Just as rock and roll was gaining ascendancy during the 1950s another musical phenomenon was taking place – a revival of folk music that lasted well into the sixties through the popularity of the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel and many others.
One group can easily be credited with the tremendous resurgence of interest in American folk traditions and folk songs that began along with the new decade – the Weavers. Pete Seeger founded the group with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman in Greenwich Village in 1948. The Weavers brought a hard-driving string-band style to a mix of traditional folk songs from around the world, blues, gospel music, children’s songs, labor songs, and American ballads. They burst onto the popular scene in the summer of 1950 with “Goodnight Irene,” a #1 record for 13 weeks.
The Weavers went on to sell millions of copies of songs such as “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky” at the height of their popularity. Then as fast as their careers had skyrocketed, they were nearly destroyed by the Red Scare that had firmly gripped the country. When it became known that Seeger and Hays had openly embraced the pacifism, internationalism and pro-labor sympathies of the Communist Party during the 1930s, the backlash was swift and brutal. Planned television shows were canceled, the group was placed under FBI surveillance, and Seeger and Hays were called to testify before Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca in 1951, and by 1953, they were barred from television and radio and unable to book concert venues. They soon disbanded.
The Weavers enjoyed a comeback in the late 1950s, but the group never shook its right-wing persecutors. Even as late as January 2, 1962, with anti-communist passion declining, their politics were used against them, On that afternoon they were told that a scheduled appearance on The Jack Paar Show would be canceled if they didn’t sign an oath of political loyalty. Every member of the group refused to sign.
Lee Hays died in 1981 shortly after a reunion brought the wandering minstrels back together for a picnic that led to a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1980, the group’s last ever performance. Pete Seeger never stopped singing until his death in 2014. Ronnie Gilbert died in 2015, Fred Hellerman in 2016.
“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.” Fred Hellerman, accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for the Weavers in 2006
If you don’t mind smelling like peanut butter for two or three days, peanut butter is darn good shaving cream.
To disagree, one doesn’t have to be disagreeable.
It’s a great country, where anybody can grow up to be president … except me.