Sunday, September 30, 2012

If I Had a Hammer

Protest Songs/Message Music: Part 3

A paradigm for 1960s folk music, Peter, Paul & Mary were known for their prolific political activism involving the peace movement and other causes. Written by Pete Seeger (an iconic figure in the folk music revival) and Lee Hayes in support of the progressive moment in 1949, "If I Had a Hammer" was first recorded by their group The Weavers, who inspired the "folk boom" that followed in the early '60s. The folk song was not much of a success until Peter, Paul & Mary recorded it over a decade later in 1962 for their debut album. Released that August, "The Hammer Song" became a Top-10 hit and became an anthem for the Civil Rights movement. The trio even performed it at the 1963 March on Washington, which also featured fellow folk musician Bob Dylan (from this post), as well as Martin Luther King Jr's infamous speech. Here's an excellent TV performance of this timeless classic.
 Our next emotional civil rights-themed ballad comes from British Invasion group The Hollies. Written by Bob Russell (who was dying of cancer at the time) and Bobby Scott, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" used the old motto for Boys Town for its title, and it was reported at the time that song was about a Vietnam veteran. This vet saw a little boy carrying the dead body of a younger boy away from a burning village, and when asked if the body was heavy, he replied: "He's not heavy, he's my brothers." This statement is a figure of speech (known as a paraprosdokian) in which the second half of the statement causes the hearer to reinterpret the first part. Released in September 1969, this moving tune reached #7 in the US and #3 in the UK, where it was also re-released in 1988 (paired with "Carrie Anne"), reaching #1 after its use in a commercial. While the studio recording features a young Elton John on piano, here's a powerful performance by The Hollies and lead singer Allan Clarke (with introduction by famous radio DJ Kasey Kasem). Now this is beautiful songwriting!
Our next 1960s era anti-war song comes from Canadian folk-pop group Original Caste who were known for their rich, tight vocals and clean sound. Written by group members Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, the 1969 song "One Tin Soldier" was a #1 hit in Canada and managed to reach #34 in the US. Telling an abstract story of a hidden treasure and two neighboring peoples, the lyrics are a parable condemning prejudice and greed. The song was revived in the 1971 when a version by Jinx Dawson and her band Coven was featured in the soundtrack for the film Billy Jack, hitting the charts in 1973 and again '74 after the end of the Vietnam War, and was named the Number One All Time Requested Song of '71 and '73 by American Radio Broadcasters Association. With the beautiful vocals of Dixie Lee Innes, here's a live performance recording (audio only) of the initial group Original Caste.
Our final tune comes from folk/pop group The Kingston Trio, one of the most prominent bands in the revival of folk music in the late 1950s to the late 1960s. Beginning as a San Francisco Bay area nightclub act, the trio released 19 albums that made the Top-100, 14 of which were ranked in the Top-10, and 5 of those hit the #1 spot. One of the group's most successful singles was "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" which reached #21 on the US chart in the 1962. The first three verses were written by Pete Seeger in 1955, and the additional verses were added by Joe Hickerson in 1960, who turned it into a circular song (about the cycle of history and how impossible it is to break). Gaining wider meaning during the Vietnam War, it later has been listed as the "Top 20 Political Songs" (by New Statesmen). Here's a 1966 performance by The Kingston Trio on The Andy Williams Show (R.I.P. Mr. Williams!).

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