Pete Seeger and The Weavers launched a folk tidal wave in the 1950s and their compound of social commentary and folkloric archaeology proved to have long-lasting cultural and musical value in an America itself coming to terms with huge societal challenge and change. Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellermann came from disparate backgrounds but together forged a unique folk ensemble with Gilbert supplying the soprano line, Hays the bass, whilst the inner parts were taken by baritone Hellermann and tenor Seeger. This release came at a timely moment as it coincided with Seeger’s death earlier in 2014. Gilbert and Hellerman are still with us, at the time of writing.
Their first tracks were made for small, indeed obscure labels, Charter and Hootenanny, at the end of 1949. The recording quality was sub-par but the performances, even that early, terrific. But they soon signed to Decca and from May 1950 onwards the hits began to flow. There were self-penned songs, such as Hays’ Lonesome Traveler,
as well as pieces picked up from the repertoires of contemporary protest singers and balladeers, such as Woody Guthrie’s So Long, It’s Been Good To Know Yuh.
They had the help by now of Gordon Jenkins who, with his orchestra, offered the kind of support the group could never have had, or afforded, when recording for small-time labels like Charter. They recorded, brilliantly, iconic things like Carl Sandburg and Lee Hays’s own The Wreck of the Sloop John B,
as well as Shenandoah
, their disc of it called simply Across the Wide Missouri.
Traditional English songs featured strongly in their repertoire.
The more obviously ‘authentic’ recordings were those shorn of orchestral support, whether from Jenkins, or Vic Schoen or Leroy Holmes. You can hear this, unvarnished, in a sequence made on 4 May 1951 with just double-bass accompaniment when they recorded things such as The Frozen Logger
and Easy Rider Blues
. They weren’t po-faced either – the former song is funny – and they could do Western-meets-Folk as in Old Paint
as well as a swing-styled take on Wimoweh.
Gordon Jenkins’s version of The Midnight Special
is easy-swinging and at a remove from Leadbelly’s own version – though he and the group originally conceived it together in its new form. The Weavers were dropped by Decca early in 1953 and were drifting toward disbandment in 1955 when their career picked up and they became a strong inspiration for the folk revival movement of the later 50s, 60s and 70s. Their brief Decca association, some of which is collected here in this 28-track selection, offers strong reasons for their inspirational place in American folk history.
Steve ArloffTrack listing
1. Wasn’t That A Time?
2. If I Had A Hammer
3. Around The World
4. Tzena, Tzena, Tzena
5. Lonesome Traveller
6. So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh
7. The Wreck Of The Sloop John B
8. The Roving Kind
9. Across The Wide Missouri
10. On Top of Old Smoky
11. Follow the Drinking Gourd
12. The Frozen Logger
13. Darling Cory
14. Easy Rider Blues
15. When The Saints Go Marching In
16. Kisses Sweeter Than Wine
17. Go Where I Send Thee
18. Old Paint
20. The Midnight Special
21. A-Round The Corner
22. Hard, Ain't It Hard
23. Bay of Mexico
24. Oh! My Darlin' Clementine
25. Rock Island Line (Rock Island Shuffle)
26. Taking It Easy
27. Bring Me Li'l Water, Sylvie
28. Goodnight, Irene