A while back, Perkins School of Theology issued a call for labor hymns–songs that “focus on the struggles, hope, and agency of working people and their communities.” Of course I had to write something! Here’s a Guitarchestra recording and the PDF leadsheet. And here’s how I described the song’s genesis in my submission email:
When I began thinking about the task of writing about labor and faith, especially something that could be used in rallies or marches, I was immediately drawn to the idea of using a work song from the African American tradition. Whether the song of slaves, chain gangs, or railroad workers, these songs have deep resonance with the struggle of the American laborer and the ability of music to celebrate and enable work. They also have a long tradition of empowering the poor to protest the powerful.
“This Old Hammer” is the perfect tune to draw on, because it specifically explores the tension of human labor in an increasingly automated the world–the human as one more expendable tool. In “This Old Hammer,” John Henry takes on “the Man” and his technology. As I thought about the song it struck me that, like John Henry, Jesus had plenty of experience with a hammer. His early years were spent in a physical trade. If Jesus is to be our example for faith and life, certainly there is dignity on the work of our hands!
The five verses included here explore various aspects of Jesus ministry and apply those to our work as laborers or as people who fight for the rights of laborers. Like most work songs, the verses could easily be expanded or ad libbed: “If my Jesus fled his country, let the refugee labor on,” etc. As you can hear on the recording, the song can easily be sung in a leader/people echo, so there’s no need for paper or Powerpoint, just a good enlivener.