I was in elementary school in the 1960s and music was part of our regular curriculum. We had hardbound music books and once a week we had 30 minutes of music. We pulled our music books out of our desks and had a sing-a-long. Our music book was full of folks songs, patriotic songs, and Christmas carols. We’d raise our hand, hoping we’d be picked so we could sing our favorite song. If picked, you went to the front of the class, announce the page number of the song, and start the singing. Eventually, we all joined in. Our women teachers sang, our male teachers didn’t.
We sang The Hammer Song just about every week. You probably know it as If I had a Hammer. In first through fourth grades we had no idea it was a protest anthem, but it wasn’t long after that, as many of us started playing guitar and picking up songs off the radio, that we began to see greater meanings in the songs we sang in our weekly music class.
Pete Seeger, folk music icon and veteran of the peace, labor, and civil rights movements, died January 27, 2014. He believed music had the transformative power to build communities and unite people, making the world a better place. The music he wrote and the songs he sang gave voice to raw, honest human experience, struggle, and hope. Getting others to join in the singing was merely an opportunity to share in a collective consciousness.
So much of the music that defines my adolescent years are Pete Seeger songs or songs he collaborated on: We Shall Overcome; The Hammer Song; Turn, Turn, Turn; Where Have All the Flowers Gone; Kisses Sweeter than Wine; Waist Deep in the Big Muddy, Muddy; Guantanamera; Little Boxes; This Land is Your Land. The Civil Rights movement, the migrant farm workers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the sameness of suburbia were relevant social issues of my era and Pete Seeger gave voice to all of it, just as he had been doing since the Depression and he continued to do until his death. He never strayed from his idealism and social conscious.
In the words of Pete Seeger and Lee Hays:
If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening
All over this land/ I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out a warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.