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A History of American Protest Music: ‘We Have Got Tools and We Are Going to Succeed’

Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 4, 2017 | 2,439 words
Posted inArts & Culture, History, Nonfiction, Story

A History of American Protest Music: ‘We Have Got Tools and We Are Going to Succeed’

Lead Belly, Lee Hays, and the hammer songs that powered the folk movement.
Illustration by Aimee Flom

 Tom Maxwell | Longreads | October 2017 | 10 minutes (2,439 words)

Read part one of “Hammer Songs.”

Lee Hays was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. He learned to sing Sacred Harp—the traditional shape-note choral music—in his father’s church. Just as he reached his teens, Lee’s life fell apart. His father died in a car accident. His mother lost her mind from grief. The Great Depression wiped the family out, preventing Lee from attending school. He ended up in Cleveland, Ohio, working as a page in a local library. Here the 16-year-old Lee Hays—already over six feet tall, blue-eyed and sandy haired—became radicalized.

“Every book that was considered unfit for children to read was marked with a black rubber stamp,” Hays remembered. “So I’d go through the stacks and look for these black stamps. Always the very best books. They weren’t locked-up books, just books that would not normally be issued to children—D.H. Lawrence, a number of European novels. Reading those books was like doors opening.”

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