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.

 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.”

In 1934, at the age of twenty, Lee Hays returned to Little Rock to work with Claude Williams, a Marxist and Presbyterian minister. Williams had already lost his church by organizing coal miners. Now the two men organized sharecroppers. It was here that Lee developed a talent for creating what he called “zipper songs”—radicalizing old hymns by “zipping in” new lyrics. “It’s that union train a-coming-coming-coming,” Lee would sing with his comrades on “The Old Ship of Zion,” ready “to break into the old hymn words if gun thugs should appear.”

Hays and Williams joined the staff of Commonwealth College (an institution whose goal was “to train new leaders for a new and different society in which the workers would have power”), where Lee taught Workers’ Dramatics, focusing on “drama as a weapon for union organization.” He was so enthusiastic about union songs and folk music that it was decided that Lee should form a singing group. “The whole school chipped in and raised $65 to send me to New York,” Hays said.

On the way, Lee met Woody Guthrie in Philadelphia. After less than a week in New York, he was introduced to Pete Seeger and Millard Lampell. Soon after, the four men formed The Almanac Singers, a group that became the blueprint for 20th century folk music, and one that Woody Guthrie described as “the only group that rehearsed on stage.”

When someone asked what the name stood for, Lee had this reply: “Well, if you want to know what the weather is going to be, you have to look in your Almanac. And if you want to know when to plant your spuds, or what side of the moon to dig ‘em in, or when to go on strike, and if you want to know what’s good for the itch, or unemployment, or Fascism, you have to look in your Almanac.”

In New York, Hays and Seeger bonded with Lead Belly, who taught them hundreds of songs. Lead Belly had escaped the South and his time there in various penitentiaries to make a career in music. In 1937, Life magazine published an article about him titled “Lead Belly: Bad Nigger Makes Good Minstrel,” which suggested he “may well be on the brink of a new and prosperous period.”

One of the songs the two men must have heard Lead Belly sing was “Take This Hammer,” a variant of the John Henry legend. The American Communist Party, which Lee Hays supported but never joined (“If Communists liked what we did,” he once said, “that was their good luck”) had already seized upon John Henry as a black working-class hero. “The Ballad of John Henry” was as much an anthem to the radical left as it was with Southern mill workers.

In 1946, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger (along with musicologist Alan Lomax and others) founded People’s Songs, a music publishing company focused on furthering their political cause of pro labor political action. During its first board of directors meeting, the two men passed a sheet of paper back and forth like schoolboys, collaborating on a lyric. The composers premiered “The Hammer Song” on June 3, 1949 at a testimonial dinner for leaders of the Communist Party of the United States charged under the Smith Act, an anti-sedition law. Pete Seeger performed it on Labor Day at a concert in Peekskill, New York, followed by an hour-long performance by Paul Robeson. (This was a rescheduled date—the concert was called off a few days earlier when protesters blocked roads and beat up some organizers.) When a riot started again during the Labor Day performance, crowds burned folding chairs and a wooden cross. They pelted Seeger’s car with stones, breaking almost all the windows. He took two of the rocks and incorporated them into the fireplace of the new home he was building.

“The Hammer Song” was the first recording made by Hays’ and Seeger’s new group, The Weavers. “If I had a hammer,” Lee Hays sings after a short guitar introduction:

I’d hammer in the morning

I’d hammer in the evening

All over this land

I’d hammer out danger

I’d hammer out a warning

I’d hammer out love between all of my brothers

All over this land

Pete Seeger’s melody is burdened but hopeful. His banjo playing is almost jaunty, but there’s a spiritual component to the chords—a weighty minor here and there—that speaks of the sacrifices optimism demands.

It’s difficult, at this remove, to understand why “The Hammer Song” would have caused such a fuss. “Why was it controversial?” Pete Seeger asked years later. “In 1949, only ‘Commies’ used words like ‘peace’ and ‘freedom.’ The message was that we have got tools and that we are going to succeed. This is what a lot of spirituals say: we will overcome. I have a hammer. The last verse didn’t say ‘But there ain’t no hammer, there ain’t no bell, there ain’t no song, but honey, I got you.’ We could have said that! The last verse says ‘I have a hammer, and I have a bell, I have a song.’ Here it is. ‘It’s the hammer of justice, it’s the bell of freedom, the song of love.’ No one could take these away.”

“It was a collector’s item,” Lee Hays used to say about the record. “Nobody but collectors ever bought it.”

A year later, riding high on a number one hit with a Lead Belly song called “Goodnight Irene,” The Weavers’ manager still wouldn’t let them perform “The Hammer Song.” (“I’m trying to cool down the blacklisters,” he told the group. “That song would encourage them.”) In the end it didn’t matter; The Weavers were blacklisted anyway and, unable to get bookings, broke up in 1952.

Pete Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee on August 18, 1955. Chief Counsel Frank Tavenner produced a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker from June 1, 1949, promoting the premiere of “The Hammer Song.” After dogged questioning, Seeger addressed Tavenner directly: “I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion,” he said, “and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir. I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.”

