Pete Seeger, whose name pretty much means folk music, died at aged 94 this week.
Rest in Peace.
This is one of his most famous songs, and probably the most covered. It was co-written in 1949 with Lee Hays, of the Weavers, the group which first recorded it.
If I Had A Hammer has general lyrics lending themselves to wide applicability. The message of love and justice and freedom was popular with the American civil rights movement. The tirelessness tenacity of not giving up, swinging hammers and ringing bells, also clearly exemplifies the dedication of Seeger to the many causes he believed so greatly in.
Romance is in the air at Christmas time. A persistent man wishes a date would not end, not truly because it is cold outside, but that he does wish to warm up with his girl. In 1940 this was charming. It still is. The interwining melodies just bounce! But Baby, It’s Cold Outside has been revisited in modern times for representing excessive pressure on a woman despite “no” meaning “no.” Date rape and violence against women are real and all too common. This song was not intended to be about that and nor is this post meant to put a humbug pox on Christmas. It is just interesting how the meanings of songs can be re-interpreted to make political points. It may not be fair to read into things what was not intended to be there?
A California plane crash in 1948 killed a number of migrant workers seeking to return to Mexico after a term of seasonal labour. Guthrie felt that their tragic deaths should have been better honoured, such as by some media reports that failed to identify the victims by name. The implication is that Mexicans were not considered equal to other Americans. A memorial was finally erected in tribute, in 2013.
Apparently, Woody only spoke the words, and music was added much later by others. Here is Woody’s son, Arlo, singing the song for us:
The true author of this song is unknown, as befits an authentic folk song that is adapted over time. It is somewhat based on an African-American gospel hymn, “I’ll Overcome Someday,” although this is disputed. It was Pete Seeger who popularized this most well-known of civil rights tunes in the late 1940s. Martin Luther King referred to the song days before his death.
Since then, the inspiring, yet general message – a promise of deliverance from tough times – has been sung for many causes. It is a comforting folk anthem that will forever bring hope to all those oppressed.
Woody Guthrie, from 1940, describes what it’s like to be a poor worker trying to make their way in life, while meanwhile others get rich and richer. This classic song about income inequality has powerful lyrics that are resentful of capitalist icons such as bankers, and reverential toward workers, such as farmers and miners. Guthrie suggests poor people, with no home in this world, wait patiently for respite in the next, presumably heaven. While the song certainly has socialist overtones of animosity toward capitalists, it thus does not go as far as recommending a worker’s revolution that would push it into Marxist and communist territory. Still, perhaps you will find the song is too passive for essentially accepting the lot in life for those that have less.
This is no big news scoop, but one of America’s most famous folk songs, this one, from 1940… which is often considered a patriotic American anthem… was initially composed by author Woody Guthrie with much more critical words.
One such verse was this:
Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me.
The last line is now ironic: that an ordinary person lacking financial means was denied freedom to traverse the great land, because others owned it and were sealing it off. (Guthrie may have been sympathetic to the ideology of communism, which endorses the abolition of all private property).
Perhaps most Americans would nonetheless prefer to stick to the conventional, truncated, yet now saccharine version of this 1940 song. A critique, subverted into a glorification, of all that is the United States of America. Given that folk music by definition is not pinned down and tunes evolve, this makes sense. And since Woody, though no angel, had a sense of humour, he’d probably not mind.
Well, likely many people take this to be a simple song about reuniting with relatives for a Christmas dinner, relatives they haven’t seen since Thanksgiving dinner. But it’s from 1943 and is supposed to be like a letter from an overseas soldier, during the Second World War… he is wishing he could be home to experience not just the love of family, but the accoutrements of Christmas, including snow and mistletoe.
While so many Christmas songs are all about rocking around the tree in a holly jolly mood, please consider the profoundly wistful sadness of the final line of this tune: I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.