|About this Recording
8.120737 - SEEGER, Pete: If I Had a Hammer (1944-1950)
PETE SEEGER If I Had A Hammer
With The Weavers, The Union Boys, Burl Ives & Lee Hays
Original Recordings 1944-1950
If there was a Mount Rushmore of influential folk performers, Pete Seeger would be the first one carved into stone, head raised and singing to the heavens. In the more than sixty years since folk music made its journey from the backwoods, hills, and valleys of America to the concrete jungles of New York City, no one person has had a greater impact or a more pronounced presence on the music than Seeger and his long-necked five-string banjo. In retrospect, even the monumental accomplishments of his friend and frequent musical companion, Woody Guthrie, pale in comparison with Seeger’s. Although Guthrie penned the folk world’s anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” and was the lightning rod for countless aspiring folk singers, it was Seeger who transcended Guthrie’s era and others that came after it; writing, performing, teaching, preaching, reviving folk traditions, and then ensuring their perpetuation. If there was a cause, be it musical, populist, or conservationist, you could count on Seeger to be there, singing out his support. He is as American as Abraham Lincoln in his nobility, his love for his country, and his relentless support of the rights of the individual.
A member of an esteemed family of musicians and folklorists, Seeger was born on 3 May 1919 in New York City. His father, Charles, was a noted ethnomusicologist; his mother, a concert violinist. Seeger attended college at Harvard, but dropped out after becoming entranced with folk music after his father took him to a folk festival in Asheville, North Carolina. In 1938, he hoboed around the U.S., riding the rails while meeting performers such as Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, and Earl Robinson. His father introduced him to Alan Lomax, and Seeger spent the next two years learning to play the banjo and studying the vast folk music archives at the Library of Congress.
When the Almanac Singers were formed before World War II, Seeger helped lead and organize the group, playing at rallies and contributing pro-union and anti-fascist songs. After serving in the army during the war, Seeger continued his support for labour unions by helping to found People’s Songs, the notorious leftist organization of the late ’40s. During this time, Seeger rode the campaign trail with Henry Wallace and after the demise of People’s Songs, helped organize the Weavers, the group that set the standard for the oncoming ‘folk music revival’. The Weavers soon became victims of the blacklist, which all but destroyed their careers in the early 1950s. In 1955, Seeger himself became a martyr when he invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer any questions posed by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) about his political background.
Surviving the Communist witch-hunts, Seeger inspired thousands of would-be musicians to learn to play the five-string banjo with his many recordings for the Folkways label. As ‘Johnny Appleseed’, Seeger penned a long-running column in Sing Out! the folk music Bible that helped disseminate folk songs through articles, printed transcriptions, and record reviews. Since Seeger could not get any gigs himself, he passed his folk traditions on to others through his column, keeping his music alive.
In the ’60s, he was banned from appearing on television’s Hootenanny programme, but continued on, joining the peaceniks and protesting the war in Vietnam. In the process, he penned some of the decade’s best-loved songs, including the Byrds’ “Turn, Turn, Turn” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. Seeger also was responsible for helping transform an ages old hymn (“We Shall Overcome”) into the anthem of the anti-war movement.
Seeger’s dedication toward conservation led to his spearheading the cleanup of the Hudson River, which he counts as one of his proudest achievements. Through all these years, Seeger soldiered on, and today, in his mid-80s, he is the patron saint of folk music. He has outlived Guthrie by more than three decades, yet modestly dismisses his role as America’s folk laureate.
During his long career, Pete Seeger has managed to deftly juggle traditional folk ballads and instrumentals with topical and political songs that were both timely as well as powerful. We have included a generous and balanced sampling of these on this CD. Songs in the former category include the country dance tune Cindy, the cowboy song Git Along Little Dogies, and a medley of instrumentals played on the banjo (Banjo Pieces). Seeger’s abilities on the banjo have always been understated in comparison with his talents as a singer and performer. But Seeger’s musical versatility on the banjo enabled him to play traditional country, blues, classical, jazz, Spanish, and other ethnic styles with great virtuosity.
