While I've got a hammer, and I've got a bell
And I've got a song to sing all over this land
It's a hammer of justice, it's a bell of freedom
It's a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land
(lyrics by Pete Seeger)
Like so many folk songs of the mid-20th Century (Turn, Turn, Turn and Where Have All the Flowers Gone come to mind) If I had a Hammer has resided in my musical memory for as long as I can remember. And all three of those were written by (but made famous when recorded by other people) Pete Seeger, who died just a couple of days before I sat down to write this.
Over the last couple of days I have read many articles about Seeger. One of the things that stands out is that while some people might have suggested that a singer-songwriter made a poor activist Seeger totally disagreed. His banjo had an inscription which stated “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” (apparently following from Woody Guthrie whose guitar said “this machine kills fascists”). Pete Seeger (and arguably others such as Peter Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan) not only believed but KNEW that music could make a difference in society.
Try to imagine the Civil Rights movement without We Shall Overcome. Or the anti-Vietnam movement without Give Peace a Chance. Or the Union movement without Solidarity Forever. Is the music just the soundtrack or is it part of the story?
Given the emotive power music has, the way it can stir our emotions as well as – or even better than – an orator like Martin Luther King, the way it brings people together – how many of those old film clips were people singing with the leadership, not people standing and listening – it seems that music is most definitively part of the story.
So what story shall we sing? Many of us were introduced to the songs of the folk scene through the church in some way. I learned If I Had a Hammer in Junior Choir. I learned Blowin' in the Wind at church camp. Where Have All the Flowers Gone and This Land is Your Land show up in a couple of church-based songbooks in my drawer at home. I have used (not nearly as often as I have been tempted to) Peter, Paul, and Mary music in worship. Why?
There was something about those songs that spoke to the church. Maybe not officially, but that music touched the souls of church-folk (and yes annoyed the heck out some other church folk). I think it is because people of my parent's generation, and those of us who have come after, heard in those songs God's prophetic voice. We hear a vision of how the world could be. We join our voices in song about the world as we wish it was.
What story, what vision, what songs shall we sing? As the world mourns and lionizes Pete Seeger I encourage us to look at what he stood for (something he was never shy about proclaiming). As we sing the “campfire songs” of the folk era I urge us to look at those words, then look at the world, and ask which picture we like better.
Songs CAN surround hate and force it to surrender, music CAN change the world. We are the singers, we choose the song, shall we sing out loud?