The Highwaymen (folk band)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Highwaymen was an American 1960s "collegiate folk" group. The quintet's version of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", a 19th Century African-American work song, released in 1959 under the title "Michael," was a Billboard #1 hit in September 1961. The group scored another Top 20 hit in 1962 with a version of Lead Belly's "Cotton Fields". "Michael" sold over one million copies, achieving gold record status.[1] The group originated at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, where its members were undergraduates.[2]


As a freshman in 1958, Dave Fisher,[3] who in high school had sung in a doo-wop group called The Academics, joined with four other Wesleyan freshman – Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, and Steve Trott – to form the Highwaymen.[4][5] Fisher, who would graduate in 1962 with the university's first degree in ethnomusicology,[6] was the quintet's arranger and lead singer.[7] Among the folk songs Fisher arranged for The Highwaymen was an African-American spiritual or work song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", which had been rediscovered in an 1867 collection of slave songs by Boston songfinder and teacher Tony Saletan in 1954,[8] and released on LP in 1957 by both The Weavers[9] and Bob Gibson.[10] In 1959, United Artists released a recording of the Highwaymen's version under the abbreviated title of "Michael," which slowly gained popularity and eventually reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart during the week of 4–11 September 1961,[11] earning the quintet a gold record.[12] The single also reached #1 in the UK[13] and #4 in Germany.[14]

Later members were Gil Robbins (father of actor Tim Robbins), who joined in 1962 when Steve Trott entered Harvard Law School, and in 1991 guitarist/bassist Johann Helton.[5][15]

The original group stopped performing in 1964 and the members, while remaining in touch, went their separate professional ways. One attended Harvard Business School, two attended Harvard Law School, and one attended graduate school at Columbia University, then proceeded into business, law, and academia. Fisher alone stayed in the music business, and with him as musical director, the "Highwaymen" continued with Renny Temple, Roy Connors, Mose Henry, and Alan Scharf. They recorded two albums, Stop! Look! & Listen and On a New Road, and performed concerts and appeared on many television variety shows. Temple, Connors, and Henry were previously in a popular Florida folk group called the Vikings Three. Alan Scharf had an earlier career as an actor which continued after the Fisher-led group disbanded.

In 1967, Dave Fisher moved to Hollywood where he composed and arranged music for films and television and worked as a studio singer and musician. He wrote more than a thousand songs, many of which have been used in movie and television productions. After serving in the Army Reserve, Burnett graduated from Harvard Law School in 1967 and "went on to a long career in law and banking."[16] Chan Daniels studied acting for several years in New York and Hollywood and later graduated from Harvard Business School and became an executive for Capitol Records.[17] Steve Butts received a Ph.D. in Chinese Politics from Columbia, and until retirement served as an academic administrator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Grinnell College, and Lawrence University. He also taught baroque music performance at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music and statistics at Columbia.[18] Steve Trott, after graduating from Harvard Law, became a prosecutor in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. Later, he served as Associate Attorney General, the number two position in the United States Department of Justice during the Presidency of Ronald Reagan and in 1987 was appointed a judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The original Highwaymen, minus Daniels (who died in 1975), reunited in 1987 for a concert for their 25th college reunion. From that time until the death of Dave Fisher in 2010, the original band recorded several albums and performed a dozen or so concerts a year.[19] Their studio album from this period, The Water Of Life A Celtic Collection (2004), was recorded and engineered by their bassist Johann Helton at JoTown Records in Boise, Idaho. Two additional CDs, in concert format, The Highwaymen in Concert, and When the Village Was Green, was released in 2002 and 2007.

In 1990, the members of the original group sued country music's Highwaymen, made up of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson over their use of the name, which was inspired by a Jimmy Webb ballad they had recorded. The suit was dropped when all parties agreed that the folk group owned the name and that the folk group would grant the nonexclusive, nontransferable license to the supergroup to use the name. The two groups then shared the stage at a 1990 concert in Hollywood.[20]

The original group last performed in August 2009 at the Guthrie Center in Massachusetts. The rock and roll magazine Blitz described the Highwaymen's record of their 1963 concert at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as the best compilation or reissue of 2009. Blitz also named the band's album When the Village Was Green one of the best releases of 2007.[21]

Daniels died of pneumonia on August 2, 1975, at the age of 36.[22] Fisher died of myelofibrosis on May 7, 2010, at the age of 69.[23] Burnett died of brain cancer on December 7, 2011, at his home in Riverside, Rhode Island. He was 71.[24][25] As of December 2011, just two of the five original members were still alive: Steve Trott and Steve Butts.[26]


The Highwaymen had a significant impact on the folk scene of the early 1960s. Aside from two major hit singles and several appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the group contributed two future standards to the folk repertoire, "All My Trials", "Big Rock Candy Mountain", and played the central role in uncovering "Cotton Fields", a long-overlooked song by Lead Belly, which subsequently became a major addition to the repertoires of both the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival. The Highwaymen also made the first recording of "Universal Soldier", by Buffy Sainte-Marie.[27]

Original members[edit]

Dave Fisher (July 19, 1940 – May 7, 2010)[3]
Bob Burnett (February 7, 1940, Providence, Rhode Island – December 7, 2011)[16]
Steve Butts
Chan Daniels (died August 2, 1975, aged 36)
Steve Trott (born Stephen S. Trott, December 12, 1939, Glen Ridge, New Jersey)[28]

Additional members[edit]

Gil Robbins (born Gilbert Lee Robbins, April 3, 1931, Spokane, Washington – April 5, 2011). He is the father of actor Tim Robbins.[29][30]
Johann Helton (born in 1953)



  • The Highwaymen (1960)
  • Standing Room Only! (1961)
  • Encore (1962)
  • March On Brothers (1963)
  • Hootenanny with the Highwaymen (1963)
  • Homecoming (1963)
  • The Spirit and the Flesh (1964)
  • One More Time (1964)
  • In Concert (2002)
  • The Water of Life (2004)
  • When the Village Was Green (2007)


Year Single (A-side, B-side)
Both sides from same album except where indicated
Chart positions Album
1960 "Michael" 1 1 1 The Highwaymen
"The Gypsy Rover" 42 12 41 Standing Room Only!
"Cotton Fields" 13 3
1962 "I'm on My Way"
b/w "Whiskey in the Jar"
90 Encore
"The Bird Man"
b/w "Cindy, Oh Cindy" (from The Highwaymen)
64 19 Non-album track
"I Know Where I'm Going"
b/w "Well, Well, Well"
March On Brothers
1963 "I Will Never Marry"
b/w "Pretoria"
"All My Trials"
b/w "Midnight Train" (from One More Time!)
Non-album track
"Universal Soldier"
b/w "I'll Fly Away" (from March On Brothers)
One More Time!
"Roll On, Columbia, Roll On"
b/w "The Tale of Michael Flynn"
Hootenanny with the Highwaymen
1964 "The Sinking of the Reuben James"
b/w "Bon Soir"
"Sweet Mama Tree Top Tall"
b/w "Nellie"
Non-album tracks
"Michael Row the Boat Ashore '65"
b/w "Puttin' on the Style"
1965 "Should I Go, Should I Stay"
b/w "Permit to Be a Hermit"
On a New Road
"I'll Show You the Way"
b/w "Never a Thought for Tomorrow"
1966 "Little Bird, Little Bird"
b/w "She's Not There"
Non-album tracks
"My Foolish Pride"
b/w "Flame"


  1. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 136. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  2. ^ "". Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  3. ^ a b Schofield, Derek (8 June 2010). "Dave Fisher obituary". The Guardian.
  4. ^ Beach, Randall. "". Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  5. ^ a b Original Highwayman Begins Final Journey Rowing Boat to Farthest Shore, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Dec. 2011. Retrieved 14 Dec. 2011.
  6. ^ All About Jazz (2010-05-13). "Dave Fisher | Jazz | Guitar, acoustic". Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  7. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 136. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  8. ^ Seeger, Pete; Reiser, Bob (1989). Everybody Says Freedom: A History of the Civil Rights Movement in Songs and Pictures. New York: W.W. Norton. p. 164. ISBN 978-0-393-30604-0.
  9. ^ The Weavers. "On Tour". Discogs. Retrieved 24 March 2020. (Track B1)
  10. ^ Keefer, Jane. "Folk Music Index". Folk Music – An Index to Recorded and Print Resources. iBiblio. Retrieved June 4, 2017.
  11. ^ Joel Whitburn (1994) Top Pop Singles 1955-1993. Menomonee Falls/Wisconsin: Record Research Inc.; p. 274
  12. ^ "". 2010-05-14. Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  13. ^ Stephen Nugent, Pete Fowler, Anne Fowler "The Log Of American British Top 20 Hits, 1955 - 1974", in: Charlie Gillett, Simon Frith (eds.) (1976) Rock File 4 Frogmore, St. Albans: Panther Books; p. 193
  14. ^ Günter Ehnert (ed.) (1990) Hit Bilanz. Deutsche Chart Singles 1956-1980. Hamburg: Taurus Press; p. 97
  15. ^ Johann Helton at Ada Community Library, Boise Weekly, by Jennifer Spencer. 19 May 2010. Retrieved 14 Dec. 2011.
  16. ^ a b Bob Burnett, 71, Performer in the Original Highwaymen, Dies, The New York Times. 10 Dec. 2011. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2011.
  17. ^ "". 2010-05-13. Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  18. ^ "Biographies of the Highwaymen" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  19. ^ Steve Butts
  20. ^ Noble, Richard E. (2009). Number #1 : the story of the original Highwaymen. Denver: Outskirts Press. pp. 146–148. ISBN 9781432738099. OCLC 426388468.
  21. ^ "Death of Dave Fisher". 2010-05-14. Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  22. ^ Grimes, William (April 9, 2011). "Gil Robbins, Folk Singer of the Highwaymen, Dies at 80". The New York Times.
  23. ^ Dave Fisher, Member of the Highwaymen, Dies at 69, The New York Times. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 2022-05-04.
  24. ^ Bob Burnett dies at 71; member of folk group the Highwaymen, Los Angeles Times. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  25. ^ [1] Archived June 4, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Grimes, William (April 9, 2011). "Gil Robbins, Folk Singer of the Highwaymen, Dies at 80". The New York Times.
  27. ^ "". Retrieved 2011-08-17.
  28. ^ "Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Stephen S. Trott". Retrieved 2011-12-12.
  29. ^ Thursby, Keith (2011-04-11). "Gil Robbins dies at 80; member of the 1960s folk group the Highwaymen". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2011-04-14.
  30. ^ Dowd, Maureen (3 February 2018). "'Hollywood Is Changing,' Says Its Veteran Activist, Tim Robbins". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 September 2021.

External links[edit]