Weavers, The

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Weavers, The

Weavers, The, American folk-music group. Membership:originally, Pete Seeger, ten., bjo., gtr. (b. N.Y., May 3,1919); Lee Elhardt Hays, bs. (b. Little Rock, Ark., March 14, 1914; d. North Tarrytown [now Sleepy Hollow], N.Y., Aug. 26, 1981); Ronnie Gilbert, contralto (b. N.Y., Sept. 7, 1926); Fred Hellerman, bar. (b. N.Y., May 13, 1927).

The Weavers were the first broadly popular group of contemporary urban folk musicians and singers. Thus, they are a direct influence on such subsequent groups as The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary, as well as on the overall folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. They adapted folk songs from many different countries into their own vibrant style, popularizing a wide range of music, as well as performed the songs of such American folk predecessors as Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie; they also wrote their own material. Their most successful recordings were the singles “Goodnight Irene” /“Tzena Tzena Tzena,” “On Top of Old Smoky,” and “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” and their album The Weavers at Carnegie Hall

Seeger and Hays were former members of The Almanac Singers; they became involved with Gilbert and Hellerman through their work with People’s Songs, an organization that promoted the performance of topical folk music in support of left-wing causes. They first performed together at a benefit for People’s Songs in November 1948. They played at benefits and on local radio during 1949, initially as the No-Name Quartet, then took their name from the 1892 German play The Weavers by Gerhart Hauptmann. In September 1949 they made their first recordings for the independent Charter Records label, which released the single “Wasn’t That a Time” (music and lyrics by Lee Hays)/“Dig My Grave” (traditional Bahamian folk hymn). In December they recorded a second single, “The Hammer Song” (later known as “If I Had a Hammer”; music by Pete Seeger, lyrics by Lee Hays)/“Banks of Marble” (music and lyrics by Les Rice) for Hootenanny Records.

The Weavers were on the verge of disbanding in December 1949 when they auditioned at the Village Vanguard in N.Y Booked into the club for two weeks at the end of the year, they were extended for six months. They signed to Decca Records and their single “Tzena Tzena Tzena” (music by Issachor Miron [real name Michrovsky], revised by Julius Grossman, English lyrics by Mitchell Parish)/“Goodnight Irene” (music and lyrics by Lead Belly), credited to Gordon Jenkins and His Orch. and The Weavers, became a massive hit. “Tzena Tzena Tzena” hit the Top Ten in July, while “Goodnight Irene” topped the charts for months, starting in August; the disc reportedly sold about two million copies.

The Weavers were set to become regulars on a summer replacement television program when Seeger was cited in the publication Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television in June and the contract was canceled. This marked the beginning of the blacklisting of the group for its political views. Nevertheless, they resumed performing and recording following a summer layoff. They enjoyed their second chart single in December with “The Roving Kind” (music and lyrics by Jessie Cavanaugh and Arnold Stanton, adapted from a traditional English folk song), the B-side of which was “(The Wreck of the) John B” (music and lyrics by Lee Hays, adapted from a Bahamian folk song collected by Carl Sandburg).

At the start of 1951 The Weavers undertook a six-month tour of the major nightclubs in the U.S. In February they scored their second Top Ten hit with “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” (music and lyrics by Woody Guthrie), again credited to Gordon Jenkins and His Orch. and The Weavers. They reached the Top Ten for the third time with their second million-seller, “On Top of Old Smoky,” credited to The Weavers and Terry Gilkyson, in April. (Though it was a traditional American folk song, “On Top of Old Smoky” was copyrighted as having new lyrics and arrangement by Seeger. He later denied the credit.)

The campaign against The Weavers’ political associations intensified during the summer of 1951, as a television appearance and a scheduled concert at the Ohio State Fair were canceled and other bookings began to diminish. In August, however, they reached the charts with both sides of their single “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” (music by “Joel Newman” [Lead Belly], adapted from the Irish folk song “Drimmer’s Cow,” lyrics by “Paul Campbell” [The Weavers])/“When the Saints Go Marching In” (music by James M. Black, lyrics by Katharine E. Purvis).

