Festivities are planned throughout this weekend in celebration of the 100th birthday of folk-music pioneer Pete Seeger. Born May 3rd, 1919, in Manhattan, Seeger’s songwriting and political activism would for decades go hand-in-hand, leading to the folk revival of the late Fifties and early Sixties, which were bolstered by such Seeger compositions as “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Turn!, Turn!, Turn!” and the civil-rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
One of Seeger’s earliest songs that would be a hit more than once was “If I Had a Hammer,” written with Lee Hays, the bass singer for folk group the Weavers, for whom Seeger played banjo. Composed by the pair in support of the 1948 Progressive Party and the presidential campaign of former vice president Henry A. Wallace, “If I Had a Hammer” was first performed in 1949 at a New York dinner for the leaders of the Communist Party of the United States. A decade later, the tune would become a major pop hit for Peter, Paul and Mary and also for Trini Lopez. Although the song’s sing-along lyrics made it popular with children, they also conjured indelible images of the “hammer of justice” and the “bell of freedom” and put the power to use such symbolic items in the hands of the people, echoing the struggles of the labor and civil rights movements.
Seeger, who also wrote songs that would become country hits for Billy Grammer (“Gotta Travel On”) and Jimmie Rodgers (“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”), was largely blacklisted from appearing on TV in the early Sixties, but after his performance of “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” was censored from an episode of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967, he later returned to perform the song. Soon after, he would be a guest on ABC’s Johnny Cash Show.
On Seeger’s 53rd birthday in 1972, Johnny Cash and his wife June entered their House of Cash studio to record their version of “If I Had a Hammer” for Cash’s Any Old Wind That Blows LP. The album featured guitar players including Carl Perkins, Red Lane and Larry Gatlin, and this hard-driving “Hammer” spotlights that instrument to great effect, with June Carter Cash growling her way through the refrains to Cash’s lead vocal and adding harmony as well. Released as a single in July 1972, the lively rendition of “If I Had a Hammer” barely dented the Top 30 on the country chart but was a staple of the couple’s concert tour throughout that summer and into the following year.
Today also sees the release of a career-spanning six-disc set of Pete Seeger music from the Smithsonian Folkways label. The collection features 20 previously unreleased recordings by Seeger, who died in 2014.