hard Times,” whose roots go to a family of English 18th century satiric broadsides. One British form of this piece which ridiculed various callings was titled “Chapter of Cheats: Or, the Roguery of All Trades.” The song reached America as early as the Revolution and is preserved on at least three colonial broadsides printed between 1770-1810. During the 19th century the song spread widely among American singers and was also frequently printed in pocket songsters. As it proliferated it was recomposed and localized into a courting ballad (Laws H 25) as well as jail, farm, mine, mill, or local history folksongs.
There are probably a good number of examples I could link to, but I didn't find much. In particular, Riley Puckett recorded a song with this name, but I've never heard it. Perhaps others can come up with some?
I've attached a audio of me doing the song in D, and also a short video to show the fingering. It's mighty simple; mostly on two strings and one fret.
Fiddlin' John (& Moonshine Kate) are giants in the history of N. American music - even though most people have no idea who they are! Hard Time is one of my favorites, taking up a close third behind "Everybody Works But Father," and "I'm Glad My Wife's in Europe."
Thanks for the reminder about this great musician.
Thanks guys. I've not heard "Everybody Works But Father," I'll look it up. There is a complete series of Carson's recordings from Document Records.
In a way, I find this group of songs kind of comforting. People have always found reasons to complain--the older generation didn't have a clue, and kids these days have no idea, and we're all going someplace in a hand basket.
The Library of Congress had a great series of 15 LPs published coincident with the US Bicentennial of "Folk Music of America". Each album is themed in some way: Songs of Love, Courtship, and Marriage; songs of Hilarity; Songs of Local History. Volume 7 is "Songs of Complaint and Protest." It has a fine series of songs ranging from Mattie, Marthie, and Minnie doing You Can't Live With 'em (And you can't live without 'em), and Flat & Scruggs doing Over the Hills to the Poorhouse, to a couple of great 1930s calypso songs; one complaining a girl trying to practice necromancy on the singer (Wilmoth Houdini), and the other an encitment for violent worker rebellion by a singer named "The Tiger." The series doesn't include any version of these "Hard Times" songs although there are plenty of "this is a tough place to work" songs, including the fine "Weave Room Blues" by Fisher Hendley and his Aristocratic Pigs on vol 8: Songs of Labor & Livelihood.