[1980:] Lee Hays and I wrote Hammer in 1949. It was the very first song recorded by the Weavers. A collectors item. ("No one but collectors ever got it.") But nine years later a brand new group of singers, Peter, Paul and Mary, put it on every radio in the country. They rewrote my melody slightly, and most people nowadays sing it as they heard it on PPM's record. I made an interesting discovery, though: both versions can be sung at the same time, and they harmonize with each other. A moral there. (Notes Pete Seeger, 'Singalong')
[1980:] For the old-timers, the feeling [in the early days of People's Songs] was something on the order of a class reunion. At one of the first board of directors' meetings, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays entertained themselves by passing a sheet of paper back and forth, gleefully collaborating on the lyrics for "If I Had a Hammer ..." (Klein, Woody Guthrie 316)
[1985:] [Detailed story of Peekskill incident (see below, 1989) cf. Dunaway, Seeger 18ff.]
[The right-wing magazine] 'Counterattack' and the FBI succeeded in blacklisting the Weavers, but If I Had A Hammer was unconquerable. The song had a specific radical message in 1952; when Seeger suggested the Weavers perform it on bookings, one of them answered, "Oh no. We can't get away with anything like that."
"Why was it controversial?" Pete reflected. "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." The Weavers never had the opportunity to make a hit of this - that honor fell to Peter, Paul and Mary - but they had the satisfaction of seeing that no edict and no committee could kill [the] song. (Dunaway, Seeger 157)
[1989:] It was becoming dangerous to be a performer if you were suspected of having left-wing views, and the following year Seeger and [Paul] Robeson faced their most dangerous concert of all. The venue was Peekskill, New York State, where on 4 September 1949 they both 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 Communist Party, 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. Paul Robeson sang [...] Old Man River, and Seeger sang If I Had A Hammer.
Fifteen years later (after first being revived by Peter, Paul and Mary) the song became a nightclub favourite, and the sing-along, Latin-tinged version by Trini Lopez sold 4 1/2 million copies around the world. In 1949 it was considered dangerously political, with highly controversial lyrics.
Only when the concert was over did the trouble really start. The performers were ambushed as they left the show, for the residents had been whipped up into an anti-Communist fervour [...]. Seeger escaped, covered in glass, his car dented with rocks. (Denselow, Music 13)
[1993:] Peter, Paul and Mary [...] changed my melody of that song (and only then did it "take off".) (Seeger, Flowers 13)
Us Weavers recorded it [...] in the fall of '49, for a microscopic label, Charter Records. Lee Hays used to say, "It was a collector's item - nobody but collectors ever bought it." A year later, when the Weavers were temporarily "on the charts", our manager wouldn't let us perform it. ("I'm trying to cool down the blacklisters; that song would encourage them.") But nine years later [Peter Paul and Mary] had a surprise hit with 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 resisted the change at first. "It doesn't ripple off the tongue as well. How about 'all of my siblings'?" He finally gave in. It was sung in Europe and elsewhere in the '50's, sometimes with variant melodies, sometimes with added verses [...]. Victor Jara, the great protest singer of Chile, made up a version in Spanish. (Seeger, Flowers 38)