The Weavers

For many of us who “came of age” in the 1950s and 60s, music was an important part of our lives. In Detroit, Michigan where I grew up, there was a wonderful mixture of music that represented the cultural mosaic of the people who worked and lived in the city. From tin pan alley to motown, and from country western to traditional folk, there was a musical genre for everyone. Of all the genres, folk music was more obscure, perhaps less relevant to big city life. I was not all that aware of folk music until I attended college in the fall of 1964. As I look back, it seemed like this genre of music spoke volumes about the 60s generation’s view of a country that was experiencing radical change. Whether it was civil rights, war in Vietnam, corruption in government, assassination of our leaders, or simply trying to get along with our parents, the events of the day found its voice in song--ballads that chronicled the history of an era.

The use of folksongs to express the experiences of common people has its roots in English history. Ballads were passed down orally from generation to generation;
new singers added their own touches, their own details, moving the ballad out of its own time and making it meaningful for the singer and the contemporary audience. The folksong gained added dimension in the twentieth century when it became more topical. The expression of people about their struggles and hardships was heard through their songs of protest; the hard times of people, from the coal miners of Kentucky to the textile workers in New York to Black sharecroppers of the South were related in song.

Probably the most influential folk group, who had an impact on the 60s balladeers was the Weavers.

The Weavers--Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman, started singing professionally in 1950. Throughout the 50s, they introduced college kids across America to folk songs that told a story about the successes and hardships of people all over the world. Many of the songs, old in origin, new in relevance, were political and were meant to change the world.

Members of the Weavers were part of a bigger group of songwriters who moved to New York City to find an outlet for their songs and to use their music to protest many of the conditions they believed American Society needed to change. In 1945 these artist gathered in Greenwich Village to incorporate a union called Peoples Songs. They envisioned that this union of songwriters would stage hootenannies, provide a library of protest songs for unions and other progressive groups, and send people out to perform at union gatherings and at picket lines. Key members of the group included Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes. They had much to sing about-- a world without war, the end of racism and equality for everyone. Idealism, however, did not pay the bills and the group filed for bankruptcy in 1948.

Some members of the group continued to meet in Greenwich Village in the basement of Pete Seeger’s in- laws on MacDougal Street. Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert continued to write, to revise and to sing their songs at union gatherings. Known as the Nameless Quartet for a long time, the group finally decided on a genre neutral name, the Weavers—meaning they were the weavers of song. Each member of the quartet brought to the group a unique world outlook and an agreement that songs were meant to teach as well as entertain.

The Weavers began by singing at union halls, at benefits, and at nursery schools, but received little pay; each had a day job to tide them over. They were looking for a way to make money and their big break came at Christmas, 1949 when they sang at a jazz club in New York City called the Village Vanguard.
Audiences at the Vanguard loved their music, which prompted management to book them for a three-month commitment. Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records “discovered’ the Weavers at the Vanguard and signed them to a 1 year contract. In that year they recorded two very successful songs, “Tsena Tsena” and “Goodnight Irene,” both songs stayed at the top of the charts for a long time. For the next two years, the Weavers played at venues across the country, their popularity grew and their financial fortunes gave them the financial security they did not have singing at Union Halls. But in 1952, the Weavers were blacklisted. Unfortunately for them, their popularity grew at the same time as McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of communist infiltration into the American government and society targeted many groups and individuals across America who had affiliations with the Communist party. For the Weavers, the scrutiny and newspaper banner headlines like, “Weavers Named Reds,” caused many nightclubs and concert halls to blacklist them. Members of the group were subpoenaed before the House Committee for Un-American Activities.
Ronnie Gilbert was in California and refused to appear. Fred Hellerman and Lee Hayes took the 5th and Pete Seeger argued his 1st amendment rights. After the McCarthy era, the Weavers did not get their momentum back; their star began to fall. By the end of the 1950s, they played only on colleges campuses, and small clubs.
Pete Seeger is probably the most well known member of the Weavers. He has appeared on countless television show, the 70s generation will probably remember him for his frequent quest appearances on Sesame Street. He was born in New York City in 1919. His father was Charles Seeger, a musicologist and researcher of non-western music. Both his parents taught at Julliard School of Music in New York City. At an early age, he was introduced to the banjo, now a signature of his style. In 1940, Seeger joined the Almanac Singers, where he traveled the country with Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, and Woody Guthrie playing folk and labor songs to whoever would listen.

During World War 11, Seeger lived in Saipan and played in a country Jazz band, where he entertained U.S. soldiers at the Island bases. After the war, he moved back to the States and worked with Alan Lomax in the
Archive of Folk Music in the Library of Congress. While traveling around the country with the Almanac Singers, Seeger continued to collect songs, many of which he worked into the Weaver’s repertoire. Pete Seeger left the Weavers in 1958 when he started his own professional career as a songwriter and folksinger. Along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman made a significant contribution to the success of the Weavers.
Lee Hayes began his singing career in Arkansas, where he was born and raised. He arrived in New York in the 1930s. Besides a songwriter, Hayes wrote mystery stories and was a columnist for the Brooklyn Heights Press. Haye’s political views were a reflection of growing up in Arkansas and seeing the effects of the 1930s economic depression on his family and neighbors. He started reading books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other reading material that highlighted the economic inequality in the country. His reading selections had an effect on his political outlook. He admitted, “Somewhere along in there, I became some kind of socialist. Just what kind I’ve never to this day figured out.”

