The Weavers

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The Weavers
OriginGreenwich Village, New York City, United States
Years active1948–1952, 1955–1964, 1980
(occasional reunions between 1964 and 1980)
LabelsDecca, Vanguard
Past membersRonnie Gilbert
Lee Hays
Fred Hellerman
Pete Seeger
Erik Darling
Frank Hamilton
Bernie Krause

The Weavers were an American folk music quartet based in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. They sang traditional folk songs from around the world, as well as blues, gospel music, children's songs, labor songs, and American ballads, and sold millions of records at the height of their popularity.



In 1940, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger co-founded the Almanac Singers, which promoted peace and isolationism during World War II, working with the American Peace Mobilization (APM). It featured many songs opposing entry into the war by the U.S. In June 1941, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the APM changed its name to the American People's Mobilization and altered its focus to supporting U.S. entry into the war.[1][2] The Almanacs supported the change and produced many pro-war songs urging the U.S. to fight on the side of the Allies. The Almanac Singers disbanded after the U.S. entered the war.

The Weavers were formed in November 1948 by Hays, Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman.[3] At Hellerman's suggestion,[4] the group took its name from a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, Die Weber (The Weavers 1892), 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".

Early career[edit]

After a period of being unable to find much paid work, they landed a steady and successful engagement at the Village Vanguard jazz club. This led to their discovery by arranger-bandleader Gordon Jenkins and their signing with Decca Records. The group had a big hit in 1950 with Lead Belly's "Goodnight, Irene", backed with the 1941 song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", which in turn became a best seller.[3] The recording stayed at number one on the charts for 13 weeks. "Goodnight, Irene" sold one million copies in 1950.[5] In keeping with the audience expectations of the time, these and other early Weavers' releases had violins and orchestration added behind the group's own string-band instruments. Because of the deepening Red Scare of the early 1950s, their manager, Pete Cameron, advised them not to sing their most explicitly political songs and to avoid performing at "progressive" venues and events. Because of this, some folk song fans criticized them for watering down their beliefs and commercializing their singing style. But the Weavers felt it was worth it to get their songs before the public, and to avoid the explicit type of commitment which had led to the demise of the Almanacs. The new approach proved a success, leading to many bookings and increased demand for the group's recordings.

The successful concerts and hit recordings of the Weavers helped introduce to new audiences such folk revival standards as "On Top of Old Smoky"[3] (with guest vocalist Terry Gilkyson), "Follow the Drinking Gourd", "Kisses Sweeter than Wine", "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore", "The Wreck of the John B" (aka "Sloop John B"), "Rock Island Line", "The Midnight Special", "Pay Me My Money Down", "Darling Corey" and "Wimoweh". The Weavers encouraged sing-alongs in their concerts, and sometimes Seeger would shout out the lyrics in advance of each line in lining out style.[3]

Film footage of the Weavers is relatively scarce. The group appeared as a specialty act in a B-movie musical, Disc Jockey (1951), and filmed five of their record hits that same year for TV producer Lou Snader: "Goodnight, Irene", "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", "So Long", "Around the World", and "The Roving Kind".

McCarthy era[edit]

During McCarthyism, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were identified as Communist Party USA members by FBI informant Harvey Matusow (who later recanted) and were called to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. Hays took the Fifth Amendment,[6] which allows people not to give evidence against themselves, so they could not be prosecuted without other witnesses.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[5] 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.[5] The concert was a huge success. A recording of the concert, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, 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 it was not until the height of the 1960s that Seeger was able to end his blacklisting by appearing on the nationally broadcast CBS-TV variety show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, in 1967.[10]

After the April 1957 LP release of the Carnegie Hall concert, the Weavers launched a month-long concert tour. 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 a rock-and-roll single. The results were embarrassing and fueled Seeger's frustration. The following month Gilbert, Hays, and Hellerman overruled Seeger about 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 interests, decided to resign. Honoring his commitment to record the jingle, he left the group on March 3, 1958.[5]

Seeger recommended Erik Darling of the Tarriers as his replacement.[5] Darling remained with the group until June 1962, leaving to pursue a solo career and eventually to form the folk-jazz trio the Rooftop Singers. Frank Hamilton, who replaced Darling, stayed with the group nine months, giving his notice just before the Weavers celebrated the group's fifteenth anniversary with two nights of concerts at Carnegie Hall in March 1963.[5] Folksinger Bernie Krause, later a pioneer in bringing the Moog synthesizer to popular music, was the last performer to occupy "the Seeger chair".[5] The group disbanded in 1964, but Gilbert, Hellerman, and Hays occasionally reunited with Seeger during the next 16 years. In 1980, Lee Hays, ill and using a wheelchair, wistfully approached the original Weavers for one last get-together. Hays' informal picnic prompted a professional reunion, and a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1980, which was to be the band's last full performance. They appeared one final time in June 1981 at the Clearwater Festival, in an informal "rehearsal".[11]

