The Highwaymen (folk band)

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For the country supergroup, see The Highwaymen (country supergroup).

The Highwaymen were a circa 1960s "collegiate folk" group. They originated at Wesleyan University and had a Billboard #1 hit in 1961 with "Michael", a version of the African-American work song Michael, Row the Boat Ashore, and another Top 20 hit in 1962 with "Cotton Fields". "Michael" sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold record.[1][2]


As a freshman in 1958, Dave Fisher,[3] who in high school had sung in a doo-wop group, 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.[1] In 1959, United Artists released his arrangement of the African-American work song "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore"; first collected by folklorist Guy Carawan. The recording reached #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart on 4-11 September 1961 under the abbreviated title of "Michael",[7] earning the quintet a gold record.[8] The single also reached #1 in the UK[9] and #4 in Germany.[10] 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][11]

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 name continued for another year or two with professional musicians Renny Temple, Roy Connors, Mose Henry, and Alan Scharf performing on a contract basis. 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."[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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. [15] 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, were 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 and the name was licensed to them after the foursome agreed to let the members of the original group share the stage at a 1990 concert in Hollywood.

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.[16]

Daniels died of pneumonia on August 2, 1975 at the age of 36.[17]

Fisher died on May 7, 2010, at the age of 69.[18]

Burnett died of brain cancer on December 7, 2011 at his home in Riverside, Rhode Island. He was 71.[19][20]

Today, just two of the five original members are still alive - Steve Trott and Steve Butts.[21]


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 an important, long-overlooked song by Lead Belly, "Cotton Fields", 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, or at least the first recording in the United States, of an important song by Buffy Sainte-Marie ("Universal Soldier").[22]

Original Members[edit]

Dave Fisher (July 19, 1940 – May 7, 2010)[3]
Bob Burnett (February 7, 1940, Providence, Rhode Island – December 7, 2011)[12]
Steve Butts
Chan Daniels (died August 2, 1975, aged 36)
Steve Trott (born Stephen S. Trott, December 12, 1939, Glen Ridge, New Jersey)[23]

Additional Members[edit]

Gil Robbins (born Gilbert Lee Robbins, April 3, 1931, Spokane, Washington – April 5, 2011)[24]
Johann Helton (born in 1953)

Notable songs[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ Joel Whitburn (1994) Top Pop Singles 1955-1993. Menomonee Falls/Wisconsin: Record Research Inc.; p. 274
  8. ^ "". 2010-05-14. Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  9. ^ 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
  10. ^ Günter Ehnert (ed.) (1990) Hit Bilanz. Deutsche Chart Singles 1956-1980. Hamburg: Taurus Press; p. 97
  11. ^ Johann Helton at Ada Community Library, Boise Weekly, by Jennifer Spencer. 19 May 2010. Retrieved 14 Dec. 2011.
  12. ^ a b Bob Burnett, 71, Performer in the Original Highwaymen, Dies, The New York Times. 10 Dec. 2011. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2011.
  13. ^ "". 2010-05-13. Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  14. ^ "Biographies of the Highwaymen" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  15. ^ Steve Butts
  16. ^ "Death of Dave Fisher". 2010-05-14. Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  17. ^ Grimes, William (April 9, 2011). "Gil Robbins, Folk Singer of the Highwaymen, Dies at 80". The New York Times. 
  18. ^ Dave Fisher, Member of the Highwaymen, Dies at 69, The New York Times. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 13 Dec. 2011.
  19. ^ Bob Burnett dies at 71; member of folk group the Highwaymen, Los Angeles Times. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 13 December 2011.
  20. ^ [1][dead link]
  21. ^ Grimes, William (April 9, 2011). "Gil Robbins, Folk Singer of the Highwaymen, Dies at 80". The New York Times. 
  22. ^ "". Retrieved 2011-08-17. 
  23. ^ "Biographical Directory of Federal Judges: Stephen S. Trott". Federal Retrieved 2011-12-12. 
  24. ^ 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. 

External links[edit]