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|Origin||Greenwich Village, New York, USA|
|Years active||1948â€“1952, 1955-1964, sporadically thereafter|
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 selling millions of records at the height of their popularity. Their hard-driving string-band style inspired the commercial "folk boom" that followed them in the 1950s and 1960s, including such performing groups as The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The Weavers were formed in November 1948 by Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman and Pete Seeger. In 1940 and 1941, Hays and Seeger had co-founded a previous group, the Almanac Singers, which disbanded during the war. The new group took its name from a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, Die Weber (The Weavers: a Drama of the Forties 1892), a powerful play depicting the rising of the Silesian weavers in 1844, containing the lines, "I'll stand it no more, come what may". 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 Leadbelly's "Goodnight, Irene", backed with the 1941 Israeli song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena", which in turn became a best seller. 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.
The Weavers' successful concerts and hit recordings helped introduce to new audiences such folk revival standards as "On Top of Old Smoky" (with guest vocalist Terry Gilkyson), "Follow the Drinking Gourd", "Kisses Sweeter than Wine", "The Wreck of the John B" (aka "Sloop John B"), "Rock Island Line", "The Midnight Special", "Pay Me My Money Down", and "Darling Corey". The Weavers encouraged sing-alongs in their concerts, and Seeger would sometimes shout out the lyrics in advance of each line in lining out style.
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".
During the Red Scare, however, Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were denounced as Communist Party members by FBI informant Harvey Matusow (who later recanted) and ended up being called up to testify to the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1955. Hays took the Fifth Amendment. Seeger, however, refused to answer on 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 constitutional grounds, effectively ending the power of the committee. 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 songs from its catalog in 1953, and their records were denied airplay, which dried up 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. After this, Pete Seeger continued his solo career, although like 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. The concert was a huge success. A recording of the concert 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.
When in the late fifties The Weavers agreed to provide the vocals for a TV cigarette commercial, Pete Seeger, opposed to the dangers of tobacco and discouraged by the group's apparent sell-out to commercial interests, decided to resign. He spent his last year with the Weavers honoring his commitments, but described himself as feeling like a prisoner. He left the group on April 1, 1958.
Seeger recommended Erik Darling of The Tarriers as his replacement. 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 15th anniversary with two nights of concerts at Carnegie Hall in March 1963. Folksinger Bernie Krause, later a pioneer in bringing the Moog synthesizer to popular music, was the last performer to occupy "the Seeger chair." The group disbanded in 1964, but Gilbert, Hellerman and Hays occasionally reunited with either Seeger or Darling into 1980.
Lee Hays, ill and using a wheelchair, wistfully approached the original Weavers for one last get-together. Hays's informal picnic prompted a professional reunion, and a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall. A documentary film, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982), was released after Hays's death, and chronicled the history of the group, and the events leading up to the reunion.
Lee Hays died in 1981, and his biography, Lonesome Traveler by Doris Willens, was published in 1988. Ronnie Gilbert has toured America as a soloist. Fred Hellerman is a recording engineer and producer. Pete Seeger is the elder statesman of folk music; he doesn't travel as often as formerly. Erik Darling died August 3, 2008, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina from lymphoma, at the age of 74. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2001.
In February 2006 The Weavers received the Lifetime Achievement Award given out annually at the Grammy awards show. 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," said Hellerman.
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