“Folk Singing in the U.S. didn’t really begin with the Weavers, of course,” a Newsweek correspondent wrote in 1963, “It just seems that way some-times.” As early as the late 1940s, the Weavers set the stage for the so-called “folk revival” of the 1960s, topping the record charts with their versions of “Goodnight Irene,” “Tzena, Tzena,” and a host of other hits. According to David Dunaway in his book How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger, when poet Carl Sandburg heard them, he wrote: “The Weavers are out of the grass roots of America. I salute them…. When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.” They created a strong and essential link between the music of the first part of the twentieth century and the music of the 1990s; few folk performers and audiences exist who do not consider the Weavers a major influence on their musical lives.
Prior to World War II Pete Seeger and Lee Hays had been part of another folk group, the Almanac Singers, but the ensemble broke up at the outset of the war. Seeger helped found People’s Song, Inc., which published
Members included Ronnie Gilbert (vocals), born c. 1927 in New York, NY; daughter of factory workers; married Marty Weg (divorced); received master’s degree in clinical psychology; Lee Hays (vocals), born in 1914 in Little Rock, AR; died from diabetes, August 26, 1981, in Croton-on-Hudson, NY; son of William (a minister) and Ellen (a court reporter) Reinhardt; attended the College of the Ozarks; Fred Hellerman (guitar, vocals), born May 13, 1927, in New York, NY; graduated from Brooklyn College; Pete Seeger (banjo, guitar, vocals), born May 3, 1919, in Patterson, NY; son of Charles (a conductor, musicologist, and educator) and Constance (a violinist and teacher; maiden name, de Clyer) Edson; married Toshi Aline Ohta, July 20, 1943; children: Daniel Adams, Mike Salter, Virginia; attended Harvard University, 1936-38. Seeger was replaced in 1958 by Erik Darling (banjo, vocals), born September 25, 1933, in Baltimore, MD. Darling was replaced in 1962 by Frank Hamilton (banjo, vocals), who was replaced c. 1963 by Bernie Krause (vocals).
Group formed in 1948 in New York City; began to receive critical attention while playing at New York’s Village Vanguard, 1949-50; signed by Decca Records, 1950; performed at clubs, on radio, and on television; blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and FBI as possible communists, 1952; Carnegie Hall reunion concert, 1955; performed under blacklist, 1955-63; disbanded 1963; reunited for Carnegie Hall concert, 1980, which was the subject of documentary Wasn ‘t That a Time.
bulletins combining a song sheet and a folk music newsletter. Hanging around People’s Songs were a number of folk singers, including Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert; in 1948 they formed a quartet. At the time, Hellerman was reading Gerhart Hauptmann’s play The Weavers— about a European peasant revolt— and suggested this as their name. Given the number of folk songs about weavers, the name fit well. The title also described the way their strange combination of voices—an alto, two baritones, and as Seeger called himself, a “split tenor”—worked together. According to Gene Marine of Rolling Stone, they worked out arrangements “so that the voices crossed and recrossed continually—giving a different and singularly appropriate meaning to the group’s name.”
The Weavers’ first step was to gather songs—not difficult with Seeger’s incredible mental repertoire. They borrowed songs from their friends and from around the world. Seeger and Hays wrote “Tomorrow Is a Highway” and “If I Had a Hammer”; Hays contributed “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Lonesome Traveler,” and “Wasn’t That a Time,” which he composed with help from poet Walter Lowenfels.
On Thanksgiving of 1948 the Weavers debuted at Irving Hall in New York City and then played wherever and whenever they could. The following summer, however, an event almost discouraged them enough to call it quits. Performing at an outdoor concert in Peekskill, New York, along with scholar, actor, and singer Paul Robeson, they met with violence from local right wing groups and police. According to Dunaway, the performers and the audience were attacked with rocks and nightsticks, injured by the broken glass of smashed car windows, and assailed with such verbal taunts as “‘Go home you white niggers,’ ‘Kikes,’ and ‘Go on Back to Russia.’”
The Weavers were not going to let the events at Peekskill discourage them. Dunaway wrote that Seeger felt a duty “to reach out to the faces behind the rocks at Peekskill.” At the end of 1949, a few months after the attack, the group signed a contract to play at New York City’s Village Vanguard. They received little attention at first, but before long, folklorist Alan Lomax brought Carl Sandburg in to hear them, and with Sandburg’s comments, the press started to take notice. The Village Vanguard stint lasted six months, and as Marine noted, “suddenly it was as if everyone in Manhattan simultaneously discovered folk music.”
