For the last couple of years, we have been living on my family’s farm, which dates back to 1791, in a house mostly built by my grandfather, where he lived for 40 or so years; and in fact, where he died. All around me, I see the work of his hands. This house, the barns, the fences, this land, his life’s work. Until very recently, we got our water from the well he dug. He was a farmer.
It is very interesting for me to live with these constant reminders of him all around me. He would never want to call attention to himself, and yet, his memory lives on. It is hard to slack off and sit on the couch eating chips when you live in a house built by Harold Hammett. Trust me, I’ve tried. I see his presence — not like a ghost or a spirit or anything supernatural — but more of a solid thing, the strength of these walls, brick and wood, I see him and I know, it is time to get to work.
Early last year, I was thinking about this, about him, and about the others who worked and lived on this land before me, some of them my ancestors, some of them Cherokee, some of them slaves. Here I am, the beneficiary of so much. Their voices call to me to make something of it. I have tried and I have mostly failed. But I will keep trying. My Grandpa always said, “The only thing that can stop you, would be for you to quit.” It ain’t poetry, but it’s pretty true!
I was thinking about all of these things and had the beginning of a song, just part of the first verse and the melody. It was January 28 and I woke up to the news that someone I admired very much, Pete Seeger, had died the day before. I spent some time that day reading remembrances of those who were lucky enough to know him a lot or a little. The two that meant the most to me were this one, by Jonathan Byrd, and one by Arlo Guthrie, recalling how, after a show they performed together, when Guthrie was ready to kick back with a drink, the 92-year-old Seeger encouraged him to come along with him to join the Occupy protest. “I’ve got two new canes!” he said. How could Guthrie resist such an entreaty? How could I?
I saw a thread of connection there in the song I had been working on and the inspiration I got from Pete Seeger. It is the spirit that calls, not to draw attention to itself, but to call us all to do something. It doesn’t call us with speeches and posturing, it calls with action and it leads by example. I finished the song, “Hammer”, that day. I was not trying to write specifically about any one person, per se, more about that singular voice.
I am still trying to answer its call.