About a month into the coronavirus shutdown, Arlo Guthrie woke with a 166-year-old song on his mind. “I woke up and told my girlfriend, ‘You know, there’s a song I’ve been meaning to do,’” he recalls. “She had never heard of the song and didn’t know what I was talking about, but it had obviously come to me that night, maybe in a dream.”
The song, Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” was penned by the way-old-school American composer who wrote “Oh! Susanna,” “Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair” and other enduring parlor songs from the days before recorded music. Composed in 1854, the stately “Hard Times Come Again No More” was his empathetic look at the increasingly dire pre-Civil War world around him. “While we seek mirth and beauty and music bright and gay/There are frail forms fainting at the door/ Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say/Oh, hard times come again no more.” Guthrie’s cover dropped Thursday.
Guthrie has no recall of his father Woody singing the song; he remembers being introduced to it by Ry Cooder’s version from the Seventies. Many have recorded it since, though: Bob Dylan cut it on 1992’s Good as I Been to You, and one of Guthrie’s favorites is Mavis Staples’ rendition from a 2004 Foster tribute album.
Guthrie first considered recording “Hard Times Come Again No More” a while back, along with other Foster songs. But in light of the country’s current crisis, he — and his nighttime brain — felt the time had come. “It’s funny how the times we’re in put a lens on an old song like this,” he says. “You see things in it that may not have been the intention of the original song. But they fit perfectly because they’re the same. At any time, millions of people are suffering. It’s a different cause, but it’s the same suffering.”
Like just about every other touring musician right now, Guthrie is stuck at home — in his case, rural Massachusetts — so he hooked up remotely with pianist and arranger Jim Wilson, who recorded the basic track in Los Angeles and then sent it to Guthrie for his vocal. Wilson then added other elements, starting with a co-lead vocal by singer Vanessa Bryan. Also contributing their services free of charge were a gospel choir and renowned jazz and fusion bassist Stanley Clarke. “I’d never met Stanley Clarke,” Guthrie enthuses. “I knew who he was, but I never imagined I’d be working with some of these people. Actually, I haven’t met anybody in person who worked on this project. It’s a first, but hopefully a last.”
With Bryan, Guthrie also wrote and sang a new, hopeful verse at song’s end, including the lines, “This too shall also pass/Better times will come again once more.” As Guthrie explains: “I wanted to stick as much as possible to the original melody and chord structure, but I also wanted to be able to add a note of hope at the end.” An accompanying music video is a veritable chronicle of hard times, from the Depression-era that inspired Woody’s songs right up through images of Black Lives Matter protests and masked hospital workers.
Guthrie has no great expectations for the song making the pop charts — but, then again, he didn’t think his actual hits like “City of New Orleans” and “Alice’s Restaurant” would either. And the song certainly is enduring. “You go back in time, people are people,” he says. “They’re not all that different over a 200-year period. Same hopes and joys, and all have problems with their spouses,” he says with a laugh. “The human condition has not changed that much in a very long time.”