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Opinion & Commentary

This post was written by Emily Hamstra, Learning Librarian at the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, in celebration of Banned Books Week.

During Banned Books Week, we spend a lot of time talking about organizations and individuals who pull books from the shelves of schools, libraries, bookstores, and homes. We don’t spend a lot of time talking about the role of publishing in censorship. Banned Books Week allows us to reflect on the effects of censorship, and to celebrate the freedom of readers to find the books they need. Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People is a lesser-known songbook that missed its audience because it was considered too controversial to be published. Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People missed an audience of readers who needed it very much.

In September, University of Nebraska Press reprinted Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People, a songbook of Depression-era labor, union, and life songs. The book was spearheaded by Alan Lomax, the great folklorist and archivist at the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folksong. Woody Guthrie writes a delightful commentary for each song, and Pete Seeger writes the musical notation. Photos from the Farm Security Administration appear throughout. In his introduction to the book, John Steinbeck writes, “You can burn books, buy newspapers, you can guard against handbills and pamphlets, but you cannot prevent singing” (p. xii). In singing, laborers are not one voice but many, in unison, with the same goals, values, and hardships. Their voices are stronger together.

Songbooks like Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People are important for spreading oral culture. People during the Depression needed this book and these songs as they faced hard times. Unfortunately, this book never reached its intended audience. When the book was finished, the Depression was already coming to an end. Songs such as “I Hate the Capitalist System,” “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More,” and “Waitin’ on Roosevelt,” seemed too controversial to publishers as World War II loomed ahead. The fact that Guthrie wrote for the Daily Worker didn’t encourage publishers either. Lomax, Guthrie, and Seeger were all on various FBI watch lists because of their political leanings. In the early 1940s, rumors began about Seeger’s ties to the Communist Party, and in 1955, he was Blacklisted.

Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People was eventually published in 1967, just months before Woody Guthrie’s death. Reviews of the book indicate that the New Left didn’t quite know what to make of it. One reviewer wrote, “What a pity that an editor could not have supplied adequate explanation and interpretation to make this volume more meaningful to this generation and those to follow.” The book had missed its audience.

In the afterword to the 1999 edition Pete Seeger writes that he hopes the songs will reach a new generation of Americans. He urges readers to learn the “true history of the mixed-up part of the world called the USA” through Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People and other books and articles he lists (p. 372). I have learned a great deal from Hard Hitting Songs for Hard Hit People. I love the songs and Woody Guthrie’s commentaries. Often, when I’m pouring over this book alone, I’m saddened that the communities and individuals who needed the book the most never had a chance to read it, sing it, and pass it on.

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