Music style[edit]

In a 1968 interview, in response to claims that record companies found the Weavers difficult to classify, Seeger told the Pop Chronicles music documentary to "leave that up to the anthropologists, the folklorists. ... For you and me, the important thing is a song, a good song, a true song. ... Call it anything you want."[3][12]

A documentary film, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982), was released after the death of Hays, and chronicled the history of the group, and the events leading up to the reunion.[5] Critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars out of a possible four in his Chicago Sun-Times review and named it one of his top 10 films for 1982.

After disbanding[edit]

Following the dissolution of the band, Ronnie Gilbert toured America as a soloist and Fred Hellerman worked as a recording engineer and producer. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001. Gilbert also performed and recorded with Holly Near, and then (in 1985) as "HARP," featuring Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete Seeger.

In February 2006, the Weavers received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Represented by members Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, they struck a chord with the crowd as their struggles with political witch hunts during the 1950s were recounted. "If you can exist, and stay the course – not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception – but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact", Hellerman said. Some commentators see the reference to "blind obstinacy" as a veiled criticism of those who believed blindly in all the actions of the communist party.

Lee Hays died in 1981, aged 67, and his biography, Lonesome Traveler by Doris Willens, was published in 1988.[13] Erik Darling died August 3, 2008, aged 74, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from lymphoma. After a long career in music and activism, Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 on January 27, 2014, in New York City. Ronnie Gilbert died at the age of 88 on June 6, 2015.[14] Last-surviving founding member Fred Hellerman died at the age of 89 on September 1, 2016.[15]


Partial discography[edit]

  • The Weavers' Greatest Hits
  • The Weavers at Carnegie Hall (live)
  • The Weavers at Carnegie Hall Vol. 2 (live)
  • Wasn't That a Time! boxed set
  • Best of the Vanguard Years
  • The Weavers Reunion at Carnegie Hall: 1963 (live)
  • The Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963, Pt. 2 (live)
  • The Weavers at Home – Vanguard VRS 9024 (1957–58)
  • Travelling On with The Weavers VRS 9043 (1957–58)
  • Reunion at Carnegie Hall No. 2 (live)
  • Rarities from the Vanguard Vault
  • Kisses Sweeter Than Wine (compilation of 1950–51 live shows, edited by Fred Hellerman)
  • The Weavers Almanac
  • The Best of the Decca Years
  • Ultimate Collection
  • The Weavers Classics
  • Best of the Weavers
  • Gospel
  • Goodnight Irene: Weavers 1949–53 boxed set
  • We Wish You a Merry Christmas
  • The Weavers on Tour (Live) – Vanguard VRS 9013
  • Together Again (Live at Carnegie Hall in 1980, recorded in 1981) Loom 10681
  • The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (video)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Radicals: Purely for Peace", Time, July 14, 1941, archived from the original on October 19, 2012
  2. ^ "American Peoples Mobilization Collected Records, 1940-1941". Peace Collection, Swarthmore College.
  3. ^ a b c d e Pete Seeger interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  4. ^ Grimes, William, "Fred Hellerman, Last of the Weavers Folk Group, Dies at 89", The New York Times, September 2, 2016. Retrieved 2016-09-03.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Colin Larkin, ed. (1997). The Virgin Encyclopedia of Popular Music (Concise ed.). Virgin Books. p. 1238. ISBN 1-85227-745-9.
  6. ^ Edward Renehan. Pete Seeger vs. The Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist. p. 43.
  7. ^ Edward Renehan. Pete Seeger vs. The Un-Americans: A Tale of the Blacklist. p. 42.
  8. ^ "Sing out, warning! sing out, love!": the writings of Lee Hays, by Lee Hays and Steven Koppelman (Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), p. 116.
  9. ^ "The Weavers - Inductees - The Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  10. ^ Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, by David Bianculli, Touchstone, 2009.
  11. ^ Blau, Eleanor (June 19, 1981). "Weavers to Be Reunited at Hudson River Revival". New York Times. Retrieved April 25, 2016.
  12. ^ Gilliland, John (1969). "O-S interview index" (audio). Pop Chronicles. University of North Texas Libraries.
  13. ^ Willens, D. Lonesome Traveler: The Life of Lee Hays, W.W. Norton, 1988.
  14. ^ Doc Rock. "January to June 2015". The Dead Rock Stars Club. Retrieved June 26, 2015.
  15. ^ John Burgeson. "Fred Hellerman, 89, the last of the Weavers". ctpost. Retrieved September 2, 2016.

External links[edit]