The Weavers ► Monday Musical Appreciation
Before and after

On this day in 1962 The WeaversRonnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Pete Seeger — took a stand that almost ruined their careers.

You may not have heard of them, but there’s no denying their influence in ‘Merkin popular music. The Weavers were one of the most important groups of the ’50s and ’60s, despite being a mere Folk group that only lasted a few years. They subsequently influenced every folk who ever folked a Folk song.

According to This Day In History:

The importance of the Weavers to the folk revival of the late 1950s cannot be overstated. Without the group that Pete Seeger founded with Lee Hays in Greenwich Village in 1948, there would likely be no Bob Dylan, not to mention no Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul and Mary. The Weavers helped spark a tremendous resurgence in interest in American folk traditions and folk songs when they burst onto the popular scene with “Goodnight Irene,” a #1 record for 13 weeks in the summer and fall of 1950. The Weavers sold millions of copies of innocent, beautiful and utterly apolitical records like “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky” that year.

The Weavers had grown out of an earlier Folk group, The Almanac Singers, which had been founded by Millard Lampell, Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie in the early ’40s. The Almanac Singers were an overtly political group, as the WikiWackyWoo tells us:

As their name indicated, they specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. They were part of the Popular Front, an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA (whose slogan, under their leader Earl Browder, was “Communism is twentieth century Americanism”), who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers’ rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals.

However, the Red Scare and Entertainment Blacklists of the era put an end to their dream of influencing ‘Merka through song:

In 1942, Army intelligence and the FBI determined that the Almanacs and their former anti-draft message were still a seditious threat to recruitment and the morale of the war effort among blacks and youth.[17] and they were hounded by hostile reviews, exposure of their Communist ties and negative coverage in the New York press, like the headline “Commie Singers try to Infiltrate Radio”,[18] They disbanded in late 1942 or early 1943.

In 1945, after the end of the war, Millard Lampell went on to become a successful screenwriter, writing under a pseudonym while blacklisted. The other founding Almanac members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays became President and Executive Secretary, respectively, of People’s Songs, an organization with the goal of providing protest music to union activists, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and electing Henry A. Wallace on the third, Progressive Party, ticket. People’s Songs disbanded in 1948, after the defeat of Wallace. Seeger and Hays, joined by two of Hays’ young friends, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, then began singing together again at fund-raising folk dances, with a repertoire geared to international folk music. The new singing group, appearing for a while in 1949 under the rubric, “The Nameless Quartet”, changed their name to The Weavers and went on to achieve great renown.[19]

However, the country would not let The Weavers free to be. Wiki has that, too.

During the Red Scare, however, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were identified as Communist Party members by FBI informant Harvey Matusow (who later recanted) and ended up being called up to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. Hays took the Fifth Amendment. Seeger refused to answer, however, claiming First Amendment grounds, the first to do so after the conviction of the Hollywood Ten in 1950. Seeger was found guilty of contempt and placed under restrictions by the court pending appeal, but in 1961 his conviction was overturned on technical grounds.[4] Because Seeger was among those listed in the entertainment industry blacklist publication, Red Channels, all of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance and not allowed to perform on television or radio during the McCarthy era. Decca Records terminated their recording contract and deleted their records from its catalog in 1953.[5] Their recordings were denied airplay, which curtailed their income from royalties. Right-wing and anti-Communist groups protested at their performances and harassed promoters. As a result, the group’s economic viability diminished rapidly and in 1952 it disbanded. After this, Pete Seeger continued his solo career, although as with all of them, he continued to suffer from the effects of blacklisting.

In December 1955, the group reunited to play a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. The concert was a huge success. A recording of the concert was issued by the independent Vanguard Records, and this led to their signing by that record label. By the late 1950s, folk music was surging in popularity and McCarthyism was fading. Yet the media industry of the time was so timid and conventional that it wasn’t until the height of the revolutionary ’60s that Seeger was able to end his blacklisting by appearing on a nationally distributed U.S. television show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in 1968.[6]

By 1962, The Weavers had already broken up and reformed. On January 2nd, they were booked to play The Jack Parr Show, the precursor to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. However, their appearance was cancelled by after they refused to sign a loyalty oath.

Here is a wonderful documentary on the life and times of The Weavers followed by a personal favourite:

Before Emperor Trump reestablishes Loyalty Oaths, let’s take a moment to remember The Weavers, who refused to kowtow to government interference, just like the Constitution teaches.

About Headly Westerfield

Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.