In February 1952 a former People’s Song associate falsely testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities that each of The Weavers was a current or former member of the Communist party. However, the group managed two more chart entries, “Wimoweh” (music and lyrics by “Paul Campbell” [The Weavers], adapted from “Mbube,” music and lyrics by Solomon Linda) in February, and “Around the Corner (Beneath the Berry Tree)” (music and lyrics by Josef Marais, adapted from a South African folk song), both credited to The Weavers and Gordon Jenkins. They continued to perform occasionally through December and recorded for Decca until February 1953, then were forced to disband because of the blacklist.

On Dec. 24,1955, The Weavers reunited for a performance at Carnegie Hall in N.Y. The concert was so successful that they were able to reestablish the group on a part-time basis, giving more concerts and signing to the independent Vanguard Records label, which released an album of the show, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, in April 1957. But they continued to be blacklisted in the mainstream media, never again, for example, appearing on network television.

Jimmie Rodgers reached the Top Ten in December 1957 with a revival of “Kisses Sweeter than Wine.” The Weavers released a second Vanguard album, the live set The Weavers on Tour, in 1958. Seeger left the group during the recording of their first studio album for the label, The Weavers at Home (released August 1958), and was replaced by Erik Darling (b. Baltimore, Sept. 25, 1933) of the folk group the Tarriers, who was credited on the album as a “guest artist.” The Kingston Trio topped the charts in November 1958 with their self-titled debut album, which featured songs recorded earlier by The Weavers. The Weavers’ 1959 studio album, Travelling on with The Weavers, featured five tracks with Seeger and 11 with Darling. In May 1959 the group embarked on an international tour, performing in Israel and in Europe through September.

On April 1, 1960, they again performed at Carnegie Hall, recording another live album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 2, which became their first charting LP in January 1961, also stimulating sales of their first Carnegie Hall album, which belatedly reached the charts in March 1961. In December a new adaptation of “Mbube,” “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (music and lyrics by Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, George David Weiss, and Albert Stanton), drawing heavily on The Weavers’ “Wimoweh,” became a #1 gold-selling hit for the Tokens. Peter, Paul and Mary’s revival of “The Hammer Song,” titled “If I Had a Hammer,” reached the Top Ten in October 1962.

In 1963 The Weavers released a new studio album, The Weavers’ Almanac. Though featured on the album, Erik Darling had left the group and been replaced by Frank Hamilton (b. N.Y., Aug. 3,1934), the cofounder of the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. As The Weavers planned a reunion at Carnegie Hall for the spring, Hamilton announced his departure, and the two shows, May 2 and 3, which featured Hays, Gilbert, Hellerman, Seeger, Darling, and Hamilton, served as an introduction for the newest member, Bernie Krause. The performances were recorded and released on two Vanguard albums, Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963 (released December 1963) and Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Part 2 (August 1965). Trini Lopez reached the Top Ten in August 1963 with another revival of “If I Had a Hammer.”

The Weavers disbanded in early 1964. In April 1966 The Beach Boys scored a Top Ten hit with “Sloop John B,” an adaptation of “(The Wreck of the) John B.” Robert John revived “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” for a million-selling Top Ten hit in 1972. Fred Hellerman produced Pete Seeger’s 1979 album Circles & Seasons, and on one track they sang together with Ronnie Gilbert. They agreed to participate in a film documentary about The Weavers with Lee Hays in 1980, and this resulted in two reunion concerts, held on Nov. 28-29,1980, at Carnegie Hall. The shows were recorded for an album, Together Again, released in 1981. The quartet reunited a final time in June 1981 to perform at the Croton Festival. The film, The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!, opened in 1982. Vanguard released a four-CD boxed set of The Weavers’ recordings for Decca and Vanguard, also titled Wasn’t That a Time, in 1993. In 1999, a quartet featuring singer/songwriter Michael Smith and singer Barbara Barrow began to tour as The Weavers, doing faithful renditions fo the group’s songs.


The w. Songbook (N.Y, i960).


At Carnegie Hall (1956); At Carnegie Hall No. 2 (1960); Reunion at Carnegie Hall1963 (1963); Reunion at Carnegie Hall No. 2 (1963); Wasn’t That a Time (ree. 1948-92; rei. 1993); Best of Pete Seeger (ree. 1948-52; rei. 1996).

—William Ruhlmann