If you are a fan of folk music, and WC is an unabashed fan, then you know about the Weavers. Even if you aren’t a huge fan of folk music, you should know about the Weavers. They were that important. And, in many ways, Fred Hellerman was the heart and soul of the Weavers.
Sure, before the Weavers there was the Almanac Singers, but they specialized in topical songs, mostly songs advocating an anti-war, anti-racism and pro-union philosophy. As much as anything, the the Almanac Singers were the musical voice of the Congress of Industrial Organization, the CIO. Never mind their pro-America, antiracism songbooks; the FBI and U.S Army Intelligence hounded the Almanac Singers into disbanding in 1943.
The Weavers were formed in November 1948 by Hellerman, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. Hays and Seeger had been founding members of the Almanac Singers. It was Hellerman who named the group, after a play by Gerhart Hauptmann, Die Weber (The Weavers 1892), a powerful work depicting the uprising of the Silesian weavers in 1844. The play contains the lines, “I’ll stand it no more, come what may,” which became a kind of theme for the Weavers. Unlike the more overtly political songlist of the Almanac Singers, the Weavers mined the American songbook. The standard was the music, not the message. Pete Seeger said in 1968, the music was “For you and me, the important thing is a song, a good song, a true song. …Call it anything you want.”
Fred Hellerman sang baritone in the group, played guitar and wrote many of their hit songs, including “There Once Was a Young Man Who Went to the City,” “Tapuach Hineni” and, with Fran Minkoff, “The Honey Wind Blows” and the antiwar ballad “Come Away Melinda.” For Harry Belafonte he wrote “I’m Just a Country Boy” (with Marshall Baker), “I Never Will Marry,” “Green Grow the Lilacs” and “Walkin’ on the Green Grass.”
The Weavers 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“, “Darling Corey” and “Wimoweh“. And they popularized songs by Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly, like “Goodnight, Irene“.
Despite their efforts to be less political, the Weavers were blacklisted in the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy Era. All of the members of the Weavers were placed under FBI surveillance and not allowed to perform on television or radio. Decca Records terminated their recording contract and deleted their records from its catalog in 1953. Their recordings were denied airplay, which limited their income from royalties. Right-wing and anti-Communist groups picketed and protested at their performances and harassed promoters. As a result, the group’s economic viability diminished rapidly and in 1952 it disbanded.
To avoid the blacklist, Hellerman, like a lot of other blacklisted artists, wrote under a pseudonym, Fred Brooks. He also performed, often uncredited, for artists like Joan Baez and Judy Collins on their debut albums. He produced Arlo Guthrie’s first and second albums, “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Arlo.” After Pete Seeger broke the folk music blacklist with his appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the Weavers performed a series reunion concerts in 1980, documented in the film “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!” Hellerman produced the album version of the concerts, “Together Again.” He was also a notable recording engineer
The music of the Weavers inspired the folk music movement 1950s and 1960s, including such performers as The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four, Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Rooftop Singers, and Bob Dylan.
Lee Hays died in 1981, at 67. Pete Seeger died at the age of 94 on January 27, 2014. Ronnie Gilbert died at the age of 88 on June 6, 2015. And now, the last of the Weaver, Fred Hellerman, has died at age 89.
In February 2006, when the Weavers were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award, Hellerman said, “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.”
Fred Hellerman stayed the course, and left a wonderful legacy, with his honor, integrity and, above all, his music intact. Rest in peace, Fred Hellerman, 1927-2016.