Professional folk singing in the U.S. is mostly the province of a few long-haired purists who rarely get a hearing outside the clubs and recital halls where their small but fervent public gathers. Last week a group of four high-spirited folksters known as the Weavers had succeeded in shouting, twanging and crooning folk singing out of its cloistered corner into the commercial big time.
Like most folk-song enthusiasts, the Weavers had been collecting and singing songs for fun for a long time. Among them, they had piled up a repertory of more than 700 numbers.
Rumbling-voiced, 250-lb. Lee Hays, 35, started as a youngster in Arkansas, learned many of his favorites from country congregations when he was an itinerant preacher in his student days. Manhattan-born Pete Seeger, 31, left Harvard to thumb his way across country to see what he could pick up in the way of American folk songs. On the road he learned to play the oldfashioned, long-necked banjo, later worked as folk archivist in the Library of Congress. Guitarist Fred Hellerman, 24, and pretty, clear-voiced Ronnie Gilbert, 24, developed their taste for folk music while they were counselors at a children's camp in New Jersey.
Work Songs & Lullabies. After the war the four met at Greenwich Village get-togethers, soon decided that their voices, plus Pete's banjo and recorder, and Fred's guitar, made just the right blend. Sponsored by Red-tinged People's Songs, they got enthusiastic but unremunerative backing from fellow travelers who have long claimed folk songs as their particular province. Mostly, however, they kept up their singing "for the hell of it."
Last winter they decided to try for full-time work at Manhattan's Village Vanguard, where other folk singers (Richard Dyer-Bennett, Burl Ives and Josh White) got their start. After a one-night trial, they got a two-week contract at $50 a head, stayed for six months. Singing loud & clear or sweet & low, they found they could get noisy nightclubbers to quiet down for everything from Southern work songs and African chants to Indonesian lullabies and mountain hymns.
A Couple of Favorites. This spring, Band Leader Gordon Jenkins heard them, liked them so well he persuaded Decca's Dave Kapp to record a couple of the Weavers' favorite songs: the Israeli Hora, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, and the Lead Belly ballad, Good Night, Irene (TIME, Aug. 14), with Jenkins' orchestra and chorus furnishing a fancy background.
Last week, with Irene standing first, both sides of the record were on the hit parade for the eleventh time. Sales had boomed to more than a million and a quarter. The Weavers had moved to Manhattan's Blue Angel nightclub, before the end of the month were scheduled to double into Broadway's Strand Theater for a total of $2,250 a week. After that, there would be more recording dates, and theater and club offers from 30 cities.
Although the Weavers had not lost their "singing for the hell of it" quality, they looked back a little wistfully at the not-so-old Greenwich Village days. "It's not so much fun now," said Leader Seeger. "Then we could improvise, sing what we felt like singing. Now we're so professional we have to rehearse, arrange, set keys and all that stuff."