Almanac Singers, The

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Almanac Singers, The

Almanac Singers, The, political American folksinging group. Although they existed only from 1941 to 1943, The Almanac Singers profoundly influenced the development of topical songwriting. Their impact was felt especially in the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Almanac Singers was more a musical collective than a set group; a large number of full- and part-time members participated during its brief existence. The genesis occurred in December 1940 when Pete Seeger met Lee Hays (b. Little Rock, Ark., March 14, 1914; d. North Tarrytown [now Sleepy Hollow], N.Y., Aug. 26, 1981) through his friend Pete (John Peter) Hawes (b. 1917; d. 1973); Seeger and Hays were each working on songbooks of labor union songs. They began to sing together, their first appearance coming at the Jade Mountain Restaurant in N.Y. Soon they were joined by Hays’s roommate, aspiring writer Millard Lampell (b. 1919; d. Oct. 3, 1997). Their songs reflected the current Communist party position supporting the 1939 nonaggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. They consisted for the most part of new lyrics written to familiar folk and country tunes. The trio gave their first major performance at the national meeting of the American Youth Congress held in Washington, D.C., Feb. 7-9, 1941. Soon after, they adopted the group name and began living communally.

The Almanac Singers recorded their debut album, Songs for John Doe (a six-song set of three 78-rpm records), probably in March 1941. For the recordings, singer/guitarist Josh (Joshua Daniel) White (b. Greenville, S.C., Feb. 11, 1915; d. Manhasset, N.Y., Sept. 5, 1969) and bass singer Sam Gary joined Seeger, Hays, and Lampell. The songs contained scathing attacks on war in general and Roosevelt and the draft in particular. The album was released in May by the independent Keynote Records label, which, due to the controversial content, issued it on the newly created Almanac Records imprint. Probably the same month, The Almanacs, now including Bess (Elizabeth) Lomax (b. 1921) and White’s wife, Carol, recorded a second album of union songs, Talking Union, that included “Which Side Are You On?” (music and lyrics by Florence Reece) and “Union Maid” (music and lyrics by Woody Guthrie, additional lyrics by Millard Lampell). The album was released by Keynote in June.

A late-May appearance before the striking Transport Workers’ Union at Madison Square Garden led to The Almanac Singers being booked for a tour of union gatherings across the country by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). On June 22, Germany attacked the Soviet Union, causing Keynote to withdraw Songs for John Doe from record stores. Within days, Guthrie, who had been on the West Coast writing songs for a documentary film, returned to N.Y. and was invited to join the group on tour. To finance the trip, they contracted to General Records and held a recording session on July 7 to cut a series of nonpolitical folk songs. At the session, The Almanacs consisted of Seeger, Hays, Lampell, Pete Hawes, and Guthrie. They then bought a car and set out, but Hawes, suffering from pneumonia, dropped out within days. General issued the recordings as two albums, Deep Sea Chanteys and Whaling Ballads and Sod Buster Ballads, over the summer. The Almanac Singers performed before union gatherings across the upper Midwest, reaching San Francisco by early August. Hays dropped out due to illness, and the remaining trio moved on to Los Angeles. Lampell stayed there (later returning to N.Y), but Seeger and Guthrie continued to tour as The Almanac Singers, going to the Pacific Northwest and then heading east through Mont, and Minn. They reached N.Y. in October, joined the other Almanacs, and rented a townhouse, dubbed Almanac House, in Greenwich Village, where they held weekly rent parties. They also performed, in varying lineups, around the N.Y. area. Their repertoire began to de-emphasize union songs and emphasize songs reflecting more sympathetic sentiments about the war, such as Guthrie’s “Reuben James/” which commemorated the sinking of an Allied ship. After Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, their songs, notably “Round and Round Hitler’s Grave,” became as militant as earlier ones had been pacifistic.

In the charged atmosphere of the times, The Almanac Singers attracted mainstream attention. Their appearance on the nationally broadcast radio series We the People in January 1942 led to interest from the William Morris booking agency and the major label Decca Records. On Feb. 14 they appeared on the radio series This Is War, which was broadcast simultaneously on all four networks. Three days later N.Y. newspapers published stories recalling their antiwar songs of the year before and their ties to the Communist party, effectively destroying their hope of broad popular acceptance. They recorded their fifth and final album, Dear Mr. President, for Keynote, at which time the group consisted of Seeger, Lampell, Lomax, bass singer Arthur Stern, Pete Hawes’s brother Butch (Baldwin) Hawes (b. 1919; d. 1971), and singer/accordion player Sis (Agnes) Cunningham; it was released in May.

In April the group had traveled to Detroit and performed for the United Auto Workers. Their reception, and the promise of defense work, led several members to move to Detroit in June, and Lomax, Stern, Butch Hawes, and Charlie Polacheck set up a satellite edition of The Almanac Singers that performed extensively for union gatherings throughout the Midwest. Meanwhile, the N.Y. group, now sometimes featuring such performers as Cisco (Gilbert Vandine) Houston (b. Wilmington, Del, Aug. 18, 1918; d. San Bernadino, Calif., April 29, 1961), Brownie McGhee (Walter Brown) (b. Knoxville, Tenn., Nov. 30, 1915; d. Feb. 16, 1996), and Sonny Terry (Saunders Terrell; b. Greensboro, N.C., Oct. 24, 1911; d. N.Y., March 11, 1986), continued a fitful existence. Seeger joined the military service in July, and other members soon followed. More press attacks in January 1943 effectively ended the group; a final Almanac Singers performance, featuring Stern, Cunningham, and Polacheck, took place at Wayne State Univ. on Feb. 17.

Following World War II, many former members of The Almanac Singers met on Dec. 30, 1945, and set up People’s Songs, Inc., an organization that fostered the writing and performing of left-wing folk songs and published the People’s Songs Bulletin starting in February 1946. Subsequently, People’s Artists, Inc., the Weavers, and Sing Out! and Broadside magazines, all featuring former Almanacs, carried on the group’s work into succeeding decades. Talking Union was reissued on LP by Folkways in 1955 and remains in print. In 1996 three reissues brought all of the group’s recordings into print on CD: That’s Why We’re Marching: World War II and the American Folk Song Movement on Smithsonian Folkways; The Almanac Singers: Their Complete General Recordings on MCA; and Songs for Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs and the American Left, 1926-1953 on the German Bear Family label.

—William Ruhlmann