If I Had a Hammer: David Rovics’ songs of social significance

This column originally appeared in the March-April issue of Canadian Dimension magazine. View this issue here. The Popular Front is a regular column by Sean Carleton, bringing politics to arts and culture.

I am always surprised to learn how many people have not heard of American folk singer David Rovics. Since 2000, Rovics has released over 25 records and is arguably one of the most prolific and political songwriters of the 21st century.

His songs are always sharp, sometimes funny, and unashamedly advance a radical agenda for social justice. As well, Rovics is an indefatigable performer, traveling the world and playing gigs just about anywhere someone will organize a show; he has toured Canada many times, from Halifax to Victoria.

While other politically conscious musicians such as Ani Difranco and Bruce Springsteen have softened somewhat in recent years, Rovics’ songs of social significance continue to offer crucial lessons for people struggling to change the world today. Rovics’s new album, If I Had a Hammer, further establishes his revolutionary voice and message.

On his new record, Rovics explores a number of important issues and themes related to the current capitalist crisis. In “Kick It While It’s Down,” Rovics pulls no punches in pronouncing, “I’d say the verdict now is clear / capitalism really sucks.” He contextualizes the widespread destruction caused by privatization and corporate greed and then he suggests, “Let us now look through a different prism/let us work for the common good / let us put an end to capitalism / let us do now as we should … and … kick it while it’s down.”

In “Everything Can Change,” Rovics admits that anti-capitalist organizing often seems like an impossible task; however, he argues that “if all the people work collectively / there might just be something we can do.” Moreover, he reminds us that “everything can change / so quick.” Thus, in “If I Had a Hammer”—which bears no resemblance to the 1949 Pete Seeger and Lee Hays classic—Rovics encourages listeners to feel empowered to make change: “I am just one person, but you are too/And if you had a hammer what would you do?”

Although largely focused on American politics, If I Had a Hammer has many songs that address Canadian issues, including two which examine the environmental and social dangers of Alberta’s tar sands. “There’s an oil boom / the Prairies are on fire” sings Rovics on the track “Oil Train.” He further describes how trains are being used to transport oil across the continent: “send them west, send them east/there’s an oil train coming through your town.” Rovics calls attention to this hazardous practice—“there’s an accident each day somewhere” and then references “Rue Frontenac” and the Lac-Mégantic derailment that killed over 40 people in Québec in 2013.

Similarly, “Pipeline” denounces corporate plans to build pipelines from the tar sands: “They say you can’t stop progress / I hope that isn’t true / cause if we mine the tar sands, if we let the pipeline through / it will be a pipeline to oblivion / a pipeline to the end / a pipeline to a future with nothing round’ the bend / a pipeline to a future that I hope we’ll never know.” “Oil Train” and “Pipeline” are songs that deserve a wider audience in Canada. That being said, Rovics only briefly mentions Indigenous protests; this neglect is something I hope Rovics will address in future recordings.

Music is a popular and powerful political tool. Industrial Workers of the World singer Joe Hill once said, “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over.” We would do well to add If I Had a Hammer to our political playlists and to learn from David Rovics’ songs generally as we build our movements to bring about social change.

Sean Carleton is an activist, educator, and writer living in Nogojiwanong (Peterborough), Ontario. He is a PhD candidate at the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies, a founding member of the Graphic History Collective, and an author of May Day: A Graphic History of Protest.

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