Seeger invoked the First Amendment, arguing that the committee had no right to question him on his political beliefs. He was convicted of contempt and sentenced to a year in prison, but the indictment was overturned the next year and Seeger wasn’t sent to prison. Lee Hays took the Fifth, claiming later that doing so basically broke his heart.

Seven years later, Peter, Paul & Mary released a cover of the two men’s song, now titled “If I Had a Hammer,” on their debut album. It became a Top 10 hit and earned them a couple Grammys.

A year later, in 1963, Trini Lopez’s Latin-inflected version reached No. 3. The lyric had already been altered a little, thanks to fellow activist Libby Frank, who suggested changing “all of my brothers” to “my brothers and my sisters.”

“It doesn’t ripple off the tongue as well,” Lee Hays quipped. “How about saying ‘all of my siblings’?”

The later, popular versions modified the melody as well. Seeger noted this in later interviews, but pointed out that the various versions harmonize with each other, calling it “a good moral for the world.”

“As a matter of fact,” Seeger continued, “I’m convinced that musicians have got a more important role to play in putting a world together than they’re usually given credit for. Because musicians can teach the politicians: Not everybody has to sing the melody.”

And so it happened that Lee Hays and Pete Seeger emerged from the radical margins to become the fathers of folk music and the godparents of rock and roll. Pete took to the role more publicly. Lee Hays moved to a cottage on a half-acre along the Hudson, where he puttered in his garden, hosted musical admirers, wrote articles on folk music and mystery stories for Ellery Queen, and gradually lost his legs to diabetes.

In 1965, Pete Seeger had a television show on a New York UHF station, WNJU Channel 47. It was called Rainbow Quest, and Seeger hosted many of his old musician friends in an empty soundstage on a set made to look like a down-home living room. The ones who couldn’t make it, like Lead Belly (who died in 1949), or Woody Guthrie (dying in nearby Brooklyn of Huntington’s Disease), were given tribute. On the 36th episode, in 1966, Pete hosted folk singer Hedy West, “banjo-picker extraordinary” Paul Cadwell, and Mississippi John Hurt.

John Hurt recorded “Spike Driver Blues,” his early ode to John Henry, for Paramount Records in 1928. Paramount folded, and subsequent recordings for the Okeh label didn’t sell, so Hurt returned to sharecropping. “Spike Driver Blues” was issued on Harry Smith’s epochal “Anthology of American Folk Music” collection in 1952, bringing Hurt and other artists from the 1920s and 30s back into public consciousness. By the time of his appearance on Rainbow Quest, Mississippi John Hurt had been “rediscovered” by blues enthusiasts and was touring the folk festival circuit and making new recordings to great acclaim.

Hurt performs “Spike Driver Blues” again on Rainbow Quest, at Pete Seeger’s request. “John Henry,” Hurt says. “He could drive more spikes than two men. I know why he could drive more spikes than two men. He was double-jointed. He had a hammer in each hand…and he’d hit the double-lick, you know—bam, bam, bam-bam—like I hit these strings.” And so John Hurt begins to play, in his lilting, finger-picked style, a song that has only one chord; a chord that worries about how to resolve even unto itself, lingering on the note below root note, like a troublesome thought that keeps you from sleep.

This version of “Spike Driver Blues” isn’t too different from the 1928 version, except when Hurt modifies a lyric.

John Henry he left his hammer

All painted in red

All painted in red

…still suggesting that the steel-driving man might have gone down after violently resisting his oppressors. It’s part of the legend’s hidden history, one kept largely in the African-American community, never mentioned in songs about the man’s race with a steam drill.

As the performance ends, Hedy West turns to Mississippi John Hurt. “Why did he have a red hammer?” she asks, as the screen fades to a black and white image of a rainbow over a lake.

Hidden histories tend to stay hidden, like the one about John Henry rebelling against a racist system. It didn’t work for the people who wanted him to be a folk hero or a political symbol or a stand-in for the struggle of the working class. It was tucked away but ever returning, like an intrusive thought, insistent until given expression. John Henry had died almost a century before, but could still not find rest.

There was a hidden history for Lee Hays too—his closeted homosexuality—something musicologist Jeff Sharlet writes about movingly:

“Have you ever been married?” acquaintances who didn’t know better (which was most of them) would ask, and Lee would crack his broad thin lips in a grin, his little liquor-soaked teeth like a row of corn on the cob, and tell a tale about his first time, way back when, with a “golden-haired girl,” in a Confederate cemetery; no more questions, please.

Denying undeniable parts of ourselves or one another doesn’t lead to easy stories. It means people like Pete Seeger will talk about “a unifying thing—basic humanity” to an inquisitor who will find him in contempt. It means we will make a hero out of a man we refuse to know, just so he can belong to us better, or sing a song about having the tools to succeed, even when our very voice will not be fully recognized.

Read part one of “Hammer Songs.”

Read more from Tom Maxwell’s History of American Protest Music.

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Correction: October 5, 2017
This article originally stated that Peter Seeger spent a year in prison for a contempt conviction. He did not, as the indictment was overturned the next year. We regret the error.

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Tom Maxwell is a writer and musician. He likes how one informs the other.

Editor: Mark Armstrong; Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel