Tuesday 7 December 2021

Autoharp + Stephen Foster + Hard Times

When the UK Autoharp Association announced its 2021 Advent Calendar project, I was determined to offer a contribution...

Partly because, after a struggle, I had finally got my health into a better place, and I wanted a project that was visible and achievable.

And...  I am a loyal member of the Autoharp Association.

So, the UK Autoharps Advent Calendar - 24 songs and tunes played and sung by Autoharp Association Members, one song a day in the count-up to Christmas.

And my contribution appeared on Day 6, December 6.

Hard Times by Stephen Foster, performed by Patrick O'Sullivan  - here we are on YouTube....


This note on my blog addresses some questions that I have been asked, and addresses, very briefly, some background  issues...

1.  Stephen Foster - background and comment...  Fairly easy to pick up on the web nowadays...

Library of Congress

Stephen Collins Foster, 1826-1864


'...Although penniless when he died on 10 January 1864, Foster bestowed on America a rich legacy of memorable songs...'

He was 37 years old when he died.

This is the NY Times Review of

Ken Emerson, DOO-DAH!  Stephen Foster and the Rise of American Popular Culture


But lots out there...  You can see a number of themes...  Stephen Foster's part in the creation of 'Americana', including blackface minstrelsy, and his place in the record of slavery...

2.  Research and thinking about Stephen Foster is now aided by the online Stephen Foster Collection at the University of Pittsburgh...



We can certainly pick up there everything we need about our song, Hard Times Come Again No More. 

This is the first sketch, June 26, 1851, in Fosters note book...


This, by the way, puts aside the suggestion that Foster's title and the song were inspired by Hard Times, the novel by Charles Dickens, first instalment published 1854.

But the 'Hard Times' idea is certainly around.  From 1854 onwards the song is in print...

Christy Minstrels Sheet Music...


Arranged for guitar...


3.  Discussion on the web...

Paul Campbell

Old music: Stephen Foster – Hard Times (Come Again No More)

'A song written nearly 160 years ago still resonated down American history. And you don't need to be American to be blown away...


The helpful Mainly Norfolk web site -


But note that both those web sites are wrong - we now know that the song was not 'written' in 1854.  For we have seen the note book...

The song has special resonances for the McGarrigle/Wainwright family...


And became a 2020 lockdown project for Rufus Wainwright...



4.  The autoharp communities have a special relationship with the work of Stephen Foster.  There is a relationship with 'Americana', and its history - it was in the United States that the autoharp became a 'folk' instrument.

There is a relationship with 'country music' - a complex relationship.  See, for example...

Jackson, M. A. (2018) The Honky Tonk on the Left: Progressive Thought in Country Music. Edited by M. A. Jackson. University of Massachusetts Press.

And the autoharp communities have a special relationship with this song, Hard Times.

See from 2012...

Hard Times Come Again No More - The Cyberpluckerpotluck

An international, online collaboration

Organised and edited by Catherine Britell


You can just hear me, in 2012 - guided by Stephanie Hladowski - determined, as ever, to make a contribution.

I have dedicated my 2021 version to Cathy Britell.

See also...

Bryan Bowers and Friends perform Hard Times

California Autoharp Gathering 2019

Music starts at 3.20...


The melody sits comfortably on the standard autoharp.  I sing it in F - we have chorded it very simply, F C Bb.

5.  Is it a Christmas song?  Paul Campbell, in that Guardian article, tells us that Foster would sing this song often, in his last days - before his death in January 1864.  It is certainly a song to be sung at Christmas.  In any case the Autoharp Association guidelines for the 2021 Advent Calendar project did say that the chosen song does not have to be a Christmas song.

Is it an Irish Famine song?  The text has resonances - the troubled wave, and the wail along the shore, puts Foster's song alongside Irish Famine narratives, like Thoreau's account of the wreck of the brig St. John, bound for Boston, from Galway, full of emigrants - wrecked in Cohasset Bay, October 1849.  Thoreau's 'The Shipwreck' was published in 1855 - it is in...

King, J. (2019) The History of the Irish Famine, Volume II The Irish Famine Migration Narratives: Eye-Witness Testimonies. London: Routledge.

See also

Morgan, J. (2004) ‘Thoreau’s “The Shipwreck” (1855): Famine Narratives and the Female Embodiment of Catastrophe’, New Hibernia Review / Iris √Čireannach Nua. University of St. Thomas (Center for Irish Studies), 8(3), pp. 47–57.

6.  Resonances with my academic work - I am currently Visiting Professor of Irish Diaspora Studies, London Metropolitan University...

I have mentioned Stephen Foster's part in the development of 'Americana', blackface minstrelsy and the record of slavery...  There is a complex knot of issues around Irish and Irish-American involvement in the creation of and the performance of the blackface minstrel stereotype, the exploitation of that stereotype for humour - to be put alongside, perhaps, the comic exploitation of stereotypes of the Irish.

The first substantial meditation on this is Peter Quinn's sombre novel...

Quinn, P. (1995) Banished children of Eve. New York: Penguin.

Robert Nowatzki 's articles are a good starting point...

Nowatzki, R. (2007) ‘“Blackin’’ up is us Doin’ White Folks Doin’ Us”: Blackface Minstrelsy and Racial Performance in Contemporary American Fiction and Film”’, Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 18(2), pp. 115–136.

Nowatzki, R. (2006) ‘Paddy jumps Jim Crow: Irish-Americans and Blackface minstrelsy’, √Čire-Ireland. Irish-American Cultural Institute, 41(3), pp. 162–184.

Greaves, M. (2012) ‘Slave Ships and Coffin Ships: Transatlantic Exchanges in Irish-American Blackface Minstrelsy.’, Comparative American Studies, 10(1), pp. 78–94.

Hughes, R. L. (2006) ‘Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America’, The History Teacher. Society for History Education, 40(1), pp. 27–43.

And lastly...

7.  The credits

UK Autoharp Association, Advent Calendar, December 2021



Stephen Foster

Hard Times, Come Again No More

First draft 1851

Published 1854


Patrick O'Sullivan


Patrick O'Sullivan

Oscar Schmidt 21 Chord Model B Autoharp, 1975-77


Danny Yates

Audio & Video Production

Danny Yates

City Sound Studios


As I say, I was determined, determined, to make a contribution.

In a funding bid recently I spoke of our new ability to exploit the recording studio, and recording studio technology, as a working tool - rather than a rite of passage.

We took recording studio, first draft, short cuts.  First we built a spine.  We chose a key, comfortable for me and the autoharp.  A simple guitar structure for Verse 1.  There are 5 Verses.  Copy and paste 4 times.

That is the structure to support my singing.  And that is why the guitar part is so simple - we might return and work on that again.

Autoharp.  It is an Autoharp Association project.   The autoharp follows the guitar structure for Verse 1.  Chords F C Bb.  There are 5 Verses.  Copy and paste 4 times.

Add another layer of autoharp.  Add a bit of colour and autoharp variation.  We should return and work on that again.

The inevitable technical glitch - one video card failed.  Redo some video, and blend it in as best we can.  No one will ever notice.

(Of course you did notice.  But we got our submission in, in time...)

Patrick O'Sullivan

December 7 2021