If I had a hammer

I was listening to the Weavers’ original (1949) version of ‘If I had a hammer‘, written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, who were both members of the Weavers. The chorus runs: “I’d hammer out love between all of my brothers, all over this land.”.

The version of the song that we know these days is by Peter, Paul and Mary, who had a top ten hit with it in  1962: “love between, my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.”. (In the clip above Seeger graciously attributes their success with the song to having rewritten the tune for the better).

Notes at Henry’s Songbook credit the change in the lyric to a radical singer in 1952:

It was a young radical activist, Libby Frank, in 1952 who insisted on singing “my brothers and my sisters” instead of “all of my brothers”. Lee resisted the change at first. “It doesn’t ripple off the tongue as well. How about ‘all of my siblings’?”

As protest songs go, it seems mild enough now, popularised during the protests of the 1960s, and not just in the United States. But when it was written, at the height of McCarthyism and the hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, it was incendiary:

Counterattack‘ and the FBI succeeded in blacklisting the Weavers [between 1952 and 1955], but If I Had A Hammer was unconquerable. The song had a specific radical message in 1952; when Seeger suggested the Weavers perform it on bookings, one of them answered, “Oh no. We can’t get away with anything like that.”

“Why was it controversial?” Pete reflected. “In 1949 only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom’. … The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say. We will overcome. I have a hammer. […] No one could take these away.”

The story comes from David Dunaway’s biography of Seeger. There’s a good article from the New York Times on Seeger and The Weavers.



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