A Humbug Pill, a Dose of Dope, And a Great Big Bill

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast near New Orleans, Louisiana. The hurricane and its after effects devastated the city and surrounding areas along the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

The following year, Bruce Springsteen visited New Orleans and performed his version of the song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.” He used the first verse from the original by Blind Alfred Reed. But then he added three new verses that focused on the situation in New Orleans.

Springsteen’s lyrics criticize the federal response to the emergency, invoking President George W. Bush‘s trip to the area: “He took a look around, gave a little pep talk, said ‘I’m with you’ then he took a little walk.” At his performance in New Orleans, he introduced the song with a reference to the “Bystander-in-Chief.”

Springsteen released his version of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” on We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (American Land Edition) (2006). Below is the original version of the song by Blind Alfred Reed, who wrote “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” in response to the Great Depression: “When we pay our grocery bill,/ We just feel like making our will.”

Reed, who lived from 1880 to 1956, recorded his version in New York City on December 4, 1929, less than two months after the stock market crash. Check it out.

Ry Cooder also recorded a variation on Reed’s original version, releasing it on his self-titled album in 1970. Musically, one can hear how Cooder’s version apparently influenced Springsteen’s version. Check out this video of Cooder’s 1974 recording of “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” at The Record Plant in Sausalito, California.

Unfortunately, it seems like we will always need songs like these. Fortunately, we have artists like Reed, Cooder, and Springsteen to keep challenging us.

Photo of Hurricane Katrina via NASA (Public Domain). Leave your two cents in the comments.

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