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The Weavers | History, Songs & Members

Instructor: Carrie Klein

Carrie Klein taught fifth grade for more than a decade in New York City and the Bay Area. She has an undergraduate degree in history from Hamilton College and a Masters in education from Bank Street College of Education. She is certified to teach in California and Texas.

Explore the history of the Weavers. Find out who the Weavers were and discover their members. See a list of the Weavers songs and find facts about them. Updated: 01/13/2023

Who were the Weavers?

The Weavers were a pioneering singing group that popularized folk music in the mid-20th century and inspired generations of musicians who followed them. A quartet of three men and one woman made up the group, namely Lee Hays, Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. Known as much for their progressive political views as for their harmonies, the group began as the No-Name Quartet in 1948. It wasn't until 1950 that the group, by then known as the Weavers, recorded Lead Belly's "Goodnight Irene" and became well-known; the song was number one on the Billboard chart for 13 weeks.

Just as the Weavers were gaining a national audience, however, they were accused of being Communists and investigated by the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and Senator Joseph McCarthy during a period often known as the Red Scare. Their first record label dropped them and they struggled to book venues.

A sold-out reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in 1955 reenergized their careers, though they were always hounded by anti-communist red baiters. Pete Seeger left the group in 1958, though he went on to have a long solo career and even sang with Bruce Springsteen at President Barack Obama's 2014 inauguration. The three remaining original Weavers continued working with a series of replacements until the group disbanded in 1964. The original Weavers sang together at several reunions, the last of which was at a 1981 event that benefitted Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, a nonprofit founded by Pete Seeger and his wife to help clean up the Hudson River.

History of the Weavers

Pete Seeger and Lee Hays began singing together in the Almanac Singers, a group intended to use music as a way of supporting union organizing and other progressive causes in the United States and the fight against fascism abroad. Formed just as WWII was beginning in Europe, they were based in New York City and quickly became well known in leftist circles.

The Almanac Singers included lots of different people in their short history including legendary folk singer Woody Guthrie, with whom Seeger had spent time singing around the country in the 1930s. The group stopped singing together when Seeger was drafted in 1942.

Although they were never members of the Weavers, folk singer Woody Guthrie and his son Arlo are both closely associated with the group.

man holding guitar with sticker that reads This Machine Kills Fascists

After the war ended, Seeger moved back to New York City and invited a loose-knit group of musicians to sing together in his basement. Known as the People's Songs, the group picked up where the Almanac Singers left off working to support progressive causes including Henry Wallace's 1948 presidential bid. Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, the two other original members of the Weavers, were part of the People's Songs. The group came together after Wallace's defeat (Jackie Wilson, a fifth member of the group, dropped out before they began performing together).

Calling themselves the No-Name Quartet, the group struggled to get gigs and earn a living during their first year. Their big break came when they were booked for two weeks in December at the Village Vanguard, a jazz club in New York's Greenwich Village. By then renamed the Weavers after an obscure, 19th-century German play, they were a hit with audiences. Owner Max Gordon asked them back for a six-month run.

They were paid $250 a week, more than they had ever earned before. They also signed a record deal with Decca Records, and in the summer of 1950 they released "Goodnight Irene," a song that gave the Weavers a national audience.

At the same time the Weavers were establishing themselves, they were denounced in the summer of 1950 in Red Channels, a virulently anti-communist pamphlet that listed the names of people in the entertainment and media industries who purportedly had Communist sympathies. People in Red Channels were often fired from jobs, denied promotions, and excluded from organizations during the Red Scare.

Because Seeger and other Weavers' members supported progressive causes and actually had been supportive of the Communist Party in the 1930s, they were particularly vulnerable. Decca Records dropped their recording contract, and they struggled to book performances. Despite the release of a Christmas album in 1952, Hellerman was working as a music teacher and Hays was writing radio commercials by the end of 1953. It seemed the Weavers were finished.

A Christmas Eve reunion in 1955 at Carnegie Hall resuscitated the group, however. The concert, which was the brainchild of music promoter and manager Harold Leventhal, sold out and a recording of the second half was sold to Vanguard Records and released in 1957. That album, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, featured such songs as "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" and "Rock Island Line," as well as "Goodnight Irene," and has been re-released several times in the intervening years.

While the Weavers regained a national audience in the late 1950s, they continued to be hounded by anti-communists including Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on UnAmerican Activities. Seeger was even forced to testify before the House Committee in 1955 and refused to answer questions based on what he claimed were his First Amendment rights of free association and free speech. He was indicted in 1957 of 10 counts of obstruction of Congress and actually convicted in 1961, though an appeals court later dismissed the conviction. The Weavers were uninvited from the Jack Parr Show in 1962 when they refused to sign anti-communist loyalty oaths.

On trial for contempt of Congress, Pete Seeger arrived in federal court in 1961 with his banjo on his back.

Weavers member Pete Seeger arriving in federal court

Pete Seeger left the Weavers in 1958 and the group disbanded in 1964. A series of reunion concerts over the years kept their work in the public eye, including a series of concerts at Carnegie Hall in 1980 that were filmed, resulting in a 1982 movie titled The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time.

Who Were Members of the Weavers?

The Weavers were always a quartet. The original Weavers members included:

  • Pete Seeger (tenor)
  • Lee Hays (base)
  • Fred Hellerman (baritone)
  • Ronnie Gilbert (alto)

All four of the Weavers sang, but each of them brought different skills and interests to the group. Seeger, who dropped out of Harvard University and spent time in the 1930s traveling around the United States with folk singer Woody Guthrie, played both 12-string guitar and banjo. He was constantly on the lookout for songs the group might sing like the Weavers' hit Wimoweh (aka The Lion Sleeps Tonight) and wrote songs too.

Hays, whose father had been a minister, co-wrote a number of songs with Seeger and also brought a deep knowledge of church and gospel music to the group.

Hellerman, who taught himself to play guitar while in the Coast Guard during World War II, was a songwriter and arranger who actually went on to produce Arlo Guthrie's 1967 hit Alice's Restaurant.

Ronnie Gilbert, was a singer songwriter, and she went on to sing with Holly Near and in other groups. She and Near joined Seeger and Arlo Guthrie for the 1984 album HARP.

Pete Seeger, one of the original Weavers, was known throughout his career for both his voice and his banjo.

Weavers member Pete Seeger holding a banjo in front of a car

After Pete Seeger left the group, he was replaced by Erik Darling (1958-62), Frank Hamilton (1962-63), and Bernie Krause (1963-64).

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Frequently Asked Questions

Who was the lead singer of the Weavers?

The Weavers didn't have a lead singer, as they were a harmonizing quartet. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays often spoke for the group and led the audience in sing-a-longs however.

When did the Weavers break up?

Pete Seeger left the Weavers in 1958 and the group disbanded in 1964. Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert teamed up with folk singers Arlo Guthrie and Holly Near in the 1980s to form a group called HARP, and the original Weavers had several reunion concerts. The last time they were all together was in June 1981, just before the death of Lee Hays.

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