Sunday, February 23, 2014

Pete Seeger Gave Me a Hammer… for Life…

I never met Pete Seeger, but he gave me one of the happiest summers of my life!

After my sophomore year at Randolph-Macon Women's College, an elite school for bright females in Virginia, all-white (then), Methodist, conservative, I got a job through our Sociology Department as a camp counselor at the Henry Street Settlement House Camp, way up north in Westchester County, New York.

One of my duties was leading group singing—and soon a brand new song landed in my lap—that changed my life forever!

"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."

(We didn't know at that time that this had been published that very June in NYC at a testimonial dinner for the leaders of the Communist Parry of the USA. It later became a Freedom Song of the American Civil Rights Movement!)

I'd always loved folk music and took to this song like a fish to water and soon every child in the camp and their resident mothers were singing it.  I could feel it bonding us all together!

I'd had two close friends in high school in Norfolk, whose names were Hofheimer and Gerst. It never occurred to me they and I were different. We went to different houses of worship—but—it was never a dividing line in our friendships.

One day, relaxing in a circle of the young mothers of my pre-school campers (the women were about my own age, all from the Lower East Side of New York City), I admired their pretty neck jewelry.

"You all wear a star of David," I said. "I wish I had one too."

An immediate silence fell on the group.

Finally, one young mother said, tentatively, "You IS Jewish, ain't you?" Silent eyes stared at me—but all were friendly. We were, after all, on the same team… trying to give a summer experience away from the big city in the summer heat to their tiny sons and daughters.

Finally, it dawned on me. "No," I replied, wishing the ground would open up and swallow me! (We looked alike—my hair was dark and I had a deep tan then.)

Suddenly, the silence broke. Everyone beamed. The woman put her arm around me and everyone drew in close. "That's all right, honey," she said, radiantly. "You could pass for one of us—any day!"

Later, that same summer, I returned to my long-term place on the staff of my Girl Scout Camp on the shores of Lake Prince, near Suffolk, Virginia, Camp Matoaka. I took my accustomed place as the camp song leader and drama director.

I couldn't wait to bring my knapsack of new, inspiring songs to my old campers, little girls with black and white faces from Tidewater, Virginia!

Soon the shores of Lake Prince rang out nightly around the campfires with about a hundred little Southern Scouts holding hands and singing, "If I had a hammer!"

Thank you, Pete Seeger—you gave me one of the happiest summers of my life. I know you know that, looking down from where you live now!!!

P.S. Dear readers, you probably saw the letter in the NYT recently that back in the late 1960s, when Pete was invited to a concert in NYC, and they were scared stiff re his political leanings... when he walked on stage to thunderous applause—his first song—was… "The Star Spangled Banner"!!

P.P.S. Please share with me and our gang here at Crime Writer's Chronicle if you have any memories of "If I Had a Hammer" or Pete Seeger's other wonderfully inspiring music.

© 2014 Thelma Jacqueline Straw


  1. Thanks, Margaret. Fascinating how deep in one's bones a song can burrow and stay for years and years... tjs