"If I Had a Hammer," by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays

History of an American folk song

Peter, Paul, and Mary
ITA-International Talent Associates / Public Domain

"If I Had a Hammer" was written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays in 1949 and was first recorded by their band the Weavers. The Weavers were one of the first bands in popular music to seize on the traditions inherent in the evolving field of folk music, dig up old traditional songs, and create brand new songs in that same tradition. Their music was heavy on harmonies and acoustic instrumentation, bringing the acoustic guitar into the front of the band as a primary instrument in the performance of folk music (though Seeger's banjo was also a focal point).

More than a decade later, in 1962, the folk revivalist trio from Greenwich Village Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded the song and enjoyed much greater success with their version. Trini Lopez also recorded it a year later. Numerous other artists from around the world have recorded versions the song throughout the years. Between the Weavers' recording and that by Peter, Paul, and Mary, the song has had such wide, intergenerational success that it's become part of the fabric of American folk music. This is due in part to its repetitive, accessible lyricism, how the same basic structure is repeated from verse to verse with some lyrics being switched out. It's almost childlike in its simplicity, which has made the song accessible to children. But, don't be fooled by this childlike quality — the lyrics, especially in their day, were a pretty radical declaration of allegiance to the pursuit of justice, equality, and peace. When the Weavers recorded it, the song was a little ahead of its time, but by the time Peter, Paul, and Mary got a hold of it, the tune fit perfectly in the context of the social struggle in the 1960s.

"If I Had a Hammer" in Historical Context

When Seeger and Hays wrote the song, it was a bit of anthemic support for the emerging progressive movement, which was focused heavily on labor rights, among other things. The lyrics allude to the labor movement, taking symbols from the workplace and turning them into calls for action toward equality. Indeed, both Hays and Seeger had been a part of the labor movement-focused song collective called the Almanac Singers. The Almanacs disbanded at the onset of World War II, as many of them (including Seeger) joined the war effort. But, when the war was over, Seeger and Hays — along with Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman — got back together to form another folk music troupe, this time aimed at achieving commercial success with the form. Though the Weavers were aiming at mainstream audiences, their socio-political interests were still very strong, so the development of "If I Had a Hammer" was a wonderful attempt to straddle the fence between their radical background and the palatable nature of popular music. 

The first two verses talk about re-purposing a hammer and a work bell. The third verse talks about "ha[ving] a song," which is likely a reference to the history of labor union songs, as well as a symbol of people collectively using their voices to speak out on their own behalf. The final verse reminds the listener that they already have a hammer, a bell, and a song, and it's up to them how they use those items.

"If I Had a Hammer" and Civil Rights

Although the Weavers didn't achieve great commercial success with the song, it did resound in certain circles. By the time Peter, Paul, and Mary recorded it in 1962, the tune's meaning had evolved to fit the emerging civil rights movement. The hammer and bell symbols were still powerful images, but the more key line at this time was the refrain that sang about "love between my brothers and my sisters," and the final verse's "hammer of justice"/"bell of freedom" line.