Whenever I read or hear the words “Folk Revival” I have to chortle; what exactly was it supposed to have been revived from? Folk music has been around as long as there have been folk to sing it. From the first bards and minstrels singing the stories of the heroes of the great sagas of the Norse, Irish, and others long before we were writing our stories on the page.
How else were the original stories told if not to music? Look at examples of folk music throughout history and you will find that the songs are always about something. Whether it’s a sad love story like “Barbara Allen” or a song commemorating a battle won or lost, folk musicians have a long history of being the raconteurs of both current and past events.
The only revival that folk music might have gone through in the 20th century was when the people who performed it were allowed to get on with their lives after spending most of the 1950’s blacklisted, and stopped, from performing. The House Committee on Un American Activities under that champion of freedom and justice Joe McCarthy had stolen their right to sing because they had the nerve to sing the truth in their music.
Of course there has been a long history of the establishment doing its best to silence the voices that set the people’s stories to song and music. Joe Hill is not just the name of a song; he was a singer and a songwriter in the early years of the 20th century who wrote about conditions in the mines and lumber camps of the west. For his troubles he was shot and killed by the Salt Lake City police force on a trumped up murder charge.
Telling the truth has always been a dangerous profession in our democratic society, especially if your truth differs from the official line that’s offered in the textbooks and government records. According to those histories, the people who fought and died so that your children aren’t forced to work in mine shafts for 18 hours a day and so you don’t have to work 80 hour a week never existed or at best were agitators who the heroic Pinkerton employees had to put down in order to preserve democracy.
Thankfully, there were some brave people who kept the oral tradition alive and sang the songs that told the true history of the people of North America not just the businessmen and their generals. Even when they were blacklisted, they found ways around being silenced by not performing under their own names, or by becoming members of a larger orchestra.
Listen to some early recordings of the wonderful group The Weavers and you might be puzzled as to why the songs are being played with lush strings and sound like they should be sung in a Las Vegas nightclub. It’s a variation on “there is safety in numbers” routine and through it they were able to accomplish a couple of things; get recording contracts and stay off the blacklists.
For a while it became fashionable to make disparaging comments about The Weavers, dismissing them as old liberals who weren’t radical enough. The people who made those comments were as blind and ignorant as those who tried to silence the Weavers. It also showed they had no understanding of what folk music really is. Why don’t they sing more “political music,” instead of these songs about “Irene” and from other countries?
Well because The Weavers weren’t blinkered by political expediency, and the only agenda they followed was a commitment to the music they played. If you haven’t listened to them in a while and have forgotten just how incredible they were, you’re in luck. As part of their Vanguard Visionaries series Vanguard records has released The Weavers, a ten song compilation that makes a great attempt at sampling each aspect of the group’s character.
Long before anyone had even come up the term “World Music,” The Weavers were singing the songs of folk from all different parts of the world. “Winoweh” from South Africa, “Guantanamera” from Cuba, and “Tzena Tzena” from Israel were all staples elements of any Weavers performance. Those three were just their most popular international folk songs; they played many more then that.
People today can say what they want about diversity, but the Weavers were preaching cultural diversity in the days when America was still racially segregated and even singing in a foreign language made you politically suspect. They didn’t make a big deal out of it either or do it to look important – they were folk musicians so they played the music of the folk – and it didn’t matter where those folk came from.
Their biggest source for music remained America, but here again they didn’t take the easy route out. Songs about unions might have been dated and too dangerous to play in the ’50s and early ’60s, but what they chose to play instead was nearly as dangerous. Three of the ten tracks on this recording all came from the pen or guitar of Black singer songwriter Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Ledbelly) including “Goodnight Irene”, “Midnight Special”, and “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.”
A fourth song included on this disc, “House Of The Rising Sun” is another song that originated with black musicians. That might not mean much to us these days, but when people were chased off stage or condemned for playing rock and roll because it was black music (and they wouldn’t have used the word black, believe me) playing music originally written by black songwriters was seen as a provocative act.
But to The Weavers it was no different then playing Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Lee Hayes and Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer,” or any of the other songs with which they were identified. When it came to music they were genuinely, color blind. Their criteria for a song making their set list appears to have been based on it being somebody’s story; the music of folk from anywhere in the world.
If it wasn’t for the bravery of Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Fred Hellerman, and Lee Hayes, better known to the world as The Weavers, being willing to open doors that fear and suspicion had kept walled up for years, who knows if the careers of people like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan would have even been possible. Listening to The Weavers on Vanguard Records is a small reminder of who and what this group stood for. It’s a timely reminder of the importance of being brave enough to speak and sing unpopular truths in times when those voices are hard to find.