If I Had a Hammer!
February 4, 2007
The Rev. Jane Page
If I had a hammer
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 my brothers and my sisters
All over this land.
I was fortunate enough to hear Pete Singer sing this and other songs written by him at General Assembly in 2005. Yes, Pete is a Unitarian Universalist and sings his faith. Although I had heard and sung the song, “If I had a hammer” for most of my life – I didn’t know much about the history of this song. In preparation for sharing with you today, I found out some interesting information about this song and its creators, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays. It was written in 1949 – one year before I was born. The two collaborated on it by passing a napkin back and forth at a meeting they were attending. It became the first song recorded by Seeger’s group, The Weavers. The songwriters call it “A Collectors Item” – because only collector’s bought it.
It seems that this song was extremely controversial! Why was this simple song of justice, freedom, and love, controversial?
According to Seeger:
“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. […] No one could take these away.” (end quote)
It was becoming dangerous to be a performer if you were suspected of having left-wing views and in the fall of 1949, Seeger faced his most dangerous concert of all. The venue was Peekskill, New York State, where on September 4, 1949, Pete appeared at an outdoor show that turned into one of the most terrifying and violent events in the history of pop music.
The concert had been planned for the previous month, when it was advertised in a Communist newspaper, but crowds had blocked the roads, beaten up some of the organizers, and it had to be called off. But the performers and the organizers decided that the show should still be held – this time on Labor Day. Supporters provided protection around the site, and the performance actually went ahead. And Pete Seeger sang “If I Had A Hammer.”
Only when the concert was over did the trouble really start. The performers were ambushed as they left the show by residents of the community who had been whipped up into an anti-Communist rage. Seeger escaped, covered in glass, his car dented with rocks.
The next year when the Weavers were temporarily on the charts, their manager wouldn’t let them sing the hammer song in concerts. Lee Hays reported that the manager said, “I’m trying to cool down the blacklisters; that song would encourage them.” So they stuck to their less controversial songs like “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” and “Goodnight Irene.”
During the communist witch-hunts of the early Fifties, however, the Weavers were blacklisted, resulting in canceled concert dates and the loss of their recording contract with Decca Records. Under congressional subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Seeger asserted his Fifth Amendment rights, scolding the committee, “I am not going to answer any questions as to my associations, my philosophical or my religious beliefs, or how I voted in any election or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked.” Unlike many entertainers and writers who careers were ruined in the McCarthy era, Seeger stood his ground and persevered – even though he was sent to jail, albeit briefly, for defending his beliefs. (Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Website)
Now the version of “If I Had a Hammer” that is most familiar to us was recorded in 1962 by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Seeger says that they changed the melody a little – but, the interesting thing is that you can sing both melodies together and they harmonize. Their recorded version also includes the change made in 1952 in the lyrics for the song. It was a young radical activist, Libby Frank, in 1952 who insisted on singing “my brothers and my sisters” instead of “all of my brothers”. Lee Hays resisted the change at first. He said: “It doesn’t ripple off the tongue as well. How about ‘all of my siblings’?” He finally gave in. And the version we all sing now includes “my brothers and my sisters” – and it ripples off the tongue just fine!
The song became popular as both a Civil Rights song and an Anti-war song in the 1960’s and 1970’s. And it’s reportedly gaining new life today in Iraq as soldiers there attempt to find creative ways to speak out against the war.
The song is used for so many progressive causes, not only because of its roots with left leaning personalities, but also because of the message that was initially intended. And that message is that if we have the tools – and we do – we should use them for justice, freedom, and love.
One man found a way to put that message in a more literal context. Millard Fuller, originally from Alabama, was one of these “go-getter” young men that made money fast. While still in college, he and a friend started a marketing firm and he had made a million dollars by the time he was 29. But as his business prospered, his personal life began to fall apart and he and his wife were headed for divorce. This personal crisis led him to rethink how he was living his life.
This soul-searching led to reconciliation with his wife and to a renewal of his Christian commitment. The Fullers then took a drastic step, a “leap of faith,” if you will: They sold all of their possessions, gave the money to the poor and began searching for a new focus for their lives. This search led them to (Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located near Americus, Ga., where people were looking for practical ways to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ.
With Koinonia founder Clarence Jordan and a few others, the (Milton and Linda) Fuller initiated several partnership enterprises, including a ministry in housing. They built modest houses for their rural southwest Georgia neighbors on a no-profit, no-interest basis, thus making homes affordable to families with low incomes.
Homeowner families were expected to invest their own labor into the building of their home and the houses of other families. This participation reduced the cost of the house, increased the pride of ownership and fostered the development of positive relationships between neighbors. Money from mortgage payments went into a revolving fund, enabling the building of even more homes.
