Monday, June 9, 2008

The Weavers

The Weavers

For many of us who “came of age” in the 1950s and 60s, music was an important part of our lives. In Detroit, Michigan where I grew up, there was a wonderful mixture of music that represented the cultural mosaic of the people who worked and lived in the city. From tin pan alley to motown, and from country western to traditional folk, there was a musical genre for everyone. Of all the genres, folk music was more obscure, perhaps less relevant to big city life. I was not all that aware of folk music until I attended college in the fall of 1964. As I look back, it seemed like this genre of music spoke volumes about the 60s generation’s view of a country that was experiencing radical change. Whether it was civil rights, war in Vietnam, corruption in government, assassination of our leaders, or simply trying to get along with our parents, the events of the day found its voice in song--ballads that chronicled the history of an era.

The use of folksongs to express the experiences of common people has its roots in English history. Ballads were passed down orally from generation to generation; new singers added their own touches, their own details, moving the ballad out of its own time and making it meaningful for the singer and the contemporary audience. The folksong gained added dimension in the twentieth century when it became more topical. The expression of people about their struggles and hardships was heard through their songs of protest; the hard times of people, from the coal miners of Kentucky to the textile workers in New York to Black sharecroppers of the South were related in song.

Probably the most influential folk group, who had an impact on the 60s balladeers was the Weavers.

The Weavers, 1980 Reunion

The Weavers--Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman, started singing professionally in 1950. Throughout the 50s, they introduced college kids across America to folk songs that told a story about the successes and hardships of people all over the world. Many of the songs, old in origin, new in relevance, were political and were meant to change the world.

Members of the Weavers were part of a bigger group of songwriters who moved to New York City to find an outlet for their songs and to use their music to protest many of the conditions they believed American Society needed to change. In 1945 these artist gathered in Greenwich Village to incorporate a union called Peoples Songs. They envisioned that this union of songwriters would stage hootenannies, provide a library of protest songs for unions and other progressive groups, and send people out to perform at union gatherings and at picket lines. Key members of the group included Woody Guthrie, Cisco Houston, Leadbelly, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes. They had much to sing about-- a world without war, the end of racism and equality for everyone. Idealism, however, did not pay the bills and the group filed for bankruptcy in 1948. Some members of the group continued to meet in Greenwich Village in the basement of Pete Seeger’s in- laws on MacDougal Street. Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert continued to write, to revise and to sing their songs at union gatherings. Known as the Nameless Quartet for a long time, the group finally decided on a genre neutral name, the Weavers—meaning they were the weavers of song. Each member of the quartet brought to the group a unique world outlook and an agreement that songs were meant to teach as well as entertain.

The Weavers began by singing at union halls, at benefits, and at nursery schools, but received little pay; each had a day job to tide them over. They were looking for a way to make money and their big break came at Christmas, 1949 when they sang at a jazz club in New York City called the Village Vanguard.

Audiences at the Vanguard loved their music, which prompted management to book them for a three-month commitment. Gordon Jenkins of Decca Records “discovered’ the Weavers at the Vanguard and signed them to a 1 year contract. In that year they recorded two very successful songs, “Tsena Tsena” and “Goodnight Irene,” both songs stayed at the top of the charts for a long time. For the next two years, the Weavers played at venues across the country, their popularity grew and their financial fortunes gave them the financial security they did not have singing at Union Halls. But in 1952, the Weavers were blacklisted. Unfortunately for them, their popularity grew at the same time as McCarthyism. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of communist infiltration into the American government and society targeted many groups and individuals across America who had affiliations with the Communist party. For the Weavers, the scrutiny and newspaper banner headlines like, “Weavers Named Reds,” caused many nightclubs and concert halls to blacklist them. Members of the group were subpoenaed before the House Committee for Un-American Activities. Ronnie Gilbert was in California and refused to appear. Fred Hellerman and Lee Hayes took the 5th and Pete Seeger argued his 1st amendment rights. After the McCarthy era, the Weavers did not get their momentum back; their star began to fall. By the end of the 1950s, they played only on colleges campuses, and small clubs.