As a youngster learning to play in the late ’30s, Seeger was especially attracted to records by Uncle Dave Macon, the grand old man of the Grand Ole Opry. As a result, Seeger’s first 78 for the Charter label featured renditions of two songs made famous by Macon, Cumberland Mountain Bear Chase (which Macon recorded as “Cumberland Mountain Deer Race”, based on an 1850s poem entitled “The Wild Ashe Deer”) and Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy (Macon’s first hit in 1924). The latter song was paired on one side with Jimmie Rodgers’ “T” for Texas (aka “Blue Yodel”).
Like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger liberally borrowed melodies from traditional sources. Solidarity Forever featured words by Ralph Chaplain, one of the early leaders of the I.W.W. (The Industrial Workers of the World, commonly known as the ‘Wobblies’). Burl Ives sings Chap-lain’s lyrics to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which is followed by Seeger’s talking blues verses. The song became popular on scores of picket lines. Ironically, Ives would violate the concept of solidarity by not only cooperating with the HUAC in 1952, but also fingering many of his fellow folk singers, including Seeger, as having attended Communist supported functions.
Theodore Bilbo (1877-1947) was a senator and former governor of Mississippi who, in 1945, wrote letters to constituents using racially offensive terminology. Bob and Adrienne Claiborne were New Yorkers who took particular offense to Bilbo’s insensitivity and penned the biting Listen, Mr. Bilbo, explaining how some of America’s most important personages came from other lands. The song first appeared in the March 1946 issue of People’s Songs Bulletin.
The gathering storm clouds of the HUAC inspired Seeger and Lee Hays to pen The Hammer Song (aka “If I Had a Hammer”), written to warn of the dangers to liberty loosed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. It was one of two songs issued on the first 78 recorded by the Weavers in 1949. The other side was Banks of Marble, a song that was triggered by the post-war recession and subsequent rising unemployment of 1948. A struggling apple farmer from Newburgh, New York named Les Rice wrote the song, which was introduced by Seeger to a hootenanny audience in New York. In time, members of labour unions would include their own verses describing other wretched working conditions among laborers.
Talking Atom (aka “Talking Atomic Blues”) was written by a Los Angeles newspaperman named Vern Partlow. Performed in the style of Woody Guthrie’s “Talking Dust Bowl Blues” (itself a take on Chris Bouchillon’s original “Talking Blues” from 1926), the song was discovered by singer Sam Hinton in a 1947 issue of People’s Songs Bulletin. Partlow ended up being targeted himself by the HUAC, got fired from his job, and ended his days working in a paper box factory in Colorado.
Another early Weavers song, Wasn’t That a Time, was written by Walter Lowenfels and Lee Hays, using classic images from U.S. history to show how the HUAC was violating Americans’ civil rights. The HUAC’s response was to accuse Hays and Seeger of ridiculing these American events. After he testified before the committee (and revealing nothing), Seeger sang Wasn’t That A Time for the throng of reporters waiting outside.
Impressions of Pete Seeger are as varied as are his talents. Carl Sandburg called him ‘America’s tuning fork’. The Limeliters’ Lou Gottlieb said of Seeger, “He was the slickest professional amateur I have ever seen in my life.” Awarded the presti-gious Kennedy Center Honor in 1994, Seeger was called “the living embodi-ment of America’s traditions in folk music.” As the genre’s elder statesman, Seeger has not only outlived all of his erstwhile roommates in the old Almanac House, but also his vitriolic detractors from the deepest, darkest years of the blacklist era. Today, Seeger and his wife of sixty years, Toshi, live modestly in a house he built himself in upstate New York.
In his autobiography, Seeger told a story that summed up his own ever-positive personality and attitude towards life. As he tells it, there was a small peace demonstration in Times Square that consisted of a young Quaker carrying a sign. A passerby ridiculed him and queried, “Do you think you’re going to change the world by stand-ing here at midnight with that sign?” The young man replied calmly, “I suppose not. But I’m going to make sure the world doesn’t change me.”
– Cary Ginell (folklorist, radio broadcaster, and
award-winning author of four books on American music. He lives in Thousand Oaks, California)
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