The Weavers — “Present At the Creation”

There’s a biographical documentary film called “The Weavers – Wasn’t That a Time.”  I was elated in 1981, when it was created, because I love those people.  In 1959 I was hit with a magnificent stroke of luck.  I was searching Chicago’s FM stations for something beyond the music of the proscribed Baptist subculture I knew, and found WFMT, “Chicago’s fine arts station.”  Studs Terkel had made his home there when he was otherwise blacklisted, and stayed to the end of his life.  On Saturday nights they did a program they called the “Midnight Special” – their “weekly aberration featuring folk music, show tunes, farce, satire, and odds and ends.”

Mike Nichols had found his first professional job there; and you could find Bill Cosby’s “Noah” as well as Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl – all the world’s wickedest people.  There was an incredibly rich brew of talent nearby in Old Town and Rush Street, and Studs Terkel knew them all.  The most gregarious philosopher in the Western hemisphere, he drew them to him.  It was quite different from the staid Moody Bible Institute station I was familiar with – closely associated with the University of Chicago, where they had found Nichols and Elaine May.  (The people in my church said “don’t go there.  It’s a pinko outfit.”  I went.)

This was central to my own Great Awakening.  I saw for the first time the Promised Land.  (And the University of Chicago’s Downtown Center was the only institution that would have me, because I had no high school diploma.  There I found Emile Durkheim, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict… this stuff blew my doors off.  In their bookstore:  books  I hadn’t dreamed existed.)

It was on WFMT that I first encountered The Weavers, with whom I immediately became infatuated, and then fell in love with for good.  They sprang from a pre-war group called the Almanac Singers, which were the singularity from which folk and popular music’s Big Bang burst in the fifties.  At its core were Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Lee  Hayes (and later, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert).  In the second ring from the center were Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Peter, Paul and Mary, Buffy St. Marie, Odetta, the Toms Lehrer and Paxton, Burl Ives… just too many to name – because the Big Bang was going full-throttle.

The Almanac Singers came, blooded and bloodied, from the Depression labor union movement at a time when that meant automatically being beaten senseless by Pinkerton thugs.  Many were communists; all were socialists; but they grew up during the era when the only thing clear was that the status quo ante was bankrupted.  So what captured everyone’s imagination was the idea of brotherhood.  It was no accident, then, that this culture and its songs adapted so smoothly to the civil rights movement:  Seeger/Hayes’s “If I Had a Hammer,” Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”…

I put the whole gang in my root cellar, where they’ve been sprouting ever since, and entangling my soul.


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