Pete Seeger is probably the most well known member of the Weavers. He has appeared on countless television show, the 70s generation will probably remember him for his frequent quest appearances on Sesame Street. He was born in New York City in 1919. His father was Charles Seeger, a musicologist and researcher of non-western music. Both his parents taught at Julliard School of Music in New York City. At an early age, he was introduced to the banjo, now a signature of his style. In 1940, Seeger joined the Almanac Singers, where he traveled the country with Lee Hayes, Millard Lampell, and Woody Guthrie playing folk and labor songs to whoever would listen.

During World War 11, Seeger lived in Saipan and played in a country Jazz band, where he entertained U.S. soldiers at the Island bases. After the war, he moved back to the States and worked with Alan Lomax in the Archive of Folk Music in the Library of Congress. While traveling around the country with the Almanac Singers, Seeger continued to collect songs, many of which he worked into the Weaver’s repertoire. Pete Seeger left the Weavers in 1958 when he started his own professional career as a songwriter and folksinger.Along with Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman made a significant contribution to the success of the Weavers.

Lee Hayes began his singing career in Arkansas, where he was born and raised. He arrived in New York in the 1930s. Besides a songwriter, Hayes wrote mystery stories and was a columnist for the Brooklyn Heights Press. Haye’s political views were a reflection of growing up in Arkansas and seeing the effects of the 1930s economic depression on his family and neighbors. He started reading books like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and other reading material that highlighted the economic inequality in the country. His reading selections had an effect on his political outlook. He admitted, “Somewhere along in there, I became some kind of socialist. Just what kind I’ve never to this day figured out.”

Like Lee Hayes, Ronnie Gilbert saw life through the socialist political lens.

Ronnie Gilbert 1999.

Gilbert brought to the Weavers a voice that blended well with her male counterparts, and a political ideology that fit with that of the other members of the quartet. Gilbert was born in 1926 in New York City. Her mother was a Polish-Jewish immigrant and worked in the garment district of New York City. She participated in union activity and was a member of the Communist party. Ronnie grew up in the union culture and was influenced by their politics and music; she often sang at union forums. She also spent three years in the chorus of a children’s radio show. Ronnie left home to work in Washington D. C. when she was 16. While in Washington, a friend introduced her to Jazz, African-American Congregational songs and Country western music. It was in Washington where she also met her first folk group, The Priority Ramblers. She joined the group in wartime Washington and became well grounded in the folk culture. After the war, Gilbert went back to New York where she worked at a worker/children’s camp. At the camp she met the forth member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman.

Fred Hellerman was born in 1927 in New York City. His father was a Latvian immigrant who worked in the rag business. Hellerman’s musical career started when he learned to play the guitar while in the Navy during World War Two. After the war, he played in a folk group call American Folksay; he also attended Brooklyn College, majoring in English. Lee Hays heard about Hellerman and his association with American Folksay and subsequently invited Hellerman to become a member of People’s Songs. Hellerman brought Ronnie Gilbert into People’s songs, and eventually they both joined the Weavers.

The common element that brought Seeger, Hayes, Hellerman and Gilbert together in the Greenwich Village apartment was their concern for social injustice and the need to raise the countries consciousness of the social ills in society. The solutions that they wrote in song often rejected capitalism and championed Unions and socialist doctrine. But in the long run, they did not necessarily reject the Capitalist system, indeed, they benefited from it by their success as songwriters and performers. Ironically, the song that brought the Weaver’s into national attention was not a protest song but a Negro Spiritual adopted by Leadbelly.

Huddi Ledbetter, known as Leadbelly, was a tremendous influence on members of the Peoples Songs, especially Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes and Woody Guthrie. Folklorists John and Alan Lomax discovered Leadbelly when the two toured the South in the 1930s, where they collected and recorded folk songs for the Library of Congress. On a tour of the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1933, they met Leadbelly. Leadbelly was born in 1885 on the Jeter Plantation in Louisiana. When he was five, his family moved to Texas. Growing up he learned to play the guitar and between working as a laborer and a guitar player, he made a living until convicted of murder in 1918. He was able to reduce his 30 yr. term of hard labor to seven by begging a pardon from the governor, which he did in a song. But in 1930, he was convicted of attempted homicide and sent to the Louisiana Penitentiary, where John and Alan Lomax met him. Leadbelly told Lomax of the Texas Governor’s pardon. Lomax decided to help Leadbelly by asking the Governor of Louisiana to pardon him; they made a record of his petition on the other side of one of Leadbelly’s favorite ballad, “Goodnight Irene.” Leadbelly received his pardon. Lomax took Leadbelly to New York in 1935. There, he met Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes and introduced them to his songs that described the struggle of Blacks in America.

