By Scott Ross
Although I knew Pete Seeger, rather vaguely, as a folk music figure — really, more as a songwriting name than as a personality — it was only with the release of this superb documentary by Jim Brown that I became aware of his importance, and that of his fellow Weavers, to the culture and to the history of their times. And that, at least initially, due to a long All Things Considered piece, aired when the movie opened; I missed it in the theatres and only caught up with it when my best friend videotaped and showed it to me. I became an instant devotee, both of Pete and of The Weavers, especially of that magnificent force of nature, Ronnie Gilbert.
Wasn’t That a Time! takes as its jumping-off point The Weavers’ 1980 Carnegie Hall reunion, and the road to that concert, footage from which makes up the documentary’s final half-hour. But the preceding hour is the reason for my adoration of the movie. Indeed, after spending so much time with Seeger, Gilbert, Lee Hayes and Fred Hellerman, and hearing their reminiscences of The Weavers’ heyday, and how quickly it all came crashing down during what Lillian Hellman famously termed the “Scoundrel Time” of the hysterically anti-Communist 1950s, the concert itself is almost anti-climactic.
While The Weavers themselves found national fame via absurdly over-orchestrated pop recordings (Gordon Jenkins’ syrupy, choir-supported arrangements of “On Top of Old Smokey” and Pete’s slightly bowdlerized version of the Leadbelly ballad “Goodnight, Irene”) their emergence on the wider cultural stage was the impetus for the so-called Folk Revival of the late ’50s and early 1960s. It is doubtful that Dylan could have made his name without their influence, and certainly, as Mary Travers relates in the film, there would have been no Peter, Paul and Mary without Pete, Ronnie, Lee and Fred.
It is Lee Hays, the quartet’s venerable old bass, who is the fulcrum, both of the concert (although he cannily shifts the credit, or the blame, to Seeger) and of the movie itself. He wrote his own, relaxed but idiosyncratic, narration, and it is his desire to perform with his old comrades in the culture (and socio-political) wars that brings them all together, first on his farmstead, and later at Carnegie.
It was Carnegie, indeed, that gave The Weavers a second lease on performing life following their infamous blacklisting; their 1955 reunion concert spawned two hit records and led to a long-term recording contract with Vanguard that forms the basis of any Weavers collection of consequence.
Hayes was by 1980 confined to a wheelchair, a diabetic double-amputee. The groups’ sold-out reunion concert was to be the last time they performed together. Lee died, in fact, before Wasn’t That a Time! was completed, and Brown dedicated the finished film to him. It would be interesting to have a view of Hayes outside the context of his own spoken narration. Famously prickly, he was a man of vast contradictions and, despite his strict Baptist background, some sexual mystery; he reportedly had male lovers, but the movie — quite understandably — doesn’t delve into this, or Ronnie Gilbert’s Lesbianism, or indeed into the private lives of any of the original Weavers.
It does, however, preserve the hair-raising moment when Ronnie first sings with Holly Near. At her insistence, Near’s moving anthem “Hay una mujer desaparecida” is chosen for inclusion during the concert, and Brown holds on these two powerful singers, representing different generations, each learning from and influenced by the other as they perform an impromptu duet. The effectiveness of their harmonies stuns them both; there’s a long moment of silence when they finish, before both let out whoops of excited triumph. It was the beginning of a friendship, and a creative partnership, that would lead to recorded glory as the 1980s went along.
The words on the movie’s theatrical release poster are Ronnie’s, and they sum up not merely her spirit, or that of The Weavers, or of Pete, or Lee (or Fred) but the gentle defiance that led them all to the triumph, not merely of continued fame or records or influence, but of outlasting their defeat and living beyond the means of their persecutors’ abilities to stop them. McCarthyism — then and now — may have been, for a time, the immovable object. The Weavers were the irresistible force that lifted the rock and let in the light. They made that difference.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross