Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Folk quartet formed in the late 1940s by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays (b 1914, Little Rock AR; d 26 August 1981, New York State), Fred Hellerman (b 13 May 1927, NYC; d 1 September 2016, Weston CT) and Ronnie Gilbert (b Ruth Alice Gilbert, 7 September 1926, Brooklyn; d 6 June 2015, Mill Valley CA): 'two low baritones, one brilliant alto and a split tenor', in Seeger's words. Seeger and Hays had sung together since 1940 in various groups including the Almanac Singers; Hays was capable of a sepulchral bass, while Ronnie was a voice student whose voice changed when she discovered folk music, and Fred was a student with receding hair who had sung at parties with Woody Guthrie to raise money. They sang informally, campaigned for left-wing political candidates, recorded for Charter and Hootenanny labels (including Seeger/Hays's 'The Hammer Song', later a pop hit '62-3 as 'If I Had A Hammer'); two-CD Kisses Sweeter Than Wine on Omega was recorded live in the early days. They signed for two weeks at Village Vanguard at Christmas ‘49, which might have been a farewell gig: that year the Seeger family had escaped serious injury by a right-wing mob throwing rocks (with local cops looking the other way) in Peekskill NY. (They were trying to go to a Paul Robeson concert.) Seeger felt discouraged and did not want to risk others' lives; however, the Village Vanguard gig lasted six months; poet Carl Sandburg heard them and was quoted in the papers: 'When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.' Harold Lowenthal heard them, became their manager (and remained Seeger's manager for over 25 years).

Gordon Jenkins wanted to record them; Dave Kapp at Decca didn't, but Jenkins got his way. Their first record 'Tzena Tzena Tzena' was made in Hebrew (written '41 by Issacher Miron, then a Palestinian, later an Israeli; rewritten '47 by Julius Grossman); it caused a stir and was remade as by Gordon Jenkins and his Orchestra with the Weavers, English words by Jenkins; disc jockeys flipped the record and found 'Goodnight Irene': using a song by a black ex-convict (Leadbelly) was itself almost a political statement then. 'Irene' was no. 1 for 13 weeks '50, sold two million copies (an 'answer' song was 'Say Goodnight To The Guy, Irene'); 'Tzena' reached no. 2.

The Weavers had no competition: their unusual lineup and close harmony could have been country music (it echoed the sound of the Carter Family and the Chuck Wagon Gang); Jenkins's arrangement of 'Irene' opened with a violin solo, imparting a front-porch quality: whatever it was, a lot of people loved it. Ten hits through '52 included no. 2 'On Top Of Old Smokey' (adding Terry Gilkyson's voice), Woody Guthrie's 'So Long (It's Been Good To Know Ya)', 'Kisses Sweeter Than Wine' (Irish folksong adapted by Leadbelly and the Weavers, revived '57 by Jimmie Rodgers), 'Wimoweh' (Zulu song was later a no. 1 hit '61 by the Tokens as 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight'), Leadbelly's 'Midnight Special' and (fluke '54 hit) 'Sylvie'. They also recorded Guthrie's 'Hard Ain't It Hard', slavery-era 'Follow The Drinking Gourd', a Christmas LP, etc. On some non-hit and album tracks they accompanied themselves, as on a 10-inch LP Folksongs Of America And Other Lands.

Not all the hits were listed in Billboard. Their chart run was spoiled by McCarthy-era blacklisting and by liars (see Seeger's entry for the whole story): 'First we took a sabbatical,' said Hays later. 'Then we took a mondical and a tuesdical.' The show-biz establishment helped scupper folk music for the time being, then was outraged two years later when rock'n'roll relieved the monotony of Patti Page-style pop. Seeger carried on his solo activities; when NYC's Town Hall would not accept the Weavers, they sang at Carnegie Hall instead on Christmas Eve '55 and the concert was issued on Vanguard (the label formed in NYC c.1948 by Maynard and Seymour Solomon); other Vanguard LPs included At Carnegie Hall '60 (two vols), Reunion At Carnegie Hall '63 (Part 2 '65), studio sets At Home '58, Travelling On '60, Almanac '62, Songbag '67, and compilations. Members also recorded as the Babysitters for children. Seeger left '58 but appeared with them occasionally; replacements included Frank Hamilton, Bernie Krause and Erik Darling. The Weavers disbanded late '63 but re-formed for a final Carnegie Hall gig '81 with the irrepressible Hays in a wheelchair; preparations and concert filmed as Wasn't That A Time. When Hays died his friends placed his ashes on his compost heap at his request.

The Weavers were a profound influence, e.g. on children who always love folk music and who were angry on discovering years later why the Weavers had suddenly disappeared from the airwaves and juke boxes. Holly Near (appeared in Wasn't That A Time; see her entry) was among those inspired by the Weavers, especially by Gilbert. Gilbert and Hellerman were active in theatre projects, Hellerman in writing and producing, e.g. Arlo Guthrie's hit album Alice's Restaurant.