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Music Review: The Weavers – Vanguard Visionaries: The Weavers

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Looking at the title of the current Vanguard Visionaries CD retrospective series, a part of me couldn't help wondering if that "visionary" label isn't even more appropriately applied to Maynard Solomon, the co-founder/producer of Vanguard Records. It was Solomon's label, after all, which had the foresight to go against commercial wisdom and sign the Weavers to a new recording contract in the mid-fifties. The legendary folk quartet, though it had a small string of hit folk singles in the late forties/early fifties on Decca, were commercially blacklisted in the McCarthy Era for their openly left-wing allegiances. Though little in the group's actual recorded repertoire ("Goodnight Irene," "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "Rock Island Line") reflected their political affiliations, that hadn't stopped timid record companies and reactionary radio programmers from steering far away from the group.

Vanguard helped change that with a recording of their 1955 reunion concert, At Carnegie Hall, and a second volume from the same performance. In so doing, the label helped to usher in the folk music boom of the sixties. The rediscovered Weavers paved the way for the commercial pop success of groups like the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary – and also helped expand Vanguard's repertoire beyond its original classical music catalog. Though the original quartet (Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman & Pete Seeger) splintered with Seeger's decision to go solo in 1958, vocalist Eric Darling proved an effective replacement. He, too, would ultimately leave the group to form the Rooftop Singers, but in later years both Seeger and Darling variously showed up at Weavers reunion concerts.

Given this history, though, perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the current ten-track Vanguard Visionaries retrospective disc is the absence of any liner notes explaining when each track was recorded, so we might have a better idea of the personnel involved. Since the band did a second big concert at Carnegie Hall in 1963 before their second full dissolution in 1964, attempting to gauge the guilty parties by doing a studio vs. concert comparison is no help either. This is really the first time where the absence of liner notes in these Vanguard Visionaries releases bugged me, primarily because I have less of a handle on these folkies' recorded output than I do, say, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, which itself had its share of personnel changes over the years.

As for the music itself, it's folk, pure and simple: where the group's earlier Decca recordings frequently suffer from excess orchestral sweetening, their Vanguard tracks are just the foursome and their acoustic instruments. A lot of the expected standards are here – "This Land Is Your Land," "Midnight Special," Hays & Seeger's "If I Had A Hammer," "House of the Rising Sun" – along with their classic concert performance of "Wimoweh," a pop hit for the group in the early fifties and an even bigger charter for the Tokens when it was incorporated into "The Lion Sleeps Tonight."

Though it isn't mentioned in the track listings, the group did manage to sneak in a political statement during their Carnegie performance of the Israeli folk song, "Tzena Tzena," tacking Ed McCurdy's anti-war song "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream" onto the end of the track. The song's sentiments (Gee, wouldn't it be sweet if all the world's rulers put an end to war!) may sound pretty innocuous today, but it was fairly daring back in the day.

But the main pleasures of the Weavers are to be found in their singing: Ronnie Gilbert's stately soprano (beautifully used in "Rising Sun"), the plainer but melodic voices of the group's four male singers – folkish tenors Seeger and Darling, the slightly more country tinged Hellerman, jovial bass Hays. If one of the basic tenets of folk music is to celebrate and encourage the singing of regular folks, than there's no better representatives of this than the Weavers. Listening to them singing together, you have to be the dourest of fuddy-duddies not to recognize the sheer joy of unaffected group sing that these folk brought to the mics. It can be heard to this day in the Weavers' musical descendants, and it still sounds pretty damn good in its original form.

So let's give a thanks to that ol' leftie visionary, Solomon, for rescuing these veteran folkies from their commercial exile. Anybody up for a rousing group sing?

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About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.