“The Harrow and the Harvest”: Weep No More My Lady
Bob Dylan isn’t the only thematic influence on The Harrow and the Harvest: “Hard Times” riffs on the songs and world of Stephen Foster, re-imagined a century and a half later. The song tells the story of a Camptown man who
Used to plow and singHe loved that muleAnd the mule loved him
[…]Singing, “Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mindHard times ain’t gonna rule my mindBessie, Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.”
Compare with the chorus of Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More”:
‘Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,Hard Times, hard times, come again no moreMany days you have lingered around my cabin door;Oh hard times come again no more.*
There are, of course, several key distinctions between the two most obvious connections (“Camptown Races” and “Hard Times”). In Foster’s telling, the man goes to the Camptown Races to bet on the nag “with my hat caved in” and comes back “with my pocket full of tin”; he turns things around by betting what little he has on the bob-tailed nag, daring others to “bet on the gray” (there is an old wives tale, for those not from horse country, that it is better luck, no matter the odds, to bet on a grey horse). In Welch’s song, however, the Camptown man labors with the mule (his nag, in this telling). Though he’d “bet the whole damn world” on the two of them, he’s only betting that they’ll make it “to the end of the road.” The narrator’s past progressive, and the story itself, imply that this song was sung every day—he keeps winning his bet, but, of course, he gets nothing from it. He can’t really bet the whole world.
His song, however, is not the plea of Foster’s chorus. It is (as one might expect from Welch’s songs) a more grimly determined variation on it. He knows that he can’t keep the hard times away, but he will insist, over and over, that they can rule his body and his life, but not his mind. He is not “paus[ing] in life’s pleasures [to] count its many tears”: he is trying to force open a space within those very tears. Foster’s song is from the perspective of those who are not poor; the Camptown man’s song is a poor man’s song. Peace and serenity (in a way that reminds me of Heschel’s idea of a “palace in time”), not awareness and sympathy, are his goals: “They’ll get to heaven in their own sweet time.”
But unlike Foster’s Camptown singer, this Camptown man, “doesn’t plow no more.” He’s only seen walking to and from “the cigarette store,” making one wonder whether we’re even looking at an exclusively rural poor anymore. The narrator offers, by way of explanation:
Guess he lost that nagHe forgot that songWoke up one morningAnd the mule was gone
The Camptown man’s story, however, is only a portion of the song. The narrator is aware of her telling the story. The chorus is sung three times, but only once by the Camptown man. She calls for the “Asheville boys” and “ragtime kings”** to, respectively,
Turn up your old time noiseKick till the dust comes upFrom the cracks in the floor
Come on you dogs and singPick up the dusty old hornAnd give it a blow
The song they should sing, is, of course, the Camptown man’s. Foster encourages his audience to listen; here, the narrator encourages her audience to pick their unused instruments and sing with her. For Foster, the song
‘Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,‘Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore‘Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
One can only imagine that, looking on the fate of the Camptown man—his beloved mule dies; he, it seems, has surrendered to the hard times—Foster’s narrator would nod and look on it as reinforcement for the song as a sigh, a wail, a funeral dirge.
But Welch’s narrator wants them to resume their song: they shouldn’t pause in life’s pleasures; they should resume life’s pleasures. Not only should they sing, they should stamp their feet and play with joy. What does one do while watching the Camptown man content with his mule? Sing his song. What does one do while watching the Camptown man in misery, crushed under the hard times? Sing his song.
The Camptown man’s fate doesn’t matter to the speaker except insofar as its unimportance can give meaning to his song. He forgot his song, but we shouldn’t. That repeating, insistent song that tries to carve out a space within one’s mind for peace, for a taste of heaven, is the only, or perhaps the last, resistance available to hard times.
*Hard times also come “knocking” to a cabin door in another Foster song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” which, Kentuckian that I am, was the first thought to enter my mind on listening to Welch’s “Hard Times.” There, hard times are a signal that the time for togetherness has passed and separation has arrived. The song, recall, is sung from the perspective of being distant from one’s family (in time; the memories are of childhood) and one’s home (through space). This use of hard times, on Foster’s part, would fit with the cyclical themes of closeness/separation outlined in my previous post on the subject.
**In light of Michael Hansen’s comment yesterday about a conversation with Welch and Rawlings about the importance of Dylan’s lyrics and songs to their own, I can’t help but wonder whether the phrasing of “So come on, you Asheville boys/ragtime kings” isn’t influenced by the first line of the closing verse to Dylan’s “Hard Times in New York Town”: “So all you newsy people, spread the news around,” itself a determined, defiant response to hard times.