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In the folk song "If I Had a Hammer" by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, there's a recurring set of lyrics regarding the hammer, bell, and song that go like this:

And 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

Similar lines are given for the bell that would "ring out" and the song that would "sing out". Now a recurring confusion for me since I was a child was how the lines are meant to be read. My initial understand, as a child, was that it was the removal of said items since dangers and warnings were bad things, and ever since my parents explained what incest was (I honestly don't remember the context, but my parents were big on answering any question given to them to the best of their ability no matter how awkward or odd), I knew that love between brothers and sisters was a bad thing. Later, as an adult, I realized that the love was meant to be a more platonic or familial love, and not necessarily about blood relations, and I also learned that the one line generally read "hammer out a warning" rather than "hammer out warning", so it was more signaling those things. Alternately, I can see where they could be using different versions so that maybe you're getting rid of danger by hammering it out, sending out a warning by hammering it out, and spreading love by singing it out.

Is there a canonical meaning to the lyrics, perhaps by the Weavers or the original folk hymns they based it on?

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  • I don't understand why you're talking about incest or a lot of your other theories, but there's a lot online about the song e.g. on SongFacts, LiveAbout.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 10:03
  • @StuartF: As a child, I genuinely believed that the "love between my brothers and my sisters" was a bad thing because I knew siblings weren't supposed to do anything sexual with each other. :) Kid understanding. Commented Mar 18, 2022 at 12:44

2 Answers 2

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I believe that the phrase "hammer out" in this song refers to the process of creating some metal object by hammering it against an anvil. A blacksmith is often said to "hammer out" a nail, a sword, or whatever object is being formed. The process is to place the hot metal against the cold anvil, and strike it with the hammer to change its shape. In short, here "hammer out" means "create".

I wpould suggest that specifically "Hammer out Danger!" means not creating danger, nor getting rid of danger, but creating a signal of danger, like a warning sign. The image is of the words "DANGER!" and "WARNING!" coming from the clang of the hammer on the anvil, I think.

"Ring out" of course is a common term for what bells do: "Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky". Similarly "sing out" is a very common term for either calling loudly or singing vigorously. No doubt the repetition of "out" tying these lines together was the reason fore choosing these particular phrases.

I also think that "my brothers and my sisters" here is being used metaphorically to mean "all people" and the love is harmony and good fellowship, not sexual love. (I now see in the comments that the OP had already recognized that the early impression on this point was incorrect.)

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  • ^_^ I thought I'd clarified that my confusion as a child about what "love between my brothers and my sisters" was something that I stopped being confused about as an adult. Any insight on "ring out" and "sing out"? Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 19:20
  • @Sean Duggan I have edited my answer to respond, see above. Commented Mar 22, 2022 at 22:19
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Similar to David Siegel's answer,

This song's usage of the word "hammer out" is really a reference to an ancient blacksmithing technique. During the pre-industrial period, it was customary for humans to create iron objects using a variety of processes and instruments, such as hammers and anvils. This includes the creation of bowls, horseshoes, and jewelry, as well as swords and other weapons (among many other things). The conventional procedure is repeatedly hitting hot metal against itself until it becomes pliable enough to be moulded into any desired shape by pounding on both sides simultaneously with two hammers of differing sizes - one bigger than the other.

Therefore, when Seeger uses "I'd hammer out danger" in his lyrics, he is referring back to this technique metaphorically, suggesting that if we had our own personal 'tools,' symbolised through speech/music/words etc., then perhaps we could reduce existing dangers within society and create a more equitable future where love reigns over all land – much like what forging did on its primitive level! The same holds true for his other phrases, such as "I'd hammer out warning" and "singing a song of love amongst my brothers and sisters all throughout this nation" - in each case, Seeger is addressing different social evils that are susceptible to being altered/reduced by our collective use of language. In essence, the poetic picture offered here suggests that words conveyed with deliberate intent may effect change - symbolically "hammering out" those threats into the desired form, as if they were hot steel.

"Love Between My Brothers and Sisters" must be seen in the perspective of Seeger's many songs pushing for racial equality and civil rights, as well as songs referencing particular events like as the Vietnam War. Consequently, "I'd hammer out love amongst my siblings" is often viewed through an ideological lens; that we may utilize our powers/resources (symbolized by hammers) to create mutual respect among all people - regardless of class or color.

Ultimately, it should not go overlooked that this song was composed with heavy political connotations during McCarthyism, when speaking freely about intercultural understanding was harshly punished - making Seeger's lyrics all the more potent within the context of his time.

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  • Strange that you regard blacksmithing as pre-industrial. It is still a thriving and productive industry.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 15:05
  • Then I must be mistaken, but in a strange sense, it's great that it's continuing going. Thank you.
    – Adzetto
    Commented Dec 10, 2022 at 16:26

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