PETE SEEGER focusing on a long-ago song: "It was January of 1949, as I remember. I was living in New York and so was Lee Hays. I was about to move up to the country and build a little house, which I've lived in ever since, but my wife and I were living in my wife's parents' house with two little babies. Lee and I had worked on and off for some eight years together and occasionally. I sat down at the piano, as I remember, and plunked it out and he kind of liked it and we started singing it around."
The song was "The Hammer Song" (perhaps better known as "If I Had A Hammer"), and Seeger and Hays, veterans of the Almanac Singers, just had formed a new group with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman; they called themselves the Weavers. "We recorded it for Charter Records, a very small, independent company which only lasted a few years. We didn't expect it to go very far because it was such a small company; they probably sold 1,000 copies. It didn't do well enough to get played on the air, but we didn't expect it to. I think it was a kind of indication of still thinking that we were so incorrigibly blacklisted that there wasn't any hope that we could get it on the air."
"The Hammer Song" never was a hit for the group that wrote it and first recorded it. Initially, Seeger recalls, it was picked up "by what could casually be called 'left-wing people' who took it overseas, where it was picked up. It even got down to South Africa and some performers started kidding around with it and having a lot of fun: 'If I had a trumpet, I'd trumpet in the morning . . . If I had a drum, I'd drum in the morning.' It was quite common then to change it because people thought it was an old folk song; within three or four years there were several minor variations in the words and music."
Back home, the song managed immediately to arouse the ire of the right, and many years later, of the left as well. As Seeger recalled in his autobiography, "How Can I Keep From Singing," the song was controversial because "in 1949 only 'Commies' used words like 'peace' and 'freedom.' The message was that we have got tools and we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say: we will overcome. I have a hammer. The last verse didn't say 'But there ain't no hammer, there ain't no bell, there ain't no song, but honey, I got you.' We could have said that! The last verse says 'I have a hammer, and I have a bell, I have a song.' Here it is. 'It's the hammer of justice, it's the bell of freedom, the song of love.' No one could take these away."
"The Hammer Song," so controversial that no commercial publisher would touch it, finally appeared on the cover of the first issue of a new topical song magazine, "Sing Out" (which took its name from the song itself). Says Seeger with a chuckle, "I think somebody wrote in immediately and said 'Cancel my subscription. The only thing you left out of that song was the sickle.'"
"Curiously, the Weavers didn't sing it in our commercial work. Our manager urged us not to : 'This is not the kind of song we're going to get on the hit parade.' So the Weavers literally stopped singing it in 1951 and only when we had a reunion in 1955 did we start singing it again . . . but I'm not even sure then."
Trouble on the left developed because "when we wrote it originally, it was 'I'd ring out love between all of my brothers, all over this land.' And many women said 'brothers this, brothers that, why the hell can't you use sisters occasionally?' And we would lamely say, 'Well, doesn't brothers mean everybody?' And they said, 'Not to me it don't,' and started singing it 'love between my brothers and my sisters.' Lee said it doesn't ripple off the tongue as well--how about saying 'all of my siblings'? Nobody appreciated that. But I found that he was wrong. It just had a slightly different kind of ripple, and that's the way I kept on singing it."
Still, the song lingered in semi-obscurity until 1962, when a trio inspired by the Weavers recorded it in a more urgent fashion. "It was Peter, Paul and Mary who not only revived it but who should get some credit for a very creative rewrite," says Seeger. "It's their melody which most people know now. Even now when I song-lead it, I don't make a big thing about which melody people sing; very few people sing it as I originally wrote it.. I call this the folk process and I'm delighted to see it carrying on in spite of technology."
"The Hammer Song" still is a centerpiece of Seeger concerts; he doesn't even introduce it, instead playing his guitar right above their applause from the previous song. "Before you know it, people are singing with me better than they ever would otherwise." The song has been recorded by well over a hundred artists, ranging from Perry Como, Aretha Franklin and Trini Lopez to Mitch Miller, Ray Barretto and former senator Sam Ervin.