The Weavers Biography

This US folk group was formed in 1949 by artists with a background of traditional music, and comprised Lee Hays (1914, Little Rock, Arkansas, USA, d. 26 August 1981; vocals, guitar), Fred Hellerman (b. 13 May 1927, New York, USA; vocals, guitar), Ronnie Gilbert (b. vocals) and Pete Seeger (b. 3 May 1919, New York City, New York, USA; vocals, guitar, banjo). Previously, Seeger and Hays had been members of the Almanac Singers with Woody Guthrie. Unlike many similar groups of the time, the Weavers were able to attain commercial acceptance and success, without having to compromise their folk heritage. Virtually all their record releases charted, a precedent for a folk group. They have at times been credited with creating the climate for the post-war folk revival. Many songs became ‘standards’ as a result of the popularity achieved by the group, in particular, ‘Goodnight Irene’, which sold one million copies in 1950. Other successful songs were ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky’, the latter remaining at number 1 for three months. Despite Seeger being blacklisted in 1952, and brought before the House of Un-American Activities Committee, the group still sold over four million records during that period. The Weavers disbanded the same year because of personal reasons as well as the pressures brought about by the McCarthy era. The group had lost bookings after being added to the blacklist of left-wing, or even suspected left-wing, sympathizers at the time.

In 1955, their manager Harold Leventhal (b. 24 May 1919, d. 4 October 2005), persuaded them to reunite for a Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall. Such was the success of the event that they continued to tour internationally for a few more years, while still recording for the Vanguard Records label. At this point, Seeger was still able to combine his role in the group with a successful solo career, but by 1958, he had left the group. He was replaced in fairly quick succession by Erik Darling (b. 25 September 1933, Baltimore, Maryland, USA) then Frank Hamilton and finally Bernie Krause. The Weavers disbanded at the end of 1963, after 15 years together, and capped the event with an anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall. Travelling and personal ambitions were cited as the reasons for the split. After the group left the music scene, there were many who tried to fill their space but none had the same combination of enthusiasm and commitment that had made the Weavers such a popular act. Lee Hays, in his latter years confined to a wheelchair, died after many years of poor health in August 1981. In compliance with Hay’s wishes, his ashes were mixed with his garden compost pile! Nine months earlier, the original line-up had joined together to film the documentary Wasn’t That A Time?, recalling the group’s earlier successes.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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