One of the elements of the August 28, 1963 March On Washington that is getting a fair amount of attention today on the 50th anniversary of this transformational moment in American history is the fact that music - folk music, in fact - was at the very center of the event and after Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech (which has a definite folk music connection, as we shall see) provided the most electrifying moments of the program that day. Publications like The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, USA Today, and many more have all run thoughtful pieces on the music and the performers, though with degrees of accuracy that seem to me to vary in direct and inverse proportion to the ages of the writers. Younger critics seem to focus on Bob Dylan's presence on stage there, though anyone who watched the event unfold as it happened will tell you that the skinny kid with the scratchy voice was a "complete unknown" that day, dramatically overshadowed by musical giants both young like folk superstars Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary and old like Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson.
It was gospel singing all-time great Jackson, in fact, who prompted the most memorable event of the day - and one of the greatest moments in U.S. history. Jackson had sung the metaphorical spiritual "How I Got Over" at King's specific request, and she was still on the dais when King began his speech, which while rich and thoughtful was not moving the crowd in the way the King was accustomed to do. According to Harry Belafonte, also on the platform and the man responsible for the musical line-up that day, when King paused briefly after speaking for about ten minutes, Jackson, perhaps sensing that the moment called for more than King was at that point delivering, called out, "Tell them about the dream, Martin!" In response, King abandoned the rest of his notes and extemporized the only part of his remarks that today anyone remembers, the sermon-like section that begins with "I have a dream today" and concludes with "Free at last, free at least - thank God Almighty I'm free at last!"
Belafonte had selected and scheduled the performers with great care. In defiance of strong sentiment on the part of some organizers that only African-American musicians should be included, Belafonte insisted on featuring white artists as well. And it was Belafonte who pushed hard for having Dylan as part of the program because Harry B. recognized the power of the Minnesotan's lyrics, even though Robert was yet to attain any fame at all as a performer. The climax was to be and proved to be Joan Baez, only 22 at the time and still possessed of that perfect, clear soprano, leading the other performers and the crowd of a quarter of a million in singing "We Shall Overcome."
That performance was probably co-equal with Jackson's hymn as the musical highlight of the day - but a close second was Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring rendition of the Pete Seeger/Lee Hays "If I Had A Hammer." The song was never specifically a civil rights anthem and started its life as something quite different - but the relevance of its call for justice and love "all over this land" made it a perfectly apt selection, one that inspired a large part of the crowd to sing and clap along. It also allowed the trio to move smoothly into the quieter, more reflective "Blowin' In The Wind," which unbelievably that week was #4 on The Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and had been at #2 the week before.
"The Hammer Song," as Seeger and Hays had originally titled it, was one of the tunes that grew out of the pair's membership in The Almanac Singers, that early 1940s aggregation of political radicals (including Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at times, as well as Bess Lomax Hawes of "MTA" fame) whose sole purpose was to sing at union and socialist rallies. The group had dissolved spontaneously after Seeger and Guthrie joined the armed forces during World War II, and when Hays and Seeger reconnected in 1949 to form The Weavers with Hays' friends Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, a very different kind of group was born.
The Weavers were the first pop folk act in U.S. musical history, or at least the first such troupe whose music transcended regional repertoires and became truly national and international in its scope. The Weavers were originally not at all political in the sense that the Almanacs had been. Their concert set lists for the most part included traditional American folk songs with a healthy dose of world music featured as well. It was not as if Seeger and Hays had abandoned politics at all; rather, the Weavers' family-friendly approach reflected Seeger's articulated belief that people would act together if they could sing together, and there were far more subtle political undertones in the Weavers' shows than had been the case in Almanacs' concerts. Seeger and Hays and the group sang of universal brotherhood and the glories of freedom and the power of working cooperatively - themes that implied but usually did not specifically promote the political agenda of the Almanacs or the unions or the socialists. In fact, when the Red Scare headsman's axe fell and the group was blacklisted in 1952, it was not for what The Weavers had been doing, popular concert and television and radio act that they were; it was for what the Almanacs had done and for Seeger's and Hays' associations with the Communist Party, USA.
