Monday, March 9, 2009

A re-played hammer

Rewind to around the New Year of 1963, before the illusory Moment of Hope (here's to you, Harold!) and before the Great Loss of Faith (thank you, LBJ).

Imagine a young Malcolm (most things are possible if one really tries), in his cold-water Ballsbridge flat, gentling the stylus into the groove of a borrowed LP, which is being spun on a dodgy Dansette.

The disk is the eponymous Peter, Paul and Mary.

Then, when he was still -- if only just -- a "teenager", Malcolm needed not to be wholly embarrassed by those sleeve-notes:
... there seems to be something optimistic, something encouraging about this whole musical experience. Peter, Paul and Mary's first album is bright with enthusiasm. No gimmicks. There is just something GOOD about it all. Good in the sense of Virtue, that is. And the news that something this GOOD can be as popular as this is can fill you with a new kind of optimism. Maybe everything's going to be all right. Maybe mediocrity has had it. Maybe hysteria is on the way out. One thing for sure in any case: Honesty is back.
In reality, though, he knew he was being sold a commercial product.

PP&M were a confection by Albert Grossman: "a tall blonde (Mary Travers), a funny guy (Paul Stookey), and a good looking guy (Peter Yarrow)".

And yet ...

PP&M were earning their ticket. Notably, at the 1963 March on Washington for "jobs, justice and peace": an event consciously imitated during the recent Presidential Inauguration.

Today ...

Now Malcolm continues to rebuild his iTunes library following the aforementioned Great LaCie Terabyte Disaster -- a neat, elegant product, but it definitely doesn't bounce. So, this evening, just that album came up for reloading.

For the first time in many years, then, Malcolm heard it through, from beginning to end, with its curious admixture of nursery songs and stirring uplifts.

He realised why he was caught all those years ago: it probably came out of that -- now hackneyed -- If I Had a Hammer.

Stop there!

That is a song with a history.

Pete Seeger and Lee Hays (both of the Weavers) had put it together as a political piece around 1948-49, in support of the Progressive Party. The younger element may need a prompt here: the Progressive Party nominated former Vice-president Henry Wallace for the 1948 Presidential Election. Wallace had the support of most on the Left, including (tacitly) the American Communist Party and the New York-based American Labor Party. The main lump of the Progressive vote (all 2½% of the national vote) came from New York State.

The song was the cover-piece of the very first issue of Sing Out! magazine. It was in the repertoire of The Weavers. There is a YouTube clip in which Lee Hays remembers how the song became a mainstream standard:

Malcolm refuses to consider how much of that success may have derived from Mary Travers' thrashing hair and dominatrix expression. Sphere: Related Content

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