I was clicking the remote on my way to Rachel Maddow's show the other night when I ran across a re-broadcast on the local PBS station of the Weaver's documentary Wasn't That a Time! which captured their 1980 reunion concert at Carnegie Hall. It's been too long since I last saw this film so I changed my plans, sat back and spent the next ninety or so minutes enjoying the music of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. And by the time the last song was sung, the tears flowed.
The story of the Weavers is a long and winding road, and it begins years before the band formed in 1948. It's origins stretch back to the early forties, prior to the US entering the war, when Seeger and Hays joined Woody Guthrie and Millard Lampell as The Almanac Singers, who "specialized in topical songs, especially songs connected with the labor movement. They were part of the Popular Front an alliance of liberals and leftists, including the Communist Party USA, who had vowed to put aside their differences in order to fight fascism and promote racial and religious inclusiveness and workers' rights. The Almanac Singers felt strongly that songs could help achieve these goals." (Source:Wikipedia)
Playing at the Village Vanguard in NYC, the Weavers landed a recording contract with Decca and in 1950 they scored a number one hit that sat at the top of the charts for 13 weeks with Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene". During the time known as the "Red Scare" which followed WW2, there was a wave of anti-Communism in the US, brought about what we now refer to as "McCarthyism". This refers to the practice of making accusations of disloyalty, subversion, or treason without proper regard for evidence and comes from the hearings held by Sentaor Joseph McCarthy. Hays and Seeger were both called to testify in front of the committee and while Hays invoked the Fifth Amendment, Seeger chose not to testify based on the First Amendment...freedom of speech.
Because of their ties to the Communist Party, all of the Weavers ended up being blacklisted along with many other entertainers and public figures. Placed under FBI surveillance, they were forbidden to perform on radio or TV, Decca terminated their contract and deleted their catalog, and concert promoters were harassed and threatened which effectively ended the Weavers ability to earn a living. In 1952 they disbanded.
In 1955 the band reunited to perform a concert booked at Carnegie Hall in NY, and the successful show was recorded. Almost every record label was fearful to release it until finally a small independent company named Vanguard Records (today owned by The Welk Group) agreed to put it out. As McCarthyism began to fade, the popularity of the band and folk music in general began to grow. Seeger left the group in 1958 to be replaced by Erik Darling, who was then followed by Frank Hamilton and Bernie Krause until the band disbanded again in 1964. There were occasional one-off gigs over the years, but Lee Hays is credited with coming up with the idea for one final reunion of the original group...which is where the documentary begins.
During this pledge drive season for PBS, this film has been picked up for broadcast by quite a few stations throughout the country. While at first I thought that maybe it was the actions in Wisconsin that might have prompted interest from programmers, these things are decided months in advance. So I imagine it's just a coincidence.
As this is simply a blog and I'm not a professional writer, my purpose for sharing this with you is not to tell the Weaver's entire story, but to hopefully spur some interest in others to look back and revisit the musical heritage of America, especially in light of today's political environment. As I began reading and gathering information for this post, I discovered so many interesting stories and threads that I'd either forgotten or never knew about.
In particular, Lee Hays has an extremely compelling story that goes back to his witnessing the lynching of African-Americans when he was just five years old in Arkansas. After his father was killed in an automobile accident when he was just thirteen, his mother and sister both suffered mental breakdowns. At the College of the Ozarks in the thirties he became a disciple of the minister Claude C. Williams, who promoted racial equality and helped organize the coal worker's unions. Hays met Zilphia Johnson at college and visited her after she married Myles Horton a founder and the director of the Highlander Folk School, an adult education and labor organizing school in Monteagle, Tennessee. At a miner's union meeting it was Zilphia Horton who got Hays to stand up and lead everyone in song, and it was the beginning of his musical career. (As many of you here may know, ND site manager Kim Ruehl is currently researching and writing a book about Zilphia.)
It seems that as I get older these days, my interest in learning more about the American artists and music that have proceeded this current passion of what we loosely call Americana is growing. Perhaps it just comes with age, or maybe it's a response to an overload of too much technology, too much pop culture, too much Tea Party, too much erosion of people power. And the more I dig deeper into our past, I can't help but to think to myself...wasn't that a time?