While Seeger was likely never a formal party member and Hays was only briefly (he had as strong an anti-authoritarian streak as did Guthrie, another figure who just could not abide the stratified and hierarchical structure of the Communist Party), the first public performance of "The Hammer Song" was by Seeger and Hays in 1949, shortly after the song was composed. The event - a rally for the upper echelon of leadership of the Party, who were on trial in federal court at the time for sedition. Critics went so far as to suggest that the hammer of the title was a reference to the hammer and sickle on the Soviet flag - but there is neither a bell nor a song on the flag, and that supposition was patently ridiculous. Seeger was and remains a walking encyclopedia of American folk music, and he derived the hammer reference from an old spiritual called "Hammering Judgment," an antiphonal call-out spiritual in which the lead voice would intone a line like "God's a-talking to Moses" and the group voices would shout out "Hammering!" The song climaxes with "Tell ol' Pharaoh to loose my people" with the "Hammering!" response again.
The song was lyrically strong enough but at the same time generic and safe enough for The Weavers to record and release it, and the first version went like this:
This version - its rhythm, its pace, its harmony - is the one that all these decades later remains most beloved of a number of my older friends to this day, people who learned the song before Peter, Paul and Mary re-imagined it.
Seeger had known Mary Travers since her teenage years - she was a Greenwich Village child whose parents had worked with Seeger in a number of political causes - and it was she who brought the song into her own group's repertoire. Seeger related genially in a video now gone from YouTube that he thought that PP&M's version, which was considerably faster and more spirited than the original, actually improved the song:
One of Travers' improvements was changing the second-to-last line of the chorus from the original "all of my brothers" to "my brothers and my sisters," a decision whose inclusiveness was more in keeping with the spirit of the song anyway. The performance above, which I think is the best of several PP&M live videos of the tune, came on July 30, 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, a mere four weeks before this performance on the national mall during the March:
Those two moments - Newport and Washington - firmly planted "The Hammer Song" both in the nation's consciousness and in the folk and pop songbag of the U.S. for decades afterward. Cover versions are too numerous to list, but there are a couple that I believe merit special attention. The first is by major early 1960s pop star Trini López:
López was one of the true crossover pioneers. Hard as it may be to imagine today, pop music in the country in the 50s was almost as fully segregated as public transport, and except for the brief flicker of popularity enjoyed by Ritchie Valens (Richard Valenzuela, actually) before his death at 17, mainstream American awareness of Latino music was confined largely to the output of a relatively small number of big bands. López began to change that; his "Hammer" here is unselfconsciously infused with every bit of Latin soul that he can muster, and though it creates an unusually cheery feeling for the song, it was a major national hit, reaching #3 on Billboard's singles chart, also in '63.
Finally - "The Hammer Song" has legs, as the Broadway wags often say, and it is still popping up as an expression of both challenge and of hope. Just this past June, original Beach Boy and folk fan Al Jardine lent his name and prestige to a group called Agit8, which has been recording and promoting protest songs as a means to fight "extreme poverty" and a host of other social ills. Jardine's choice of a tune to record? "The Hammer Song," here with Richard Barone and others:
I like the gusto and enthusiasm of this video - as if "Hammer" were a newly-composed anthem intended to address the issues of our times, rather than a nearly 65-year-old artifact from another century targeting other, earlier, even forgotten conflicts and issues.
I am not at all sure what future, if any, that folk and protest music have in the America of today. I see the grainy videos above with very different eyes than most all of the half of the U.S. population born after 1970 would see them. The 50 years that have elapsed between that day in August 1963 and this moment as I write seem to have evanesced like a dream, and when I hear the song and see videos of the King speech, the emotions of the moment come back to me with a powerful immediacy that belies the passage of time and reminds me of the utter truth of William Faulkner's observation that "The past is never dead. It's not even past." And a finely-crafted, intelligent, and uplifting song like "If I Had A Hammer," perpetually relevant as it is, has a lot to do with why that is so for me.
Addendum - Same Day, A Few Hours Later
The Newport Folk Festival video of Peter, Paul and Mary performing the song was lifted from Murray Lerner's film Festival, which chronicled some of the performances from Newport from 1963 to 1967. An incomplete version of that performance was also included in a documentary on Pete Seeger, during which Seeger talks at greater length about how the song came to be. In the snippet below from that documentary, Seeger credits PP&M with improving his tune: