Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

December 26, 2013

If I Had a Hammer, I'd Kick Out the Jams

The year is 1962, and rock 'n' roll is dead. Elvis is in the army; Little Richard has retired to preach the gospel; Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash; Chuck Berry is in jail for sexual indiscretions. And the British Invasion, spearheaded by four mop-topped geniuses, has yet to begin. Bob Dylan is a young Woody Guthrie acolyte, finding his way fast but still a few years from plugging in.

Certain revisionist rock critics (hello, Dave Marsh) will point to early-'60s doo-wop, girl groups, surf music and the various dance crazes as proof that this was no fallow period at all. In this alternate universe, rock 'n' roll flourishes in the fine work of Dion and the Belmonts, The Shirelles, Dick Dale and Chubby Checker.

Sorry, Dave, not buying. It's all pablum to these ears.

So, let's accept that the music, if not dead, was at best on life support. Meanwhile its respectable collegiate cousin, folk music, was booming. Literally, I'd say. Check this out.

Did you catch that? Mary Travers can barely contain her shake and shimmy, Paul Stookey and Peter Yarrow strum like the devil's on their tail, and the three belt out Pete Seeger's paean to justice, freedom and love in soaring, open-throated joy. (And doesn't Mary's head-bobbing bring to mind that of The Beatles a year or so later on The Ed Sullivan Show? Discuss.) There's no rhythm section, no electricity—the hallmarks of rock 'n' roll—but they'd be redundant. Ladies and gentlemen, these white-bread folkies are kicking out the jams. In 1962!

Whether or not they knew or admitted it, they dug rock and roll music. With "If I Had a Hammer," Peter, Paul & Mary were the closest we came to the frenetic, kinetic thrill of rock in 1962. So roll over Dave Marsh, and tell Brian Wilson the news: until The Beatles hit big, this was it. There was nothing else.

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