The Weavers were an important American folk group who scored it big from the 1940s through the 1960s with several top selling songs. Formed in 1941 by Pete Seeger (May 3, 1919 – Jan. 27, 2014), Ronnie Gilbert (Sep. 7, 1926 – Jun. 6, 2015), Fred Hellerman (Mar. 14, 1914 – Aug. 26, 1981) and Lee Hays, The Weavers had an influential sound that was laced with fine acoustic fretwork and impeccable singing.
Where Odetta, Leadbelly and pre-electric Bob Dylan led the way as solo acts, The Weavers, who were also considered social activists, served up a powerfully persuasive group effort. Though the Greenwich Village-based musicians’ repertoire contained a variety of melodies, including blues and other popular tunes, Pete Seeger and company were primarily folk artists. With that in mind, here are ten of The Weavers best songs.
A remake of singer Guy Mitchell’s British 1950 hit, The Weavers added a folkie seafaring theme to the cover, which fit well with Seeger’s spotless banjo playing. There is nothing political about this one, just some light and lively lyrics. Still, it’s a gem.
Written by guitar whiz, Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford had a huge hit with “Sixteen Tons” in 1955. The Weavers also recorded a version the same year for the group’s Carnegie Hall concerts. Guitarist Fred Hellerman added sophisticated picking and dramatic chord work to the song. Ford’s rendition was memorable; but so was The Weavers’.
Being a folk group, covering this inspirational number was probably inescapable. But The Weavers made perfect sense recording such a track in the midst of the nation’s struggle for civil rights. Pete was in full command as he and his banjo led The Weavers and their listeners to social consciousness.
Any discussion of folk music in the 1950s and 1960s is going to include Woody Guthrie. The Weavers cofounding member, Pete Seeger, was friends with Guthrie as the two had a similar take on life. Whether it was politics or songs, you could have said Pete and Woody were cut from the same cloth. It was no surprise that The Weavers covered Guthrie's tunes throughout their career; “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” remains one of the group’s best.
The Weavers waxed this 1946 song with The Gordon Jenkins Orchestra. Culturally inspired, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” is a musical celebration with a slightly bluegrass vibe. No doubt, Ronnie Gilbert’s vocals lifted the minds and spirit of fans everywhere.
A favorite of the legendary artist Leadbelly, even former Beatle Ringo Starr recorded a version of “Rock Island Line” for his Ringo 2012 collection. But The Weavers’ 1957 rendition is a classic. “Rock Island Line” became a regular part of the group’s live set list.
While Jimmie Rogers popularized the song in 1957, The Weavers released “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” as a 1951 single. With a catchy acoustic guitar intro, the live version of The Weavers’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” available on their Carnegie Hall album, has vocal qualities similar to those of Grace Slick and The Jefferson Airplane. But The Weavers did it first.
Great minds think alike. Perhaps that’s why The Weavers covered Woody Guthrie so often. But then again, “This Land Is Your Land” is a remarkable song. All the same, there was something special when Pete Seeger joined in singing “This Land Is Your Land” with The Weavers. Everything fit together like a hand in glove.
The Weavers drew upon varied sources for their material. “Wimoweh,” a South African folk song, was released by the group in 1952. Unlike The Tokens’ 1961 smash, Seeger and his bandmates stuck to a more traditional interpretation. Later on, Pete also released “Wimoweh” as a solo artist. Either way, Seeger’s performance is amazing.
Previously recorded by Leadbelly, “Goodnight Irene” became the signature song for The Weavers following its release in 1950. Since then, others have covered it. But Pete, Ronnie, Fred and Lee helped transform “Goodnight Irene” into a great American song. It’s that simple.