Socio-Political Music Through 1940-1960 Part Two: An American Folk Revival Essay

Member Fred Hellerman was heeded by Hays and Seeger during the search of musical backing for folk dancers at a Thanksgiving hootenanny at Irving Plaza in Manhattan being held by People’s Music, a leftist organisation that assigned folk singers to political events, after the disbandment of their previous group, The Almanac Singers. Alongside Ronnie Gilbert, whom Hellerman had knew from their Camp Wo-Chi-Ca days, in northern New Jersey, a medley of international folk songs was created and the response was encouraging. The group arrangement interested Seeger; providing the opportunity to perform songs such as ‘Saints go marching in’.

 Originally going by the No Name Quartet until Hellerman suggested the Weavers. The group would perform for anyone who would listen; unions, leftists, anyone. The name ‘The Weavers’ was taken from the Gerhart Hauptmann 1892 play titled Die Weber (The Weavers), which was a powerful work depicting the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844, which contains the lines, ‘I’ll stand it no more, come what may’. Though the group’s name is inspired by a play where most of the characters are proletarians struggling for their rights, the group did not return to the Almanac Singers’ political stances. Instead they focused of singing songs of hope, feeling that if they could sing loud enough and strong enough, that their songs could make a difference.

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The Village Vanguard

In fact, The Weavers had a polished image; performing in tuxedos, sometimes Hays could see themselves becoming a ‘Barbie doll and three stuffed dummies’ and their new management refused the group from performing at political venues. The group, instead, began to build a following at the Village Vanguard jazz club, performing hits such as Lead Belly’s ‘Goodnight irene’, and the 1941 song (b-side for The Weavers) ‘Tzena, Tzena, Tzena’. The song became a hit and stayed number one on the charts for thirteen weeks. The Weavers first recorded their songs under Decca records and Gordon Jenkins handled the arrangements. Heller said ‘I think Gordon’s slickness took a certain rough edge off us, which at that particular time, make us more acceptable to a mass audience.’

The group’s songs weren’t just shallow charting toppers though. Their material spreads across many topics such as Christian hymns, relationships, and union songs, an attitude that influenced Don McLean; ‘They really felt they could only sing the songs that they related to in their lives so if they were trying to fight for civil rights or for equality or for peace or for whatever thing they were into, they really did and do and have lived their lives in a way which reflects these beliefs, so the music really stems from their beliefs as people. It wasn’t just a cosmetic job. Put up to induce people to come and hear them sing, they really believed things they sang about.’

However, during the 1950s, the red scare of communism spreading through America began to deepen and the group was advised by their manager, Pete Cameron, to not sing their most explicitly political songs and to avoid performing at ‘progressive’ venues and events, also considering some of the members having been so politically vocal, to avoid being blacklisted and losing fans. As a result of this, some folk fans criticized them for watering down their beliefs and commercialising their singing style. But the Weavers felt it was worth the change to get their songs before the public, and to avoid the explicit type of commitment which had led to the demise of the Almanac; the new approach proved a success, leading to many bookings across America and increased demand for the groups recordings.

The successful concerts and hit recordings of the Weavers helped introduce to new audiences such folk revival standards such a ‘On top of old smoky’, Rock Island Line (which was later recorded by Johnny Cash on his debut album), The midnight special, and many others. The one thing that the Weavers had carried from the Almanac singers was that they encouraged sing-alongs in their concerts, and sometimes Seeger would shout out the lyrics in advance of each line in lining out style, a technique that inspired singers that followed such as Arlo Guthrie, who admired their on-stage humour, punctuating lines and timing. Yet, their new image still wasn’t enough to convince members of the FBI that Seeger and Hays had ditched their previous communist approach that they had attained with the Almanac singers.

During the red scare, the two members were identified as communist party members by FBI informant Harvey Matusow and were later called up to testify to the House Committee on Un-American activities in 1955. The whole group also faced communist accusations in the media and newspaper headlines: ‘Harvey M.Matusow, 26, Dayton, testified he is a former Communist and three of the weavers are former communist party members.’ As Seeger was already among those listed in the entertainment industry blacklist publication, Red Channels, and the group sang songs about unions, civil rights, and the unity of all nations, all members of the group were placed under FBI surveillance and were forbidden to perform on television or radio in 1952.

Decca Records terminated the groups recording contract and destroyed their records from their catalogue in 1953. Their recordings were denied airplay, which curtailed their income from royalties, right wing and anti-communist groups protested at their performances and harassed promoters, and television didn’t want to interview them. Following the blacklisting, the group disbanded in 1952. After this, Pete Seeger continued his solo career, although as with all of them, he continued to suffer most from the effects of blacklisting.

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Folk group Peter, Paul and Mary

However, thanks to the efforts of their friend and manager Harold Leventhal, the group reunited and the Weavers found themselves performing to a sold out audience on Christmas eve 1955 at Carnegie. The concert was a huge success and a recording of the concert was issued by the independent Vanguard records, and this led to their signing by that record label. A documentary of a following reunion was also recorded and released after the death of Hays.  By the late 1950s, folk music was surging in popularity and McCarthyism becoming just a memory. The Weavers created a type of baby boom with folk music, influencing artists such as Don McLean, Bob Dylan,Trini Lopez, Aretha Franklin, and Peter, Paul, and Mary who referred to themselves as ‘the Weavers’ children.’ Mary had gone on Furth more to say ‘We learned from them that folk music was a process that had to be carried on, that had a responsibility to the community from which it sprang. That the folk tradition was one of social commitment as well as just old fashion have fun together.’

After the April 1957 LP release of the Carnegie Hall concert, the Weavers launched a month-long concert tour due to high demand. That August the group reassembled for a series of recording sessions for Vanguard, As Seeger’s college concert bookings grew, the singer felt restricted by his obligations to the group. Vanguard booked the Weavers for a January 15, 1958, session to record and rock-and-roll single. The results were embarrassing and fuelled Seeger’s frustration. The following month Gilbert, Hays, and Hellerman overruled Seeger about a recording a cigarette ad for a tobacco company. Seeger, opposed to the dangers of tobacco and discouraged by the group’s apparent sell-out to commercial interested, decided to resign. Honouring his commitment to record the jingle, he left the group on March 3, 1958. It seems that the Weavers suffered a case of Johnny Cash’s ‘the one on the left is on the right’; expressing the difficulties of discussing politics through music as a part of a group, as it becomes a politics of its own.

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