The Weavers

Goodnight Irene: The Weavers, 1949-1953

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There are great records, and then there are records like this one, which is an adventure as well as incomparable listening. And don't be repelled by the 100-plus dollar price tag -- this five-disc set manages to be a hootenanny, a history lesson, a light-hearted voyage through pasts musical, political, and cultural, and a pop-culture travelogue all in one, and an investment that will pay off five or ten times that amount in smiles and a few tears. The usual assumption is that the Weavers started their recording career with Gordon Jenkins at Decca Records, adapting their folk sound into an early-'50s popular style, but disc one dispells this notion, going back to the quartet's true recording debut, for Charter Records in 1949. We walk in on them singing in blues and gospel styles, freely injecting elements of country music and also going for some of the kind of four-way acrobatics that one more commonly associated with pop ensembles of the era -- in other words, doing all of the stuff that they made their names with in their reunion years of the middle/late '50s, except that these sides have mostly been unheard for 51 years. Some of this music is topical and might have come off as dangerously confrontational in the reactionary political climate of 1949, but most of it would probably have slipped by on its sheer beauty and inventiveness, and much of it, if it could have been issued during the 1960s, would surely have found an audience. At least one song, "Dig My Grave," would even have qualified as "world music," had such a term existed at the time, drawing on a Bahamian source. Lee Hays' "Love Song Blues" and the group's original version of "The Hammer Song" (co-authored by Hays and Pete Seeger), which were never even issued by the Charter label, are worth a quarter of the price of this box, and they're only two of the highlights on the first disc. A March-April 1950 demo filled with more topical songs shows some of the material that they abandoned in favor of safer songs when they began recording for Decca the following month, so there is a bit of lost history here -- and the disc is rounded out by eight live performances from WNYC radio from 1949 and 1950, hosted by Oscar Brand, opening with the broadcast on which Lee Hays announces that the quartet have finally selected a name; these recordings preserve the sense of humor that put the quartet over the top with audiences at the Village Vanguard; the broadcast performance of "Love Song Blues" is, if anything, even more impressive than the unissued Charter recording; and despite a few technical flubs, Hayes' "Washington Square Blues" is also a highlight, featuring some killer harmonizing (in a blues idiom) and fascinating acoustic guitar and banjo flourishes. Discs two and three are given over to their history with Decca Records, which is usually maligned by folk purists --regardless of the pop music elements added by Gordon Jenkins, however, the quality of the singing and the care that went into it resound far more loudly than anything else on those records; they might not be ideal representations of what the Weavers were about, but the 54 Decca sides are mostly good and even occasionally superb recordings, displaying a wide-ranging array of musical influences in an era when most pop artists were looking for the safety of Tin Pan Alley and novelty tunes; those two discs include half a dozen previously unissued tracks. Disc four is made up of sides that the group cut for non-commercial release, most notably "The Peekskill Story," recorded in conjunction with Paul Robeson, telling of the riot that greeted the legendary black singer/activist in Peekskill, NY, at a 1949 rally, rounded out by solo and duo recordings by Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert. Disc five is a DVD (playable on many computers) of five "telescription" performances done by the quartet in the early days of television -- performing live in front of the camera, the group is spontaneous and charming in their straight-laced, straightforward appeal, the 1950 equivalent of MTV Unplugged performances. The box also includes an accompanying hardcover book by Dave Samuelson (with addenda by Richard D. Cohen) that's about the most detailed account of the quartet's pre-1955 history ever published, with the usual thorough Bear Family discography as well.

Track Listing - Disc 1

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:59
2 2:29
3 2:30
4 3:17
5 2:18
6 2:22
7 2:01
8 2:55
9 1:23
10 1:24
11 2:04
12 1:02
13 2:53
14 1:26
15 2:35
16 2:19
17 2:31
18 1:28
19 2:16
20 2:57
21 2:15
22 1:47
23 2:09
24 2:43
25 4:01
26 3:09
27 3:27
28 3:51
29 2:21
30 3:13
31 1:56
32 1:43

Track Listing - Disc 2

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 2:34
2 2:10
3 2:45
4 3:23
5 2:41
6 3:22
7 2:26
8 2:49
9 2:46
10 3:05
11 3:09
12 3:03
13 2:55
14 1:14
15 1:49
16 3:02
17 2:43
18 2:36
19 2:36
20 2:08
21
1:45
22 2:26
23 3:04
24
1:43
25 2:42
26 2:45
27 2:27
28 3:01
29 2:56
30
3:01

Track Listing - Disc 3

Sample Title/Composer Performer Time
1 3:04
2 3:02
3 2:58
4 2:49
5 2:28
6 3:06
7 2:44
8 2:31
9 2:53
10
2:58
11 2:35
12 2:44
13 3:05
14 2:47
15 2:27
16 2:09
17 1:19
18 2:31
19 2:37
20 2:04
21 1:27
22 2:46
23 2:05
24 2:52
25 0:54
26 1:14
27 3:14
28 2:49
29 2:43
30 3:04
31 3:06
blue highlight denotes track pick