Protest Song of the Week: ‘Take This Hammer’

In the days of slavery and Jim Crow, there was a type of work song commonly sung by black Americans known as the hammer song. Blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Leadbelly, popularized this particular tune.

The work song is constructed in the following form—a line repeated three times for a verse, a line repeated twice for what constitutes the chorus.

For example:

Take this hammer, carry it to the captain
Take this hammer, carry it to the captain
Take this hammer, carry it to the captain

Tell him I’m gone
Tell him I’m gone

Leadbelly’s version may have been inspired by his experiences in prison, but “Take This Hammer” was a sung by numerous people working with a hammer, especially those incarcerated who were forced to do labor.

As the book, Songs of Work and Protest, by Edith Fowkes, Joe Glazer, and Kenneth Ira Bray describes, the “hammer songs” were intended to help “make back-breaking work bearable.”

“When gangs of slaves were swinging their picks or their sledgehammers under the blazing sun, the rhythm of a song could keep them moving more effectively than the whip of the overseer. With the first words, the men would all swing their picks up in the air, and then as a phrase ended they would strike in unison, letting out their breath in a violent grunt,” according to the book.

Listening to “Take This Hammer,” one might think this is more than a song to help one cope with harsh labor. The characters of the song are contemplating rebellion against a brutal bossman or warden. They might act on this notion at some point.

It is a rather popular work song, having been recorded by numerous musicians—including The Beatles, Johnny Cash, Mississippi John Hurt, Odetta, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt, Jimmy Witherspoon, Taj Mahal and Toumani Diabate, and Yusuf Islam. Almost every decade since the 1930s has seen a version of the song recorded by at least one musician.

Here’s Leadbelly’s version, where you can hear him give his version extra definition by letting out a grunt each time the hammer would have been swung:

And then here are three other versions, which show how this is one of those songs musicians probably enjoy recording because they can easily infuse it with their style and make it their own.

Odetta’s version:

Taj Mahal’s version: 


Yusuf Islam’s version:


Are you an independent artist who has written and/or produced a protest song that you would like featured? Or do you have a favorite protest song? Send submissions to protestmusic@Shadowproof.com

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."