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Scott Alarik

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What Lead Belly Taught Pete Seeger About Songwriting––And Swinging a Hammer

What Lead Belly Taught Pete Seeger About SongwritingndashndashAnd Swinging a Hammer

Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter

There is a strange “mistake” in the way the blues giant Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter sings the work song, “Take This Hammer.”
        Three times, he sings, “Take this hammer, carry it to the captain.” After each “hammer,” he inserts a pause, filling it with a hard expelled breath: “Whaa!” But on the final “carry it to the captain,” he slows to a stop, as if applying brakes over a full measure, completely knocking the song out of time. Then he instantly resumes the normal beat, concluding the verse with “You tell him I’m gone, tell him I’m gone.”
        Few noticed the slow stop that throws the song off rhythm. Those that did assumed it was one of those anomalies you should expect from itinerant musicians unschooled in standard composition and music theory.
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        But there was nothing about Lead Belly that struck Pete Seeger as unschooled, at least in the disciplines of his own music. He was a master songwriter, an encyclopedic collector and interpreter of his culture’s folk music. He was also a brilliant guitarist (Pete picked up the 12-string guitar from Lead Belly), and a pristine rhythm player. You could set your watch to that man’s groove.
        So Pete asked Lead Belly why those extra beats were there. The giant black man smiled, as if pleased that someone finally noticed.
        “That’s cause of what it’s like on a chain gang,” he answered, “swinging that hammer all day. You sing the song for the men working. Every line, they swing that hammer. ‘Take this hammer.’ Swing! ‘Carry it to the captain.’ Swing! ‘Take this hammer.’ Swing! That’s why I put that ‘Whaa!’ in there, the way they push that breath out when they bring that hammer down.”
        “But,” Lead Belly said, “always before that last swing, you got to give the men a little rest, lean that hammer back on their shoulder, take in a deep breath before that final swing. ‘Whaa!’ See? You got to slow it, let them rest that hammer. Got to have that.”
        It was a revelation to Pete, and he always sings that song with that “incorrect” tempo change. Lead Belly was explaining much more than why a sudden slowness disturbed the rhythm. He was revealing an entirely different aesthetic for songwriting. “Take This Hammer” was not written to be sung in plush theaters or comfy coffeehouses, but among hard men doing hard work, to give that work a pulse, a purpose. And a moment of peace.
        So what we would think of as ragged composition is actually brilliant composition, as precise, purposeful, and brilliantly conceived as any passage in a Bach cantata, Beethoven symphony or Beatles tune. The need for men to rest their heavy hammers, draw a decent breath, and a second’s rest, is artfully woven into the melodic and rhythmic structure of “Take This Hammer.” It is sheer genius––but only to those schooled in the unique compositional intelligence of folk music. Music is not always about how it sounds; sometimes, it’s about the job it does, how it helps people do what they need to do.
        I don’t know if Pete had that in mind when he suggested changing “We Will Overcome” to “We Shall Overcome.” But he certainly was applying what he’d learned from his old friend. The change was not made for lyrical reasons. Pete was thinking about the song’s purpose, its utility––how it was going to be used by the people singing it.
        In the 1950s, Pete, Guy Carawan, Highlander music director Zilphia Horton, and a few others gathered at the Highlander school, a training center for labor and civil rights organizers. They were looking for a single, defining anthem protesters could sing on marches, something that would symbolize them and their cause. Pete has explained that he suggested the change because he thought “shall” was a better sound for the slow marches from churches to city halls, and down crowded city streets to the segregated businesses they were protesting. In fact, on the published version of the song, the tempo is described as “with quiet determination.” Pete thought the word “Shall” would open the mouths more and be heard more clearly in the open air.
        Pete learned from people like Lead Belly that songs are more than the sum of their music and poetry. They are what they do for the people who use them, whether that’s a slow-walk to freedom, a hard pull on a ship’s bowline to the lilt of a sea chantey, or a few seconds of blessed rest before swinging that hammer down again. In “Take This Hammer,” the music teacher’s compositional mistake is the chain gang’s saving grace note.