So the seed for Habitat for Humanity was planted in rural southwest Georgia in the early and mid 70’s. Now the location was important – because that area is the home for the man that would become our President in 1976. So that seed that was planted by the Fullers got a really good dose of fertilizer with the involvement of Jimmy Carter. With the publicity provided by President Carter’s participation, Habitat found more supporters and has been growing ever since. According to their website, Habitat International has built more than 200,000 houses around the world, providing more than 1,000,000 people in more than 3,000 communities with safe, decent, affordable shelter.
Now you all may or may not have heard that the Fullers are no longer with Habitat. As the organization grew, there were more and more disagreements between Millard Fuller and the board of directors. Although some charges of sexual harassment by female employees didn’t help the situation, those were not the primary problems. Jimmy Carter attempted to ameliorate the controversy and was able to negotiate an arrangement in which Fuller would stay on as the Founder /President with duties that were primarily related to fund-raising. However, because he continually spoke out openly against the board in this role, they actually fired Fullard and his wife, Linda in 2005. Now this information is not on Habitat’s official website. The website if very positive about its founder and just indicates that he was the president till 2005. I had to do some more research to find out what happened. In any case, the Fullers have since started a new housing program called Fuller Houses. They don’t see this as competing with Habitat and still are encouraged with the growth of the seed they planted. But they wanted to continue their work and they are doing it with a new organization.
Although the Habitat organization has grown tremendously, the basic philosophy begun by Fuller has not changed. And this includes something called, The Theology of the Hammer! When I first proposed that we join with the Presbyterians to build this house, one of our board members pointed out that Habitat was a Christian organization. And many of us do not share a traditional Christian theology. And that is true. But Habitat for Humanity has adopted – the theology of the hammer. To provide more understanding of this, I’m going to quote from a section of their website entitled, Building Beyond our Differences – The Theology of the Hammer.
Habitat for Humanity International is a Christian ministry that welcomes everyone – regardless of religious preference – to share our vision of a world without poverty housing. Habitat was founded with the idea of following Jesus’ example of caring and compassion for all people. Therefore, Habitat stresses that everyone is welcome to participate and build houses with people in need…. Habitat provides an opportunity for people to put their faith and love into action, bringing diverse groups of people together to make affordable housing and better communities a reality for everyone.
Although they call their economic philosophy, “the Economics of Jesus,” they are actually pulling from Jewish and Islamic teachings regarding “no interest” loans to those in need and they quote Hebrew scripture as their source of inspiration for this.
Habitat is finding that their Interfaith projects can build more than houses – they can build respect and good will. For example, “The Holy Toledo Build” in Ohio brought together Christians, Jews and Muslims to build a home, but the result was a symbolic gesture that broke down many barriers and led to the creation of new and powerful friendships.
Millard Fuller said that building relationships among people of different faiths creates a certain tension, “but it is a healthy tension that we can live with and be strengthened by. We don’t have to quit being a Christian ministry in order to invite our Muslim friends and our Jewish friends or people of other persuasions to be full participants in this work. You don’t have to exclude Jesus to include others,” he proclaims.
Habitat is a partnership founded on common ground — bridging theological differences by putting love into action. (And) Everyone can use the hammer as an instrument to manifest (divine) love.
Of course, building houses takes more than a labor of love. Habitat requires their partners to provide funding for materials as well. We are fortunate that most of the start-up funds for this house were provided through a memorial gift by the JD and Doty Dunn who have been active supporters for Habitat for some time. But we still need to raise additional funds and we want to do our part in that effort.
And we need YOU!
At the break we hope that you will stop by the table in the back and do at least one of the following. (1) – bye your own tickets! You don’t want to miss this! (2) – sign out an envelope of tickets to sell to your family and friends. You can return those you don’t sell – but it’s certainly worth a try. Read my Ministerial Muusings in this month’s newsletter for some good reasons to do this. Now if you don’t like to sell tickets – you can do what some of us are doing, and that is to buy them and give them away to your family and friends. And (3) – sign up to help us. You can help us with art projects for the children, cleaning up, or any of a number of opportunities. And none of these require a hammer. THIS TIME.
I recently found out the date when we DO need those hammers. I received the latest edition of the Bulloch County Habitat for Humanity newsletter on Friday with the news that the house co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has a tentative start date of March 2. If you haven’t already signed your name on a hammer indicating that you will help in some way – whether it’s fundraising, helping with a lunch for workers, or actually hammering away on some Spring Saturday, please do so!
(Sing) If I had a hammer, I’d tell you what I’d do. I’d hammer in good lovin’ and I’d work on a building too! (Invite congregation to join in chorus of “I’m workin’ on a building”)