The story of the Weavers, “America’s most popular folk singers.”
It’s not exactly an untold story, given that one member of the group was Pete Seeger and on the fringes of the tale lurks legendary singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, not to mention the coverage the group received in the popular 1982 documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t that a Time! Nevertheless, longtime music journalist Jarnow (Heads: A Biography of Psychedelic America, 2016, etc.) delivers a by-the-numbers biography of a band whose popular songs and covers earned them plenty of attention during the Red Scare and a place on the blacklist. Most readers think of folk groups as particularly tightknit, but the author reflects equally on the tensions within the group. “The band was a slow-functioning democracy under the best of circumstances,” he writes. On display, too, are the very different personalities of each member: Lee Hays, the contentious bass singer who co-wrote “If I Had a Hammer”; Fred Hellerman, the band’s unsung producer and arranger of songs; Seeger, the driven, multitalented banjo picker whose songs would go on to be huge hits for the next generation of artists like Peter, Paul and Mary and The Byrds; and Ronnie Gilbert, so popular at the time she was simply known as “The Voice.” The author also ably recounts dramatic scenes in the nation’s courtrooms—e.g., Seeger demanding, “do I have a right to sing these songs? Do I have a right to sing them anywhere?” There are also interesting cameos sprinkled throughout this colorful tale, from Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. organizing for civil rights to Bob Dylan—about whom Hellerman exclaimed, “he can’t sing, and he can barely play, and he doesn’t know much about music at all.”
A well-researched music biography best read with some traditional American folk songs playing in the background.