The People's Singer
February 18, 2008 5:29 PM   Subscribe

"If Communists liked what we did, that was their good luck," said Lee Hays, founding member of the Almanac Singers. A fascinating portrait of one of the linchpins of the politically engaged folk movement of the '40s and '50s. Hays sang beside the more celebrated (and, on one important day in Bob Dylan history, infamous) Pete Seeger on such classic Almanac albums as Talking Union. [Listen here.]
posted by digaman (9 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think A Mighty Wind was heavily inspired by The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time, which Lee Hays narrated.
posted by jonp72 at 6:17 PM on February 18, 2008

No doubt. But when the satire is all that's remembered, it's good to know more about the thing itself.
posted by digaman at 6:37 PM on February 18, 2008

I always thought that Pete Seeger was harmless. But the FBI has been hounding him since 1941 so maybe he's not so bad after all.
posted by Huplescat at 7:21 PM on February 18, 2008

That is a fascinating article indeed, digaman; thanks for the link.

What a story of Woody Guthrie in the midst of an angry mob: ...local deputies cheered as each car had its windows smashed. “White niggers get back to Russia!” rioters screamed. Or, reduced by rage to one word, “Jews! Jews! Jews!” They began flipping vehicles, dragging out men first, and then women, for beatings with clubs and brass knuckles and, most of all, shoes.... Lee and Woody made it out on a bus,... Woody cracking wise. “Anybody got a rock?” Woody called. “There’s a window back here that needs to be opened.”

This article a few years ago caught up with Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers, still politically active in her 80s.
posted by LeLiLo at 7:24 PM on February 18, 2008

...the more celebrated (and, on one important day in Bob Dylan history, infamous) Pete Seeger
The July 25, 1965, audience, the story goes, was driven to rage because their acoustic guitar troubadour had betrayed them by going electric and plugging in. The booing was so loud that, after the first three electric songs, Dylan dismissed the band and finished the set with his acoustic guitar.

There's a host of other associated narratives about goings-on in the wings: Pete Seeger and other Newport board directors were so repulsed and enraged they struggled to kill the electric power; Pete was frenetically looking for an axe to chop the major power line; people were yelling, screaming, crying, beating breasts, rending garments. Griel Marcus tells some of those stories really well at the beginning of his 1998 Dylan book, Invisible Republic.

Great stories. But not one of them is true.

I was one of the directors of the Newport Folk Festival and I was in the wings during Dylan's Saturday night performance. Every time I heard those stories retold, I'd say, to whoever was talking,"That's not how I remember it. Nobody made a move for the power. Nobody took a swing at the sound man. It wasn't Dylan the audience was booing."
The myth of Newport '65: It wasn't Bob Dylan they were booing
posted by y2karl at 8:24 PM on February 18, 2008

He was cremated and his ashes were mixed with his compost pile.

I love that. Adding his vitality to the Earth in death literally as he did in life in song.

That lowlife bastard Harvey Matusow, may he rot in hell for the incredible harm he did to Lee Hays and countless others in conspiring with McCarthy.

Loved this article digaman. When I learned to play guitar in the early mid-60's my wonderful guitar teacher, aptly named Mary E. Miner, taught me all those powerful songs, like "If I Had a Hammer.", Songs for Political Action. That song moves me still, deeply, and didn't know it was written by Lee Hays. How nice to be able to honor him now in my thoughts. Thanks for the interesting and informative post.
posted by nickyskye at 8:54 PM on February 18, 2008

Where was all this closeted history when I, a 62-year old red diaper baby, grew up gay and alone? That the CPUSA was as homophobic as the rest of the USA needs to be mentioned. Still, when the party kicked out its known gay men and lesbians as "security risks," it meant that Harry Hay could co-found the Mattachine Society. I do hope that Lee Hays found love somewhere along the way.
posted by Carol Anne at 5:54 AM on February 19, 2008

Indeed, Carol Anne. I feel the same way.

"Talking Union" was he first album I ever remember hearing and memorizing in our house -- my parents played those songs constantly when I was four or five, and the "goons and ginks and company finks" were as real to me as comic-book villians were to other kids. I recently downloaded the album from, and found that I still found it rousing and wonderful. It was good to learn more about Lee in this brilliantly written article.
posted by digaman at 8:00 AM on February 19, 2008

Great post and a sad story. Thanks, digaman.

The Peekskill concert/riot previously on MeFi.
posted by languagehat at 8:27 AM on February 19, 2008

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