If I Had A Hammer

Album: The Weavers Greatest Hits (1949)
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  • Folk music historian Gary Theroux explains the origin of this song:

    Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were founding members of People's Songs, a music publishing company that specialized in tunes that supported various left wing causes - including hammer and sickle Communism. At its first board of directors meeting, Seeger and Hayes staved off boredom by passing a sheet of paper back and forth, collaborating on the lyrics that became "If I Had A Hammer." That Labor Day, at a show promoted in a Communist newspaper, Seeger debuted the song in concert (his co-star on the bill was Paul Robeson). Impressed by the crowd reaction, Seeger and Hays then recorded "If I Had A Hammer" with their new group, The Weavers, as their first release on the tiny Charter Records label. (Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellermen rounded out the quartet). "It was a collector's item," said Hayes. "Nobody but collectors ever bought it."

    In 1952, the lyrics were revised a bit by a fellow radical activist, Libby Frank, who insisted on singing "my brothers and my sisters" instead of what Seeger and Hayes had written: "all of my brothers." Hayes objected ("It doesn't ripple off the tongue as well. How about 'all of my siblings?") but finally agreed. A decade later, the melody itself was rewritten by Peter, Paul & Mary. Most people nowadays sing it as they heard it on PPM's record, admitted Seeger. This Peter, Paul & Mary version reached #10 in October 1962.

    A Latin-tinged interpretation, recorded live at PJs nightclub in Hollywood, became an even bigger hit (#3) for Trini Lopez the following September. (This first appeared in the Forgotten Hits newsletter.)
  • In a 1988 interview with Paul Zollo, Pete Seeger said: "The way I sing it now, what I often do is joke with an audience. I point out that you can sing it the way I wrote it or the way Peter, Paul and Mary rewrote it, or half a dozen other ways, and they all harmonize with each other. I say, 'This is a good moral for the world.' As a matter of fact, I'm convinced that musicians have got a more important role to play in putting a world together than they're usually given credit for. Because musicians can teach the politicians: Not everybody has to sing the melody." (From Zollo's book Songwriters On Songwriting.)
  • The "hammer" in this song is a metaphor for power, and a call to use that power to promote love and fight injustice. It's a song that has endured through changing times because the message is constant. "The civil rights movement embraced 'If I Had A Hammer' as a kind of an anthem, but that song was also sung very much as part of grass roots movements like the peace movement and the environmental movement," Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary said in Performing Songwriter. "It is a song of empowerment, and songs that empower with the sense of elasticity so they can relate to the world as it evolves also will remain with us."
  • Thanks to his populist, pro-union songs, Seeger got some ink in a newspaper called the Daily Worker, which was distributed around New York City. The paper was published by an organization called Communist Party USA, which became an obvious target for the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a congressional committee devoted to purging domestic communism.

    Seeger was called to testify before the committee on August 18, 1955, and this song became a topic of questioning. Chief Counsel Frank Tavenner produced a copy of the Daily Worker from June 1, 1949 that read:

    The first performance of a new song, "If I Had a Hammer," on the theme of the Foley Square trial of the Communist leaders, will be given at a testimonial dinner for the 12 on Friday night at St. Nicholas Arena. Among those on hand for the singing will be Pete Seeger and Lee Hays.

    Tavenner questioned Seeger about the performance, to which Seeger replied, "I am not interested in carrying on the line of questioning about where I have sung any songs."

    Seeger was then asked if he had entertained at communist functions, at which point he gave this famous reply:

    I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody.

    Asked to answer the question directly, Seeger added:

    I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

    Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt, but never served the time as the verdict was reversed in 1962. As a result of the sentence, Seeger was not welcome on network television until years after the reversal. ABC, NBC and CBS were beholden to congress for their broadcast licences, so it was in their best interest to keep Seeger off the air.
  • The cover of this song by Peter, Paul, and Mary (subtitled "The Hammer Song") was their first big hit. It was released on their debut, self-titled album in 1962, and was their second single, following "Lemon Tree," which made #35 US in June 1962. "If I Had A Hammer" went to #10 in October of that year, and the trio soon became one of the best-known folk music acts of the era. Their next single was what became their signature song: "Puff The Magic Dragon."
  • In Rich Podolsky's book Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear, Rich tells how his father was a record buyer for a Philadelphia chain store, and would bring home stacks of 45 RPM records for his son to sort through looking for good candidates. Rich thought of it as a fun game called "find the hit." This song was his first pick, from a pile of records he describes as "one bomb after another."
  • This song is regarded as a classic protest anthem, but not all protest singers appreciate it. When Michelle Obama requested it during Joan Baez' performance at a 2010 civil-rights-era music celebration at the White House, Baez refused, as she finds the song quite annoying. "If I had a hammer - I'd hit myself on the head," she said.

Comments: 3

  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyPer: http://www.oldiesmusic.com/news.htm
    Ronnie Gilbert, contralto singer with the influential Weavers folk quartet, died of natural causes Saturday (June 6th, 2015) at a retirement home in Mill Valley, California. She was 88. The group-- including Pete Seeger, Lee Hays (who had performed together earlier in the Almanac Singers) and Fred Hellerman-- formed in 1948 in Greenwich Village, New York where they appeared at the Village Vanguard club. Their name came from an 1892 play about the uprising by Eastern European weavers nearly 50 years earlier. They were quickly signed to Decca Records where they succeeded with traditional American folk tunes like "Goodnight Irene" (#1-1950), "So Long It's Been Good To Know You" (#4-1951) and "On Top Of Old Smoky" (#2-1951)-- the latter with Terry Gilkyson. When Pete and Lee were identified as members of the Communist Party and called to testify before the House Committee on Unamerican Activities in 1955 (Lee pleaded the Fifth Amendment, Pete refused to answer on First Amendment grounds though he had left the party in 1949 and was indicted for contempt of Congress), the group's success was over. Decca had already dropped their contract in 1952, they were blacklisted from radio and television and the group eventually split up. Ronnie went on to tour solo but with little commercial success. However, the Weavers' influence in the folk boom of the late '50s and early '60s on such groups as the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan was undeniable. The group reunited in 1980 for a documentary film, "The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time," which was released two years later. They were given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys in 2006 and inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001...
    May she R.I.P.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyPete Seeger passed away yesterday, January 27h, 2014, at the age of 94...
    In 1949 he, along with Lee Hays, composed "If I Had A Hammer"; and their folk group the Weavers recorded in that year...
    On August 12th, 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary's covered version entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart; and on October 7th, 1962 it peaked at 10 (for 1 week) and spent 12 weeks on the Top 100...
    And one year later on July 21st, 1963 Trini Lopez entered the Top 100 with his version for a stay of 12 weeks; on September 1st, 1963 it reached #3 (for 3 weeks), it was his biggest hit and his only Top 10 record of the thirteen he place on the Top 100.
  • Wesley from King, United KingdomI discovered this song through Leonard Nimoy's cover, and it has fast become one of my favourites. I've read also that it was something of an anthem for the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. If more people hammered out the songs of love, this would be a much better world. Peace and love. :)
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