Like Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert saw life through the socialist political lens.

Ronnie Gilbert 1999.
Gilbert brought to the Weavers a voice that blended well with her male counterparts, and a political ideology that fit with that of the other members of the quartet. Gilbert was born in 1926 in New York City. Her mother was a Polish-Jewish immigrant and worked in the garment district of New York City. She participated in union activity and was a member of the Communist party. Ronnie grew up in the union culture and was influenced by their politics and music; she often sang at union forums. She also spent three years in the chorus of a children’s radio show. Ronnie left home to work in Washington D. C. when she was 16. While in Washington, a friend introduced her to Jazz, African-American Congregational songs and Country western music. It was in Washington where she also met her first folk group, The Priority Ramblers. She joined the group in wartime Washington and became well grounded in the folk culture. After the war, Gilbert went back to New York where she worked at a worker/children’s camp. At the camp she met the forth member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman.
Fred Hellerman was born in 1927 in New York City. His father was a Latvian immigrant who worked in the rag business. Hellerman’s musical career started when he learned to play the guitar while in the Navy during World War Two. After the war, he played in a folk group call American Folksay; he also attended Brooklyn College, majoring in English. Lee Hays heard about Hellerman and his association with American Folksay and subsequently invited Hellerman to become a member of People’s Songs. Hellerman brought Ronnie Gilbert into People’s songs, and eventually they both joined the Weavers.

The common element that brought Seeger, Hayes, Hellerman and Gilbert together in the Greenwich Village apartment was their concern for social injustice and the need to raise the countries consciousness of the social ills in society. The solutions that they wrote in song often rejected capitalism and championed Unions and socialist doctrine. But in the long run, they did not necessarily reject the Capitalist system, indeed, they benefited from it by their success as songwriters and performers. Ironically, the song that brought the Weaver’s into national attention was not a protest song but a Negro Spiritual adopted by Leadbelly.
 Huddi Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, was a tremendous influence on members of the Peoples Songs, especially Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Woody Guthrie. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax discovered Leadbelly when the two toured the South in the 1930s, where they collected and recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress. On a tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1933, they met Leadbelly. Leadbelly was born in 1885 on the Jeter Plantation in Louisiana. When he was five, his family moved to Texas.
 Growing up he learned to play the guitar and between working as a laborer and a guitar player, he made a living until convicted of murder in 1918. He was able to reduce his 30 yr. term of hard labor to seven by begging a pardon from the governor, which he did in a song. But in 1930, he was convicted of attempted homicide and sent to the Louisiana Penitentiary, where John and Alan Lomax met him. Leadbelly told Lomax of the Texas Governor’s pardon. Lomax decided to help Leadbelly by asking the Governor of Louisiana to pardon him; they made a record of his petition on the other side of one of Leadbelly’s favorite ballad, “Goodnight Irene.” Leadbelly received his pardon. Lomax took Leadbelly to New York in 1935. There, he met Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes and introduced them to his songs that described the struggle of Blacks in America.

The Weavers learned a lot from Leadbelly, but unfortunately, he died a month before the Weavers played the Vanguard. They dedicated the last song of their concert to Leadbelly by playing his song, “Goodnight Irene.” It became the signature closing at every Weaver’s concert thereafter.

“Goodnight Irene” is the first song I can ever remember hearing as a child. I didn’t pay much attention to the song as an adult, until I started listening to early Weaver recordings. Besides the songs deep roots in the early folk culture, it is a good example of the end of one musical era and the beginning of another. The early Weaver songs incorporated the big band sound of swing and jazz, which was popular in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Beside “Goodnight Irene”, The Weaver’s “Mimoweh” also incorporated the full band sound.

“Mimoweh”, or “the Lion Sleeps Tonight” was an African Folk song written by Soloman Linda and record by Linda’s band in 1939. Pete Seeger found the song in 1951, transcribed and copyrighted the work, it was one of his most successful songs.

Probably one of the most recorded songs written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes is “If I Had a Hammer.” I always associated the song with Peter Paul and Mary. Seeger and Hayes wrote the song while sitting at a one of the initial board meetings People’s Songs. Evidently, to fill time, they passed notes back and forth to one another. When the meeting was over, they had the lyrics to “If I Had a Hammer.” The song, as intended by the songwriters, was to warn of the threats that existed in American society to liberty, especially warning against such agencies as the government’s Un-American Activities Committee and the growing red-scare of the 1950s.

As luck would have it, their protest songs enabled the Weavers to live comfortably. Songs written by the groups or individually, climbed the charts and as emerging folk groups in the late 50s and early 60s began to entertain on Campuses and coffee houses across he country. The royalties from “If I had a Hammer”, along with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Lonesome Traveler,” and “Where Have all the Flower’s Gone.”
 The Weaver became the prototypical folk singing group. They had all the ingredients that the 1960-generation of songsters were looking for--radical political views that promoted the ideology of peace, equality and social welfare. The Weavers were purest; they believed they could change the world by singing about the apparent injustices in society. They were from a generation used to hard times, but their idealism and political philosophy did not transcend to the future generation of folk singers. Like the Weavers, folk groups in he 60s often found that financial success often trumped idealism.

posted by Sue Schrems, Ph.D. @ 3:40 PM
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