The Weavers learned a lot from Leadbelly, but unfortunately, he died a month before the Weavers played the Vanguard. They dedicated the last song of their concert to Leadbelly by playing his song, “Goodnight Irene.” It became the signature closing at every Weaver’s concert thereafter.

“Goodnight Irene” is the first song I can ever remember hearing as a child. I didn’t pay much attention to the song as an adult, until I started listening to early Weaver recordings. Besides the songs deep roots in the early folk culture, it is a good example of the end of one musical era and the beginning of another. The early Weaver songs incorporated the big band sound of swing and jazz, which was popular in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Click on Arlo Guthrie for clip

Beside “Goodnight Irene”, The Weaver’s “Mimoweh” also incorporated the full band sound.

“Mimoweh”, or “the Lion Sleeps Tonight” was an African Folk song written by Soloman Linda and record by Linda’s band in 1939. Pete Seeger found the song in 1951, transcribed and copyrighted the work, it was one of his most successful songs.

Click on Arlo Guthrie for clip

Probably one of the most recorded songs written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes is “If I Had a Hammer.” I always associated the song with Peter Paul and Mary. Seeger and Hayes wrote the song while sitting at a one of the initial board meetings People’s Songs. Evidently, to fill time, they passed notes back and forth to one another. When the meeting was over, they had the lyrics to “If I Had a Hammer.” The song, as intended by the songwriters, was to warn of the threats that existed in American society to liberty, especially warning against such agencies as the government’s Un-American Activities Committee and the growing red-scare of the 1950s.

As luck would have it, their protest songs enabled the Weavers to live comfortably. Songs written by the groups or individually, climbed the charts and as emerging folk groups in the late 50s and early 60s began to entertain on Campuses and coffee houses across he country. The royalties from “If I had a Hammer”, along with “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “Lonesome Traveler,” and “Where Have all the Flower’s Gone.”

The Weaver became the prototypical folk singing group. They had all the ingredients that the 1960-generation of songsters were looking for--radical political views that promoted the ideology of peace, equality and social welfare. The Weavers were purest; they believed they could change the world by singing about the apparent injustices in society. They were from a generation used to hard times, but their idealism and political philosophy did not transcend to the future generation of folk singers. Like the Weavers, folk groups in he 60s often found that financial success often trumped idealism.

The Red Dust Players and Agnes "Sis " Cunningham

Today few Americans think of music or theatre in terms of spreading propaganda, especially propaganda that espoused a political ideology. In the economic hard times of the 1930s, when many people questioned the merits of the Capitalist system, music and theatre were important tools in educating poor farmers and workers to a different economic system, one where all people shared equally in the profits of their labor. In the rural areas of Oklahoma, where dry conditions and a lack of financial resources caused extreme poverty, organizers for the Socialist Party found a warm reception among the people. The plight of tenants and sharecroppers became a focal point for socialists who were organizing in the South. Socialist began organizing through for Southern Tenant Farmers Unions in Oklahoma in 1934. Oklahomans, who had socialist sympathies and were interested in helping small farmers and sharecroppers, put their energies into organizing the STFU in their state. Some of the most effective organizers traveled with a theatre troupe called the Red Dust Players. Agnes “Sis” Cunningham was one the founders of the Red Dust Players, and later, when in New York City, helped organized the Almanac Singers, and the Weavers. Cunningham’s experience in writing songs for the labor movement in Oklahoma eventually influenced a whole generation of budding folk singers.

Almanac Singers

Cunningham’s experience in writing songs for the labor movement in Oklahoma eventually influenced a whole generation of budding folk singers.

Agnes Cunningham

Agnes Cunningham was born in Watonga, Oklahoma, in 1909, where she grew up on a small farm. In the early 1930s, the bank foreclosed on her parent’s farm, which left a definite impact of the Cunningham family. The struggles of farmers against high interest rates, high land values, low agricultural prices, and unforgiving climatic conditions culminated in bitterness and resentment toward a system of government that seemingly showed little understanding of their condition. It was out of this struggle that Agnes’ family, like many farmers, turned to socialism as a solution to their problems. Cunningham’s father was a follower of Eugene Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party, which was organized in 1901.

