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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
    Mar 18 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. Mar 18 at 12:44

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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. In short, here "hammer out" means "create".

"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"? Mar 22 at 19:20
  • @Sean Duggan I have edited my answer to respond, see above. Mar 22 at 22:19

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