Every once in awhile, and I have to be in the mood, I pull this old war horse off the shelf and give it a spin.
The Weavers were an important and transitional folk group. They were a connector of the early folk traditions of many countries and the style of Woody Guthrie to the pop type folk of The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.
Banjo player and tenor vocalist Pete Seeger, bass vocalist Lee Hays, baritone vocalist and guitarist Fred Hellerman, and alto vocalist Ronnie Gilbert formed the group in 1948 and within a year they were stars due to their cover of the old Ledbelly tune, “Goodnight Irene.” Fame was fleeting as their leftist political beliefs and songs of protest were not appreciated during the McCarthy era. They found themselves blacklisted as performers plus their label fired them. In fact, The Decca label deleted all of the group’s material from their catalogue. They would disband in 1952.
A different political climate would begin to permeate The United States during the mid-1950s. This would prompt the group to re-unite for their historic concert at Carnegie Hall on December 24, 1955. This concert would be released on the Vanguard label as The Weavers At Carnegie Hall in 1957. In many ways this concert and album signaled the beginning of the folk revival movement in The United States.
The Weavers sang traditional folk songs but with two, three, and four part harmonies which was a unique approach at the time. Their voices would entwine and even challenge each other. They would support their sound with Seeger’s long neck banjo and Hellerman’s Spanish guitar.
The amazing thing about this early live release is the sound. This 1955 concert has a clearer sound than many concert recordings that would follow over the next half century. You can actually hear the group members pronounce each word clearly which is important to the stories that the songs tell. I can’t help but think that the acoustics at Carnegie Hall helped a great deal in this area. In addition the album notes are extensive and informative.
The Weavers At Carnegie Hall is a long album for its time as there are twenty tracks contained on a single disc.
Side one has a number of interesting performances. The old Irish folk tune, “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” was given some new lyrics by Lee Hays. This continued the folk tradition of artists constantly changing old songs and then passing them on to the next generation for more changes. The old and famous English song, “Greensleeves” is given a sweet and traditional performance. “Wimoweh” is an old African folk song which would become a huge hit for The Tokens under the name “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” Here it receives an inspirational rendition of hope and resurrection. The old Hebrew song, “Shalom Chavarim,” was appropriate for the seasons of Christmas and Chanukah.
Side two contained a number of solo performances by the members of the group. “Sixteen Tons” by Fred Hellerman makes me forget the famous version by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Pete Seeger shows what a wonderful instrumentalist he could be on “Woody’s Rag.” Ronnie Gilbert brings the purity of her voice to the simple ballad, “I Know Where I’m Going.” I have gotten so used to “When The Saints Go Marching In” being presented as jazz that The Weavers gospel interpretation always stands out. They end the concert with their biggest hit, “Goodnight Irene.”
The Weavers At Carnegie Hall is now an album of long ago and a simpler time yet for aficionado’s of folk music, appreciators of American musical history, or just people in search of good music, it remains a fine listen. Carl Sandberg may have summed it up best when he wrote; “The Weavers are out of the grass roots of America. I salute them for their great work in authentic renditions of ballads, folk songs, ditties, nice antiques of word and melody. When I hear America singing, The Weavers are there.”