As a young adult, Agnes Cunningham was concerned foremost with the plight of the migrant workers, whose ranks were filled with poor farmers and sharecroppers. She worked to bring attention to a problem and to offer hope to a class of people in need of assistance.

Cunningham obtained her training as a songwriter at Weatherford Teachers College in 1929. In 1932, she enrolled in Commonwealth Labor College, a radical labor school in Mena, Arkansas. The curriculum at the Labor College was far to the left on the political spectrum, courses in American history were replaced by courses in Russian history and Marxism was taught instead of capitalism. The College also trained students to work in the southern labor movement by training them in union methods, labor history, farm labor economic, labor drama and public speaking. It was at Commonwealth College that Cunningham began writing labor songs and learned the elements of social theatre.

Students at Commonwealth Labor College

Social theatre, like the folksong of protest, expressed the attitudes of the times and the people. In the early part of the twentieth century, new playwrights emerged whose work became known as the theatre of the left, a form of expression influenced by the Soviet Theatre. The plays were known as agitprop theatre, short plays written for the purpose of political agitation and propaganda.

STFU Meeting

The Red Dust Players incorporated all the elements of social theatre in their plays.
With her brother, William Cunningham, Agnes wrote the songs that accompanied agitprop plays, which were performed before farmers in rural Oklahoma. The Red Dust Players consisted of people from diverse backgrounds. Doris, the director, was in her twenties, a housewife, and married to a young college professor. Doris also had experience with left wing theatre in New York City. The writer for the group, Dan Garrison, was experienced at writing plays and novels. The other members were either housewives or just concerned people who found the Red Dust Players a support groups that might be able to help sharecroppers and farm laborers. The people who made up the Red Dust Players carried full time jobs during the day, and in the evenings and weekends devoted time to traveling the Oklahoma countryside wherever there was a union meeting set up for them. Agnes wrote such memorable songs as “Raggedy Raggedy Are We,” “Mister Congressman,” and “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.”

The Red Dust Players hardly had a start in Oklahoma before they were caught up in what has been referred to as the “Oklahoma Witch Hunt”. The political atmosphere in Oklahoma in the late 1930s and early 1940 was one of polarization and conflict. The war in Europe and the threat to the United State caused many people to fear communism. In Oklahoma, the communist doctrine of Russia and all that it represented was alien to the democratic principles that most Oklahomans believed. The organizations and the people with socialist and communist doctrines, who tried to unionize in Oklahoma, because prime targets for those people who opposed the communist movement in America. The “witch hunt’ effected that Red Dust Players. When they returned to Oklahoma City after playing in the country, they found their homes broken into—letters and papers strewn about, housebold stuff in shambles and books missing. Members of the troupe believed that they were targeted for arrest; they left Oklahoma never to return.

In 1941, Agnes married Gordon Friesen and moved to New York City where they continued their radical activities and became involved with the Almanac Singers with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Bess Lomax, Millard Lampell and Lee Hayes.

Sis Cunningham and husband Gordon Friesen

In the 1950s, Agnes and her husband started a folk publication called Broadsides, which helped promote young songwriters and performers like Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs.

Agnes Cunningham died in New York City in 2004 at the age of 95. She continued to protest the ills of capitalism up to the time of her death. In 1994, on hearing that I had written an article about the Red Dust Players, she sent me her latest song, “Wall Street Suite” an indictment against those who made their fortune in the stock market. She signed the music, “ In Solidarity, Sis Cunningham.” Well, I’m not a fellow traveler, but it is an interesting history of those who had a great influence in promoting music as a way to communicate—folksongs truly are the “people’s music.

You can listen some of Cunningham’s songs on her Folkways album, Sundown

Besides such songs as Woody’s Guthrie’s, “Great Dust Storm”, and “Jay Gould’s Daughter”, there is “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away”, written by Sis and brother Bill for the Red Dust Players. I don’t know whether Cunningham lived long enough to hear “My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away” on Bruce Springsteen’s latest album, “We Shall Overcome.” I think Agnes Cunningham would have been very pleased that this simple, almost forgotten musical composition would find the light of day for a new generation of folk listeners.

Click on the tornado to here My Oklahoma Home Blowed Away.