The Weavers, at a 1952 Philadelphia hotel rehearsal. From left: Pete Seeger, Lee Hayes, Fred Halterman and Ronnie GilbertGetty
That's not fair.
The Weavers have been reduced to an anecdote in great stories of the second half of the 20th century: the witch hunt during the Cold War, the popularization of folk or the incredible career of its most celebrated member, Pete Seeger (1919-2014).
The abundance of songs they brought to the surface is forgotten:
Sloop John B
The House of The Rising Sun
If a Had a Hammer
The Lion Sleeps Tonight
It is impossible to quantify their influence on such popular groups as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary or, more sibylinely, on The Byrds, Grateful Dead or The Jefferson Airplane.
Pete Seeger: of music and militancy
Their findings are now so common that it is hard to imagine the impact the Weavers had when they appeared in New York, back in 1948. A flexible choir, with contrasting voices: Seeger sang tenor, Lee Hays (1914-1981) did the bass vocals, Fred Hellerman (1927-2016) was the baritone, Ronnie Gilbert (1926-2015) was the alto. Live, they only required a guitar and a banjo for instrumentation. They also had a lot of musical and ideological ammunition: Hays and Seeger collected songs and had belonged to the Almanac Singers, a product of the Popular Front strategy: the Almanac Singers preached pacifism until, in 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. , when they became bellicose troubadours ... and forgot the union songs,since the state of war did not allow strikes.
Years later, the Weavers bet on turning their activism into entertainment. It was a novel concept: suddenly, they were performing in venues where the doorman did not want to let Woody Guthrie pass, a messy friend who provided repertoire. They also didn't know how to turn their songs into pop material: their first Decca records featured orchestrations by their 'discoverer' Gordon Jenkins. Arrangements that make the purist in all of us pale today but allowed one of Leadbelly's loaned songs,
, to reign at number one for three months in 1950. Actually, initially at least, they were more concerned with the obligation to dress up to perform in nightclubs.
What should have been a heartwarming feat of success was soon gone awry. Stealthily, his movements were tracked by J. Edgar Hoover's men for ten years before. When the Soviet Union tested its first atomic bomb, hysteria broke out: any American communist, it was believed, could be an agent of the Kremlin. And the Weavers were very visible; in addition, they recreated songs from the Spanish Civil War, which, according to the FBI, confirmed their Stalinist affiliation. Confidential reports for Hoover ended up in the hands of outlets like
, which reached out to activist groups who automatically wrote letters of complaint. Contracts at the time required artists to perform for a week in
, which gave time to mobilize protests that covered alarmed local newspapers.
Despite their activism, the Weavers were not used to such actions against them.
Nor did they get used to performing in Las Vegas or recording
(which, alas, were rejected).
The tensions of touring triggered rock star behaviors: In an argument, Seeger ended up crashing his prized long-neck banjo, a model made for him.
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1971: Pete's Spanish excursion
This is how a group that had been at the top quietly disbanded at the end of 1952, without officially announcing it. To get an idea of the prevailing fear: his record company did not protest; in fact, it briefly discontinued its references. It was in a deranged country, where many jobs required an oath of allegiance to the Constitution. Senator McCarthy had fallen out of favor, but the Committee on Un-American Activities was still active and summoned Lee Hays and Pete Seeger in 1955. Seeger was brilliant: undaunted, he refused to play the whistle-blower game, and ended up being tried for contempt for the Congress. Sentenced to 366 days in jail, only in 1962 did he get the sentence overturned.
Meanwhile, the Weavers had gathered.
Seeger's position was filled by a series of singers who also played the banjo, with some unexpected name such as Bernie Krause, who would later be a pioneer in the use of the Moog synthesizer.
They also recorded again, for the Vanguard label.
All with the approval of Seeger, who joined his former colleagues for special concerts or the filming of the documentary
The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time
Seeger and his grandson Tao (left), with Springsteen at the Obama presidency opening concert at the Lincoln Memorial in 2009.jason reed / reuters
Burned by the bitterness of the 1950s, the Weavers did not take advantage of the change that the counterculture brought, although both Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman used LSD therapeutically. Fred served as artistic director of the Elektra label in its folk stage. Ronnie was involved in the feminist movement, in the branch called "womyns music"
Seeger had problems adapting to the new times: after defending Bob Dylan as a songwriter, his evolution towards rock was choked. However, he was recycled as an ecologist, achieving the unanimity of the population in the cleanup of the Hudson River.
Finally assimilated, the former persecuted was invited to the inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009. Accompanied by a renowned disciple, Bruce Springsteen, he sang the great anthem of the sixties,
We Shall Overcome
. Poetic justice.