Growing Up With the Weavers (and Pete Seeger)
“For songs are the heart of our memory and let us live the search for meaning in our lives again and again.”
— Judy Collins
I wrote about aspects of this a couple of years ago (Coming of Age with the Folk Music Revival), but with the recent passing of Pete Seeger, musician and human being extraordinaire, I wanted to revisit The Weavers.
The Weavers were the arch folk group of the 1950s and even into the 1960s, with Pete Seeger as one of the main quartet, along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman.
In essence, they sparked the entire folk music revival which in time led to the emergence of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and many others such as Dave Van Ronk (apparently inaccurately portrayed in the recent film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers), of folk rock and of rock itself in the cauldron of the 1960s. The Weavers could even be seen as precursors of “world music” with their willingness to interpret and sing songs from many nationalities and traditions.
It’s odd to me how little one hears these days of The Weavers or the songs they made famous, such as “Goodnight Irene” or “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine.” It’s true they are the songs from a slightly older generation than mine, and I’m getting old too. But I would still like to hear Beyoncé or Lady Gaga give them a try….
I won’t go on too much about The Weavers’ or Pete Seeger’s history — there is a lot of detailed information about all that online. But I would like to write a little about The Weavers’ meaning for me, and about Pete Seeger’s worth and appeal.
After my father died of a stroke when I was twelve in 1963, my younger brothers and I were introduced to the Weavers when our mother brought back three LP albums from a trip to Seattle. She had gone there to see her mother and to apply for veteran benefits from my Dad. There was a My Fair Lady recording of the original musical, an album of swinging Bach and other composers by the Swingle Singers on the album Going Baroque, and The Weavers At Carnegie Hall, from a 1955 live performance still considered to be one of the best and most stirring by any folk group.
In central northern British Columbia where we lived on slim pickings after Dad died, it was exciting to have these brand new long-playing records. Unfortunately, at first we had nothing to play them on, and resorted to bothering some church-group friends by always taking those three albums with us and insisting that we had to listen to them. It was probably with the first veteran benefits’ cheque that Ma went out and purchased a battery-powered portable record player to listen to first those albums and then to all the many more that we, mother and boys, collected in the next few years. The record player had to be battery, because we lived for quite a few years without electricity.
It strikes me now, as I recall some of this, how important recorded music was to the four of us, in a way that wasn’t quite so strong for many of our neighbours or friends. None of us in our small family were particularly musical: I struggled to play the guitar poorly, and although we all sang boisterously along with “Wimoweh” and other such songs, we were out of tune mostly I’m sure. But music is crucial to the memories of my boyhood and our lives together, and it began with The Weavers.
As the three boys grew into teenage-hood, our tastes in music changed of course, to the Ventures, the Beatles, then Neil Young, the Rolling Stones, and of course eventually Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks!
Pete Seeger After the Weavers
So after those early times, although we might still go back to listen occasionally, The Weavers and Pete Seeger faded from our preferred listening.
I would hear about Seeger from time to time through the years, usually as an activist during the civil rights and anti-war movements in the States, with his anthem “We Shall Overcome” (derived from a gospel song), and would sometimes listen to his songs “If I Had a Hammer”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, usually performed by others.
Later, in the last few years, his status as the grand old man of folk only grew. Bruce Springsteen produced the “Seeger Sessions” and tour, dedicated to many of his songs. Seeger’s album At 89 won a Grammy in 2008.
If you put “Pete Seeger” into a search engine now, you will run across many obituaries recounting his incredible influence as a musician and as an activist through the generations. A good one is at the New York Times: “Pete Seeger, Champion of Folk Music and Social Change, Dies at 94.”
But among the references to him I like best are ones like Bruce Springsteen’s introduction at Seeger’s 90th birthday celebration, where he finished off his remarks, noting Seeger’s toughness, with:
“The very ghost of Tom Joad is with us in the flesh tonight. He’ll be on this stage momentarily, he’s gonna look an awful lot like your granddad who wears flannel shirts and funny hats. He’s gonna look like your granddad if your granddad could kick your ass.”
There are the performances on Youtube like a rousing one from 1993, “If I Had a Hammer”, with Arlo Guthrie. He could always get audiences to respond to him, to form impromptu communities of song around his presence.
And then there’s this performance from the Johnny Cash Show in 1970 that illustrates, to me, that same point in a magnificent way. The clip shows Seeger’s versatility as he chats with Cash while singing and playing with a fretless banjo and a guitar. Then he gets up and starts to rouse the audience with “It Takes A Worried Man to Sing A Worried Song.”
At first the audience is hesitant and quiet. We look at Seeger from the rear, a lone wooden chair on the stage, a spotlight beaming down, the audience in darkness beyond him. The audience begins to join in a little; Johnny Cash comes striding into the scene with his guitar, adding his voice. Pete waves his arm briefly at the audience, but so sure, as if it would automatically connect him with the people in front of him, and it does. They begin clapping, they start to smile, their voices rise. Pete calls out “You know, these old songs, they’re never going to die…. This song, it’s the whole human race! …But you got to have hope….” The two men tear into the last verse, playing face to face, and the audience claps and cheers as they finish.
You can see Pete vibrating with song, moving his feet a little, bending his knees, singing his heart out. For those moments, he embodies the song, and its recognition of struggle and perseverance shines out of him.
He’s gone now. That embodiment has given way. The songs go on.
Note: The photo of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger is from the Broadsheet website.