The Weavers next step toward the mainstream came when they signed with Decca Records. They recorded “Tzena, Tzena,” an Israeli folk song, and Huddie “Lead-belly” Ledbetter’s “Goodnight Irene.” Both sides of the single were virtually instant hits. Time magazine announced, “Last week a group of four high-spirited folksters known as the Weavers succeeded in shouting, twanging and crooning folk singing out of its cloistered corner into the commercial big time.” The correspondent wasn’t exaggerating: the record sold two million copies—“Goodnight Irene” and “Tzena, Tzena” remained at Numbers One and Two, respectively, on the charts for months. The group followed this success with more hits, including “Wreck of the John B.,” “The Roving Kind,” “So Long,” “Lonesome Traveler,” “Old Smoky,” “Wide Missouri,” and “Wimoweh.” “If you know any of these songs today,” Marine wrote, “it’s almost certainly because of the Weavers.”
The Weavers’ concerts became as popular as their recordings. They appeared on television and in chic night clubs—strange places for folksingers who might be more accustomed to union rallies. The songs for which they were becoming famous were not particularly political, and they rarely performed any protest and union-organizing songs at nightclubs. Although some folk artists were able to ride on the coattails of the Weavers’ popularity, others disparaged the Weavers for being too commercial. Whether out of jealousy or true indignation, they attacked the Weavers for “violating either the purity of the music or the political principles underlying it,” noted Marine.
Not political enough for some on the liberal left, the Weavers’ connections to radical left wing groups and progressive causes made them far too political for those on the conservative right. Marine suggested that they were apparently trying to “subvert America by singing American folk songs.” The events at Peekskill were only a taste of what was to come. As the Weavers’ fame grew, so did anticommunist sentiment, spurred by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC)—a council of the House of Representatives initiated in 1938 for the express purpose of ferreting out alleged communist sympathizers. The HUAC, a vicious harrier of suspected enemies of the United States, along with the FBI, was determined to destroy the American Left, and for a time they virtually succeeded.
The first attempts of the HUAC and the FBI to target the Weavers failed. Yet before long, as “information” was supplied to sponsors and club owners, jobs for the musicians began disappearing, and their scheduled appearances were canceled. The bomb came in 1952 when Harvey Matusow, a supposed communist informer, testified before the HUAC that Seeger, Gilbert, and Hellerman were members of the Communist Party. Matusow later recanted and, according to Dunaway, admitted to “perjury and conspiring with the U.S. attorneys to give false testimony.” But for a time, the Weavers were blacklisted. Decca stopped recording them and by 1953 had deleted their old records from the label’s catalogue. They were essentially banned from radio or television. As Willens wrote, Hays used to say, “We had to take a sabbatical, and it turned into a mondical and a tuesdical.”
Seeger was able to continue performing occasionally, especially on college campuses. Gilbert started a family, Hellerman worked as a guitarist, accompanist, and composer, and Hays wrote mysteries. Accusations continued to dog Seeger and Hays in particular, and in 1955 the two were required to testify before Congress. Both appeared but refused to answer accusations, or to “name names.” Seeger was cited for contempt of Congress, indicted, tried, and convicted. After several years with a possible jail term hanging over his head, his conviction was reversed in 1962.
In spite of its power, the blacklist was not the complete tragedy for the Weavers that it had been for many others. In 1955, their former manager, Harold Leventhal, organized a reunion concert at Carnegie Hall, and they sold out two shows. Although still blacklisted, a small record company, Vanguard, agreed to sell the recording of the concert, and the album revived their popularity. Gilbert later related in The Progressive that “None of us was terribly happy playing in the high class saloons and all that anyway. Sometimes it was fun, but most of the time that wasn’t what turned us on.” They seemed to take it in stride, especially Hays, who is known for his witticisms on the subject. At their reunion concert in 1980 he quipped that “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon not have been blacklisted.”
In the eyes of most of the recording and broadcasting industries, though, the Weavers simply did not exist. Seeger dropped out of the group in 1958. His departure was the result of a number of factors, but the spark was a conflict over whether or not to record a jingle for a cigarette commercial. Hays saw it as a way to break through the blacklist, but Seeger hated the idea of doing a commercial, especially one for cigarettes. Seeger was outvoted; he agreed to record the jingle, then resigned. Later, Seeger told Willens that the commercial may have been the impetus of his departure, but he had also been busy with his family, his solo work, and his teaching. Additional work with the Weavers was too burdensome. Ironically, the jingle never played on the air—the blacklist was stronger than they had thought.
Seeger was replaced by Erik Darling. Darling remained with the group until 1962, when he left to form the Rooftop Singers. Frank Hamilton took Darling’s place and was subsequently succeeded by Bernie Krause. At a 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, all of them, including Seeger, appeared on stage together.
