A single guitar chord, then the words, “We are traveling in the footsteps / Of those who’ve gone before” and you can only respond with, “Amen to that, brother!” From the beginning first seconds of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, the music traveling through the air is the instantly recognizable sound of the Weavers. High-spirited, optimistic, and rich in harmonies, the music that the Weavers spun in the early 1950s undeniably changed the course of music history and continues to make an impression on the American psyche to this very day. Although the Weavers were genuinely a pop phenomenon themselves, the group is perhaps better recognized as a prime influence for popularizing folk music. Because the Weavers successfully introduced folk music to a broad public half a century ago, folk music entered the mainstream. Folk music went back to the folk, in a big way, and all due to the Weavers. This album offers 24 songs everyone seems to know by heart, captured between the years 1955 and 1963 from both live and studio performances and represent theBest of the Vanguard Years.
In 1948, the Weavers were formed by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert. The Weavers as self-described by Seeger were “two low baritones, one brilliant alto, and a split tenor”. While official press releases even to this day say the Weavers selected their name after hearing how well their voices intertwined, there is another version of that story. That one goes the group drew their name the Weavers from a play by the same name by Gerhart Hauptmann. “Die Weber”, a dramatization of the Silesian weavers’ revolt of 1844, brought fame to the playwright even though the play was first banned. That can pretty well summarize the career of the Weavers, as well.
In addition to being a commercial success, the Weavers also became famous as an early ‘50s banned. In 1949, after a more than a few wood shedding gigs supporting progressive causes like labor unions and civil rights, the Weavers played a concert with Paul Robeson in Peekskill, New York. The concert by all reports ended in violence when vigilantes and police attacked the participants, beating and stoning and injuring over 200 people. Shortly later, the Weavers’s recording of the Leadbelly song “Goodnight Irene” backed with “Tzena Tzena Tzena” became a big double-sided hit, topping the charts of the day and becoming one of the biggest hits of the first half of the century.
From 1950 to 1951, the Weavers sold over four million 78 rpm records and at the time were called “the most influential group in the business” by Time magazine. Soon, the Weavers became famous as an early ‘50s banned. In the midst of a growing right-wing hysteria when the nation’s fears and anger were fueled publicly by demagogues, long about 1952 the Weavers were blacklisted due to the leftist political beliefs and associations of several members. After which, Pete Seeger was excluded from television appearances for 16 years. “Blacklisting” as a word can’t really detail the day-to-day experiences, but Ronnie Gilbert recently shared a brief account.
This record showcases the Weavers in the beginnings of the post-blacklisting period when the ‘50s merged into the ‘60s. Freed of the string arrangements that put their music into the commercial context of the early ‘50s, this is the Weavers playing flat-out acoustic. The tracks that capture them singing in front of an enthusiastic audience are among the best, demonstrating the Weavers in an unaffected, honest performance style. When listening to this record, it’s rather amazing to consider just how many folk standards the Weavers were instrumental in popularizing. Hit follows memorable hit: “On Top of Old Smoky”, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”, “Wimoweh”, and “Midnight Special”. The Weavers introduced these songs to others who later went on to create best-selling records themselves with the same songs. The Weavers continued with “Wreck of the John B”, “Guantanamera”, “Rock Island Line”, “The House of the Rising Sun”, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore”, and “If I Had a Hammer”. And the hits just keep rolling out.
The Weavers’ rendition of “This Land Is Your Land” was both easy and joyous to sing. The lyrics reflect a deep and genuine love for America, a country whose natural beauties and promise of unity can provide a continuing inspiration even more expansive than the words themselves can encompass. “This Land Is Your Land”, because of its uplifting nature and friendliness to common everyday voices, prompted a popular movement to replace the “Star Spangled Banner” with that song as America’s new national anthem.
While the sound of the Weavers can now sound quaint to the listener, the music of the Weavers retains an intrinsic value of nearly inestimable proportion. Children in particular love hearing the Weavers and always want to sing along, which they can do because the structure of the music makes it easy to participate which can only build confidence. Sam Hurwitt in writing about Pete Seeger forSalonended his tribute to the musician with a quote from liner notes written by Seeger himself: “The artist in ancient times inspired, entertained, educated his fellow citizens. Modern artists have an additional responsibility—to encourage others to be artists. Why? Because technology is going to destroy the human soul unless we realize that each of us must in some way be a creator as well as a spectator or consumer. . . . Make your own music, write your own books, if you would keep your soul.” And hopefully the hits will just keep rolling out.
// Notes from the Road
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