Discussion: Songs For Hard Times

Chet Flippo is wondering when the songs about the current economic crisis will arrive:

Is anyone writing soundtrack songs for an America running helplessly headlong toward ruin? I’m not going to attempt to go into political issues, other than to say that tough times can and should produce music that can address and perhaps explain and make some sense out of the chaos that’s all around. To instill some sense of order and normalcy into everyday life. And to try, as journalism’s mission once was, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

And if ever a nation needed some memorable music, it is the United States of America of today, which has truly become a pitiful, helpless giant. With no direction home. End of sermon.

Where’s the music?

There were some great songs along these lines in the early nineties, when the country suffered a tough recession.  My favorite of all of them was  Sawyer Brown’s “Cafe on the Corner.”   I was also fond of Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” and Pirates of the Mississippi’s “A Streetman Named Desire.”  Kathy Mattea’s “Standing Knee Deep in a River” alluded to the homeless problem in a subtle but effective way.

But my favorite song of all in this vein came two decades earlier.   Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” deals with hard times in a deeply personal way by having a father explain to his daughter why there can’t be a  Christmas this year.    He comforts her by promsing brighter days ahead, but the shakiness of his vocal indicates that he can’t quite convince himself it’s true.

What are you favorite songs for hard times?


  1. Interestingly enough, the song was inspired by a Roy Nichols comment. Nichols was Hag’s guitarist for many years, and it seems Roy’s marriages always seemed to break up around Christmas. One year he commented to Hag about making it through December and Hag ran with it

    Hag recorded anothe great song about hard times in “Sidewalks of Chicago” (I think it was actually written by Dave Kirby, but I could be mistaken)

    Of course when it comes to writing about hard times, the master of the genre was Jimmie Rodgers

  2. For starters:

    BUSTED–Ray Charles**
    CLOUD NINE–The Temptations
    LIVING FOR THE CITY–Stevie Wonder

    Yes, this is an R&B quartet of songs, though Brother Ray’s was written by no less than country songwriting titan Harlan Howard. But they all reflect tough times in their own special ways, as do so many of the best country songs.

  3. Great topic Kevin. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the past couple of weeks with…oh, you know. One would think country music would be all over this – not political songs, but social/economic songs about what is going on with the average American right now. It’s tough.

    The first song I thought of was Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can the Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”

    “There once was a time when everything was cheap,
    But now prices nearly puts a man to sleep.
    When we pay our grocery bill,
    We just feel like making our will —
    I remember when dry goods were cheap as dirt,
    We could take two bits and buy a dandy shirt.
    Now we pay three bucks or more,
    Maybe get a shirt that another man wore —
    Tell me how can a poor man stand such times and live?”

    Change it up a little, and I think it still applies today.

  4. for me “jesus take the wheel” is the perfect analogy for the difficult and dangerous situation the usa finds itself in.

    the last fortnight has shown to the whole world what a pathetic and incompetent leadership this great nation has been having for almost a decade. throwing the hands up in the air and yelling: “jesus take the wheel” has probably been a wide-spread reaction in the white house lately and before.

    although, it’s a pleasant melody, i couldn’t stand this song from the first time i heard it, because of it’s misguiding message. making a mess and then start praying doesn’t result in anything other than a mess and prayer. doing something right and start praying at least gets something right under way and a prayer on top of it may or may not help it.

    i’m still waiting for some more secular country artists tackling lines like: a little less jesus and a lot more common sense or the fish on my bumper didn’t increase the miles/gallon ratio of my full-size chevy truck.

  5. I think my response is a little too political… but I’ll summarize it. Most Country music artists I’d guess would lean right. The right (but by no means not completely the right), from one policy or decision to another, got us here. Many right wing citizens won’t criticize their ‘perfect’ leader. The only songs for a down turn right now that wouldn’t be political, purely economical.. would be about housing… who wants to listen to a song about a mortgage you can’t pay because you got a loan you couldn’t afford?


  6. LAID A HIGHWAY–Tift Merritt**

    This track from Tift’s 2004 album TAMBOURINE is a slice of Americana, in which a small town’s only major place of employment burns down to the ground (at the hands of the owner) and displaces people, while a highway that might have bought added commerce passes it by. As Tift sings:

    “They laid a highway a few years back
    Next town over by the railroad track
    Some nights I’m glad it passed us by.
    Some nights I sit and watch my hometown die.”

  7. The first song that came to my mind was “Hobo’s Meditation” by Dolly Linda and Emmylou: “Will there be any freight trains in heaven, any boxcars in which we might ride…”

    As for something more relevant to the current decade, as opposed to the 1930s, I would agree with “We Can’t Make it Here Anymore” by James McMurtry.

  8. “Hobo’s Meditation” is a great song for this topic. I think I’d be more likely to associate it with Jimmie Rodgers or Hank Snow (the Trio’s version just seems too glossy). Another good hard times song is Haggard’s “They’re Tearing The Labor Camps Down”

  9. Not familiar with Hank Snow’s version. I agree with you about associating it with Jimmie Rodgers, but I just don’t “enjoy” listening to him singing about hard times as three rich women with beautiful voices (one of them whose family might have endured some hard times).

  10. Dolly’s “In the Good Ol’ Days”…she sings with great conviction about waking up to ice on the floor where the wind had blown snow thru the cracks in the wall…another great line – “anything at all was more than we had”, but the BEST line has to be “No Amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of then, but no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again, in the good ol’ days, when times were bad…”

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