The Weavers had the most extraordinary musical pedigree and pre-history of any performing group in the history of folk or popular music. More than 50 years after their heyday, however, their origins, the level of their success, the forces that cut the group's future off in its prime, and the allure that keeps their music selling are all difficult to explain — as, indeed, none of this was all that easy to explain at the time. How could a song as pleasant and tuneful as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" be subversive?
The quartet went from being embraced by the public, and selling four-million-records, to being reviled and rejected over the political backgrounds of its members, and disbanding after only four years together. Yet, despite the controversy that surrounded them, and the fact that their work was interrupted at its peak, the Weavers managed to alter popular culture in about as profound a manner as any artist this side of Bob Dylan — indeed, they set the stage for the 1950s folk revival, indirectly fostering the careers of the Kingston Trio, among others, and bridging the gap between folk and popular music, and folk and the topical song, they helped set the stage for Dylan's eventual emergence. And the songs that they wrote or popularized, including "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine," "Wimoweh," "Goodnight Irene," "Wreck of the John B," "Follow the Drinking Gourd," and "On Top of Old Smoky," continued to get recorded (and occasionally to chart) 50 years after the group's own time.
The Weavers bear a striking resemblance to an earlier group called the Almanac Singers. Pete Seeger (born May 3, 1919) and Lee Hays (born 1914) had worked together for the first time in 1940 as part of the Almanac Singers, who had enjoyed brief but notable success on radio, and as a recording outfit doing topical songs in a folk idiom, until their leftist political views became an issue; the group members had been caught in the uncomfortable position, as dedicated Communists, of having pushed pacifism and American neutrality during 1940 and early 1941, and then reversing themselves after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In the intervening years, during and after World War II, Seeger and Hays had both been involved in various causes involving international peace, civil rights, and workers' rights, and late in 1948, Hays had suggested trying to form an ensemble similar to, but better organized than the Almanac Singers. The notion went through some evolution, including the idea — later abandoned — of a multiracial sextet, before it settled on Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman (born May 13, 1927), and Ronnie Gilbert (born September 7, 1926). The Brooklyn-born Hellerman and New York-born Gilbert had first met Seeger and Hays through People's Songs, a loosely knit assembly of songwriters and musicians formed in the basement of Seeger's house in Greenwich Village in 1946, which was intended to bolster the postwar union and social activism. People's Songs started with a great deal of promise but faltered two-and-a-half years later, along with the left in general, after the election of 1948, in which the leftist presidential ticket of Henry Wallace and Glen Taylor ran last in a four-way race. It was just after the election that Hays had suggested a new singing group, … Read More