Sunday, November 22, 2015
Pete Seeger, PS 197 and Kindergarten - "If I Had a Hammer"
This post is for my Kindergarten teacher at PS 197 in Brooklyn,Mrs. Gerber. Read on and you will find out why.
Of all the songs we learned as kids, few have had as many obstacles thrown in its way as was the case with the iconic song “If I Had a Hammer.” Most folks will remember the song as being a smash hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in the late 1950’s. But the songs beginnings were steeped in controversy when the Weavers did their original version of it in 1949 at the Peekskill concert with Paul Robeson, and then when the song was published in the “Sing Out” collection of songs the following year. People actually cancelled their subscriptions over this song.
Pete Seeger had spent the war years working as a Merchant Mariner aboard cargo vessels. After the war; in 1948; he founded the folk group known as the Weavers. They did folk songs along the line of Woody Guthrie, along with some original compositions and other folk ballads from around the world.
Their first hit was a 45 RPM with “Tzena, Tzena”as the A side; a song much heralded at the time by Israeli soldiers; backed with “Goodnight Irene”, written by Leadbelly, on the B side. It was a hit on Decca Records, which couldn’t press the record fast enough to keep up with the demand.
By 1957 they were banned from most radio stations and all of TV. Seeger would not be seen on a major network again until 1968 when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show. It all began with “If I Had a Hammer.” The House of Un-American Activities; which they clearly were; was in the middle of its decade long sweep of the entertainment industry looking for subversives; or Communists, when they set their sights on The Weavers and Pete Seeger.
HUAC was not only aimed at the Hollywood crowd; they were also involved with policing the meaning of song lyrics such as “The Rock Island Line”; and later on even “Louie, Louie”. For “Louie, Louie” the FBI infamously spent over one year and 100 agents in order to come to the conclusion that they had no idea what the lyrics were; let alone what they meant. With “If I Had a Hammer” their job was much simpler.
The song speaks about a hammer; the Soviet Union used one in its flag. The song spoke about “the danger” and “the love between my brothers” all across this land. (Peter, Paul and Mary added and my sisters to the lyrics for their recording, in addition to some changes in the melody.) Surely these “brothers” were comrades in the sense that they were allied with communism. And, as if that weren’t enough, the HUAC committee was very concerned just what was meant by “freedom” and “justice”. (You have to laugh when you think that hey actually had to ask that last question!)
Seeger was charged with 10 counts of Contempt of Congress in 1955; a badge which he wore proudly; and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His appeals went on in a court fight which lasted until 1962. And, although his career was interrupted, his fight was celebrated by his many loyal fans. In 1969 he launched the Clearwater Campaign to clean up the Hudson River in New York and was an activist until his death.
Here he is in 1956; already charged and being tried for Contempt; singing the song anyway. This is one of the earliest versions in which he sings “my brothers and my sisters.”
Now, here’s the part which will explain why this is dedicated to Mrs. Gerber;
We were actually singing this is Kindergarten at PS 197 in Brooklyn. It was 1959 and HUAC was still going and the blacklist had just been "broken" with Dalton Trumbo being listed as a screenwriter on "Spartacus". I have to wonder what risk the teacher was taking by using that song in class. New York's Feinberg Law of 1949 placed a security officer in charge of each school district. Their job was to know the politics of every teacher. Reading the wrong book could preclude your being hired. And voting the wrong way could get you fired.
In 1955; only 4 years before my Kindergarten teacher sang this song with us; New York City teachers were required to inform upon their colleagues political views. Refusal meant dismissal. Of 40 teachers who were ordered to do so; 35 submitted and the remaining 5 were actually fired. In all, 60,000 public school teachers in NYC alone were investigated and 500 were forced to resign or were fired for political views. One actually committed suicide. That Mrs. Gerber sang this song with the class is a tribute to her individuality. The Board in charge of the Feinberg investigations remained in force for 2 more years; disbanding in 1961.