By the early 1960s the Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; Bob Dylan; and other performers had made folk music popular again. Vanguard and Folkways reissued old Weavers recordings, and new groups recorded their songs, making some hits for the first time, including the Kingston Trio’s version of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and Peter, Paul, and Mary’s interpretation of “If I Had a Hammer.” Despite new successes, much of the recording industry was skittish. In 1962 the Weavers were invited to perform on a televised Dinner With the President, but before long the blacklist cropped up again and they were immediately uninvited. Jumping on the folk music bandwagon, ABC launched a folk music show called Hootenanny, to which the Weavers were also not invited. Under pressure, ABC decided that the Weavers could perform if they signed a “loyalty oath.” On principle, the group refused, and as a result, several other performers decided not to appear as well.
By this time, the Weavers’ attentions were drifting in different directions. Bernie Krause, Seeger’s third replacement, wasn’t working out, and according to Willens, the group had their share of tensions. They officially disbanded after a December farewell concert at Chicago’s orchestra hall. In November of 1980, the original members came together for another reunion at Carnegie Hall. A single newspaper advertisement instantly sold out two shows, and in The Progressive Nat Hentoff commented, “I had expected a kind of historical relic in the music of this reunion, but the collective and individual verve of these eclectic descendants of Tom Paine hasn’t diminished—at least not on that night.” Wasn’t That a Time, a documentary of the concert and its preparations, was filmed and released shortly thereafter.
Hays, who had been fighting diabetes for some time, passed away several months after the concert. Gilbert, holding a masters degree in clinical psychology, maintained a practice while working on theater projects and a tour. Hellerman followed a career as a record producer, arranger, and recording musician, and worked in theater as well. Seeger continued performing, recording, and remained politically active.
Perhaps the Weavers’ greatest gift was their ability to introduce so many people to the music they loved. “Few groups have managed to cross over the line of commercialism without forfeiting artistic integrity and qualitative standards,” wrote Kristin Baggelaar and Donald Milton in Folk Music: More Than a Song. “Throughout their career, the Weavers tried to maintain a balance between the purity of traditional material and the polish of professionalism, and they introduced to concert, cabaret, radio, and television audiences sophisticated yet genuine interpretations of the folk song.” Their dedication to folk music survived a period of anticommunist sentiment, the blacklist, and time; in the process the Weavers influenced multiple generations of folk musicians and audiences, changing forever the nature of American folk song.
“Dig My Grave”/“Wasn’t That a Time,” Charter, 1949.
“The Hammer Song”/“Banks of Marble,” Hootenanny, 1949.
“Around the World”/“Tzena, Tzena” (Hebrew), Decca, 1950.
“Tzena, Tzena” (English)/“Goodnight Irene,” Decca, 1950.
“So Long”/“Lonesome Traveler,” Decca, 1950.
“Wreck of the John B.”/“The Roving Kind,” Decca, 1950.
“On Top of Old Smoky”/“The Wide Missouri,” Decca, 1951.
“When the Saints Go Marching In”/“Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” Decca 1951.
“Wimoweh”/“Old Paint,” Decca, 1952.
“Hard Ain’t It Hard”/“Run Home to Mama,” Decca, 1952.
“Little Boxes”/“Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” Columbia, 1963.
“Waist Deep in the Big Muddy”/“Down by the Riverside,” Columbia, 1967.
The Weavers, Charter, 1949.
Folk Songs of America and Other Lands, Decca, 1951.
We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Decca, 1952.
The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard, 1955.
The Weavers at Home, Vanguard, 1958.
The Weavers on Tour, Vanguard, 1958.
Best of the Weavers, Decca, 1959.
Folk Songs Around the World, Decca, 1959.
The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard, 1960.
The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Volume 2, Vanguard, 1960.
Traveling On, Vanguard, 1960.
Weavers Gold, Decca, 1962.
Almanac, Vanguard, 1962.
The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Vanguard, 1963.
The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall, Part 2, Vanguard, 1965.
The Weavers Songbag, Vanguard, 1967.
Baggelaar, Kristin, and Donald Milton, Folk Music: More Than a Song, Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1976.
Dunaway, David King, How Can I Keep From Singing: Pete Seeger, McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1981.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, second edition, St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Willens, Doris, Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays, W. W. Norton & Co., 1988.
Advertising Age, October 24, 1988.
Journal of American Folklore, October 1990.
Los Angeles Times, May 8, 1985.
Newsweek, May 13, 1963.
New York Times, February 8, 1952; December 1, 1980; June 19, 1981.
The Progressive, October 1981; June 1990.
Rolling Stone, April 13, 1972; October 15, 1981.
Time, September 25, 1950.
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