Hammer Songs

We have three songs on this concert program that use a hammer as a central image. And there are more folk songs about hammers, like the Lead Belly classic “Take This Hammer”:


Were Pete Seeger and Lee Hays thinking partly of John Henry when they chose a hammer to be the tool of justice in “If I Had a Hammer”? Maybe–they’re certainly talking about work that needs doing. It’s work that you can do all morning, all evening, and all over this land. Part of the reason the song has been so successful and has spread so far over the world (with versions in many different languages) is its lack of specificity. It requires something of the listener; it requires that we fill in the blanks: where do you see injustice that needs to be hammered out? What dangerous developments should you be calling attention to? What actions can you take to strengthen the love that binds us together so we can do our common work?

I first learned of Steve Earle’s friendship with Pete Seeger when I heard him singing “Bring Them Home” as the credits rolled in the Pete Seeger documentary, “The Power of Song.” Since most of us don’t have Pete Seeger’s work ethic, the vision in “Steve’s Hammer (for Pete)” of laying the hammer down seems appealing, especially if he’s laying the hammer down because the struggle is through and things have improved.
“When there ain’t no hunger and there ain’t no pain, I won’t have to swing this thing. When the war is over and the union’s strong, I won’t sing no more angry songs. When the air don’t choke you and the ocean’s clean and the kids don’t die for gasoline . . . one of these days I’m gonna lay this hammer down.” Earle covers a lot of ground in this song, and he traces this social justice work directly to the work of John Henry. Maybe it’s not just that he’s imagining John Henry’s work as having been on behalf of everyone and on behalf of justice but also that he’s entreating us to work as hard as John Henry worked (well, almost as hard, being mindful of our heart health).