Despite having scored a series of major hits in the early '50s, starting with "Goodnight Irene," which topped the charts for 13 weeks, the Weavers were hounded out of existence in 1953 as part of the anti-Communist witch hunts. Although Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose scurrilous activities gave the McCarthy Era its name, had been condemned by the Senate in December 1954, the Red Scare was still far from over in 1955 -- indeed, Weavers group members Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were both subpoenaed to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in August of that year. (Seeger refused to answer questions, leading to a contempt citation, while Hays took the Fifth Amendment.) But on Christmas Eve, the Weavers played a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, initiating the second phase of their career and, in the eyes of most observers, inspiring the folk revival that led to the popularity of such performers as the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Dylan. The Weavers began to perform around the country again, and they signed to Vanguard Records, which, in April 1957, released this live recording. It's easy to hear what all the fuss was about, and not just because of the thunderous applause. Many of the Weavers' recordings for the major label Decca Records between 1950 and 1953 found them accompanied by an orchestra, while here the only instrumentation was Seeger's banjo (he also played recorder here and there) and baritone Fred Hellerman's acoustic guitar. And the group proved to be an exciting -- and often humorous -- live act. Their program here is divided into four parts. "Folk Songs, Comic and Sentimental" begins the show, including their hit "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine" (revived for a Top Five hit later in 1957 by Jimmie Rodgers) and "Rock Island Line," the Leadbelly song they had first recorded just before their breakup in 1953 that became a Top Ten hit for Lonnie Donegan in 1956. The "Around the World" section finds them singing in several languages and includes their hit "Wimoweh," adapted by the Tokens into the number one chart-topper "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" in 1961. "The Weavers 'Personalities'" gives lead-singing opportunities to each of the four group members, with powerful alto Ronnie Gilbert shining on the British folk ballad "I Know Where I'm Going" and Hellerman emphasizing the group's ties to popular music by performing "Sixteen Tons," the number one song in the country on the day the concert was held. The show closes with "Three Hymns, a Lullaby and Goodnight," revealing the group's roots in gospel music and, inevitably, ending with "Goodnight Irene." It's easy to hear both the sources of the folk revival in the music of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, African-American spirituals, and international folk songs, and the future of folk-pop music as it would be enacted by the Weavers' successors in this show, which is what makes The Weavers at Carnegie Hall a key recording in the history of American folk music, as well as a singularly enjoyable live performance by a remarkably talented quartet.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann