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A Talk with Jesse Jarnow, Author of Wasn’t That a Time

Why are the Weavers still important in 2018?

The Weavers were pretty much the first band to successfully channel politically radical ideas into mainstream music and actually score some hits doing so, and—as my book argues—legitimately changed the world in the process. They’re not exactly a blueprint, since new bands probably wouldn’t want to also go through the experience of being destroyed by the right-wing media in active collaboration with the United States government and major media networks—but it’s certainly topical!

The Weavers sound so innocent. They’re just a singing group. Why would they be investigated by the United States government?

Yeah, there’s certainly been an escalation in affects since the 1950s, but listen closely and you can hear the revolutionary undertones in the Weavers. For example, seek out a recording of them doing the Spanish Civil War song “Venga Jaleo” led by Ronnie Gilbert’s absolutely electrifying voice. Translated, part of the lyrics read “clap out the rhythm, dream of a machine gun.” The title song of this book, “Wasn’t That a Time,” was very much about the climate following Henry Wallace’s defeat in the 1948 Presidential election, connecting Communists jailed under unconstitutional Smith Act charges to the brave Americans of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. The song resulted in all four Weavers being served subpoenas by the House Un-American Committee over the course of their career, and three of them being called to testify.

So, were the Weavers actually Communists?

Sure, but so were many young progressive-minded people in the years surrounding World War II. “Communism” only became demonized in the years after Republicans took control of the White House and Congress in 1948, using it as a slur to describe the previous sixteen years of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and bowdlerized further when people like Joseph McCarthy began creating made-up connections between the utopian American Communist Party and international espionage by the Russian government. As Lee Hays was fond of pointing out, right-wingers should hold Franklin Roosevelt as a hero. After all, when the Depression ravaged America, he saved capitalism.

Who else did the Weavers influence besides protest musicians?

First, I think calling anything “protest music” devalues it almost immediately. The Weavers grew out of the collective People’s Songs that Pete Seeger ran, and their goal was to perform organizing music, to bring people together, charge their energies, and provide a collective base to get together and work around causes. Weavers concerts broke down barriers in some ways. To members of the Grateful Dead, they were the first place where music turned from a performance into something participatory. David Crosby told me that, despite his own left-wing political leanings, his love of the Weavers was purely musical. Al Jardine of the Beach Boys told me that the Weavers were pretty much a cautionary tale about what not to do, and has used them as a way to keep politics out of the Beach Boys.

What do you love about the Weavers?

All of the above! I love their work towards radical musical inclusion, I love their harmonies, I love their song choices, I love their personalities, I love their politics, I love their optimism, I love their belief that they could change the world, I love that they did, I loved the way they remained collaborative as a band (even at their most unharmonious), I love singing along to their songs, I love Lee Hays’s deeply learned surrealist humor which comes across as incredibly human despite the band’s frequent cheesiness, I love Pete Seeger’s utter earnestness, I love Ronnie Gilbert’s absolute coolness, I love the way they began conversations about folk music that remain contentious in the 21st century, I love their songs, I love the way their story improbably resonates now in 2018.

What blew your mind the most when you were researching the book?

Yeesh, so many things. I’m a total sucker for archives, and especially ones that nobody’s really gone through or made an attempt to organize in an instantly searchable way, where I don’t really know what to expect—and putting this book together was just one of those after another. I had moments like that with all four Weavers—going through Ronnie Gilbert’s meticulously saved boxes of correspondence, Lee Hays’s papers scanned by the Smithsonian, Pete Seeger’s jumble of an FBI file, and some never-read early journals and other early writings by Fred Hellerman. I got to see Fred and Ronnie’s LSD therapy files, too, which was insanely personal.

Maybe the most mind-blowing thing happened near the end, when I located a very rare unreleased recording of a teenage Jerry Garcia singing the title song of my book, “Wasn’t That a Time.” It was extraordinary in several ways, not the least of which is that I’m an enormous Dead freak, but then speaking with his girlfriend of the time and learning how important the band was in Garcia and his songwriting partner Robert Hunter’s conception of the world. Explains a lot to me!