Vera Vanderlaan – Freedom Is A Hammer

From the Washington Times, Vera Vanderlaan was a married Vermont woman, pretty, prone to dressing like a senorita… and part of the 1960s counter-counterculture.

Presumed arch enemy, then, Pete Seeger, sang If I Had A Hammer, to which this song may have been a rebuttal of sorts. Vera sings of patriots swinging hammers for liberty, such that it spreads across the land to keep America free. Still, there are “cunning foes” out there (not clearly identified), trying to stop the freedom hammer. We can assume these are the communists!

Contemporary Janet Greene is another obscure “red-baiting” artist: Commie Lies and Poor Left Winger.


Pete Seeger – If I Had A Hammer

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.

For more Seeger songs here, see the Playlist.

Pete Seeger – We Shall Overcome

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.

Rush – Middletown Dreams

Prog rockers Rush, at their concerts, probably see a lot of grey pony tails in the audience. They were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame this year after decades of their complicated, and often philosophical, recordings being adored by a passionate, even cult-like following.

This song, from their 1985 album, Power Windows, is a deep cut with many musical and melodic niceties, though now perhaps dated by the keyboard sounds. It appears to be about suburbia.

We often read and hear how modern life is a an urban one, but it may be more apt to call it a suburban existence: most people don’t live in the downtowns of their city, but on its peripheries. The suburbs are typically criticized for a sameness most famously articulated by folkie Pete Seeger, with Little Boxes. They are also the bane of progressive urban planners who highlight the economic, social and environmental costs of sprawling cities.

Rush nonetheless notes that “life’s not unpleasant” in these neighbourhoods, so long as one holds onto their dreams, whatever they may be.

Elizabeth Cotten – Freight Train

Feminism is an ideology which puts patriarchy at its core. Patriarchy is when socially, politically and economically, men are in authority. Thus they are heads of families, government and business. Women are subordinate. Patriarchy keeps things that way.

Elizabeth Cotten (1893 or 1895-1997) may be an unlikely feminist hero.

As a little girl, she enjoyed playing the guitar. A lefty, it never occurred to her to restring the guitar for a southpaw when turning the guitar over. Consequently, she developed a unique and impressive upside down style. Playing the folk blues style, which features an alternating bass line and syncopated melody and chord notes… well, Cotten played this complicated method in reverse! (Just like the old saying, that Ginger Rogers was a better dancer than her partner, Fred Astaire, since Rogers did the same moves backwards). And back to Cotten, as any guitarist knows, this Cotten-picking style has a technical complexity belied by its apparent instrumental simplicity.

But Cotten, from North Carolina, spend most of her adult life as a maid, not playing guitar at all. Cleaning house for others would fit to the “T” feminist interpretations of subjugation, even if back in the day, such assessments were not common. Too, given Cotten’s race, her low position carries an added dimension of discrimination.

With the amazing coincidence movie plots hang on (or perhaps for a Christian such as Cotton), an answer to prayer, she was “discovered” by über-folkie family, the Seegers, which included Pete. Seeger composed Where Have All The Flowers Gone. Oddly and hypocritically (?), this civil rights activist family hired African-American Cotten to look after their kids and home!

Thankfully for us, Cotten remembered she used to play guitar. The providence of being in the Seeger household got her on the stage for many performances. She became a big part of the folk revival of the early 1960s. She continued to play into her last days.

Freight Train is her most famous song and is timeless, sounding as if it has always existed. It has been covered and/or performed by many artists including Peter, Paul and Mary, Taj Mahal and Bob Dylan. The song was allegedly composed by Cotten when she was around 11-13 years old.

Pete Seeger – Little Boxes

You might know this 1963 song as the original opening music to the television program, Weeds, before protagonist Nancy Botwin literally burned down the suburbia criticized by the tune.

Given that so many people aspire to a detached home in a nice neighbourhood, the brief song is somewhat sanctimonious. Inside those copycat homes can still be vibrant families making contributions to their country. But the song does draw attention to the conformity wrought by urban planning and can remind us of the importance of not following the crowd. Going into business for martini lunches does not have to be the American dream, nor does a rambling folkster life in the vein of Seeger or Woody Guthrie cut it for others.

The dominant paradigm today in city planning is “mixed use” and density,” a shift away from the American Beauty-movie conception of suburbia which only hides so many problems; to combine residential living with businesses: to live on one floor, with a coffee shop and office space in the same building. The thought behind this also seeks to rectify the transportation needs of suburban commutes to downtowns, in the name of the environment. In short, Seeger’s song (actually, written by Malvina Reynolds), has been influential.

Now in his 90s, folkie Seeger continues his activism, at Occupy Movement marches. In decades past he has appeared before the House Un-american Activities Committee, opposed the Vietnam War, helped clean up the Hudson River… the list goes on. A self-described communist once called “Stalin’s Songbird,” in fact he adopts the argument that the atrocities of the Soviet Union were not about the ideology, as it was improperly applied.

Also by Seeger reviewed here: Where Have All The Flowers Gone