The Almanacs and World War II
As the clouds gathered around Commonwealth College, Hays headed north to New York, taking with him his collection of labor songs, which he planned to turn into a book. But a short stayover in Philadelphia with the poet Walter Lowenfels and his hospitable family turned into a long visit. The German-born Lowenfels, a highly cultured man and a modernist poet who was fascinated by Walt Whitman and edited a book of his poetry, became another surrogate father to Hays, influencing him deeply. (Together the two men later wrote, perhaps Hays' best song, "Wasn't That a Time?") Under Lowenfels' influence, Hays also began to write modernist poems, one of which was published in Poetry
Magazine in 1940. He also had pieces based on Arkansas folklore published in The Nation
. Publication of these pieces led to his forming a friendship with another Nation
contributor, Millard Lampell.
Arriving in New York, Hays and Lampell became roommates. They were soon joined by Pete Seeger
, who like Hays was also contemplating putting together an anthology of labor songs. Together the trio began to sing at left-wing functions and to call themselves the Almanac Singers. It was a somewhat fluid group that included Josh White and Sam Gary and later Sis Cunningham (a fellow Commonwealth College alumna), Woody Guthrie
(with whom Hays collaborated on his 1940 debut album, Dust Bowl Ballads
), and Bess Lomax Hawes, among others. The Almanac's first album, issued in May 1941, was the controversial Songs for John Doe
, comprising six pacifist songs, two of them co-written by Hays and Seeger and four by Lampell. The songs attacked the peacetime draft and the big U.S. corporations which were then receiving lucrative defense contracts from the federal government while practicing racial segregation in hiring. Since at that time isolationism was associated with right-wing conservatives and business interests, the pro-business but interventionist Time Magazine
lost no time in accusing the left-wing Almanacs of "scrupulously echoing" what it called "the mendacious Moscow tune" that "Franklin Roosevelt is leading an unwilling people into a J. P. Morgan war" (Time
, June 16, 1941). Concurrently, in the Atlantic Monthly
, Carl Joachim Friedrich, a German-born but anti-Nazi professor of political science at Harvard, deemed the Almanacs treasonous and their album "a matter for the Attorney General" because subversive of military recruitment and morale. On June 22, Hitler unexpectedly broke the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact and attacked Russia. Three days later, Franklin Roosevelt, threatened by black labor leaders with a huge march on Washington protesting segregation in defense hiring and the army, issued Executive Order 8802 banning racial and religious discrimination in hiring by recipients of federal defense contracts. The army, however, refused to desegregate. Somewhat mollified, nevertheless, labor leaders canceled the march and ordered union members to get behind the war and to refrain from strikes; copies of the isolationist Songs for John Doe
were destroyed (a month after being issued). Asked by an interviewer in 1979 about his support of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Hays said: “I do remember that the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact was a very hard pill to swallow. . . . To this day I don’t quite follow the line of reasoning behind that one, except to give Stalin more time.” According to Hays's biographer, Doris Willens:
That the pact gave Stalin more time was the story then put out; millions around the world didn’t buy it [in part because of Stalin’s 1939 attack on Finland] and at that point lost faith in the Soviet Union . . . (Many others had lost faith earlier, during the Moscow purge trials.) But as a disciple of Claude [Williams], Lee in 1940 held firm with those who continued to believe that America and Britain were maneuvering not to defeat Nazi Germany, or rather, not just yet, but first to turn Hitler to their desired end of destroying the Soviet Union. ....
In short, 1940 was a bad time to say a good word for “peace.” Worse, the only other voices opposing the war emanated from the extreme right, particularly America Firsters, a group suspected of harboring the hope that Hitler would eventually triumph . . . . Whatever uneasiness the Hitler-Stalin pact churned up, Lee hoped to submerge by throwing his vast energies into the service of the dynamic Congress of Industrial Organizations [(CIO)]—the challenger to the fat and lazy and bureaucratic old American Federation of Labor. A singing labor movement, that was the goal. If you got the unions singing, peace and brotherhood had to follow. It seemed so clear and simple.
The Almanacs, who now included Sis Cunningham, Woody Guthrie
, Cisco Houston, and Bess Lomax Hawes, discarded their anti-war material with no regrets and continued to perform at union halls and at hootenanies. In June 1941 they embarked on a CIO tour of the United States, playing in Detroit, Chicago, and Seattle. They also issued several additional albums, including one, Dear Mr. President
(recorded c. January 1942, issued in May), strongly supporting the war. Bad publicity, however, pursued them because of their reputation as former isolationists who had become pro-war "prematurely" (i.e., six months before Pearl Harbor). As key members, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, and Woody Guthrie joined the war effort (Seeger in the army and Guthrie and Houston in the Merchant Marine) the group disbanded. Hays was rejected from the Armed Forces because of a mild case of tuberculosis; and indeed, he felt sick all the time, missed performances, and developed a reputation for hypochondria. Even before this, Seeger and the other Almanacs found Hays difficult to work with and so erratic that they had asked him to leave the group.
When the war ended, however, a group of songwriters gathered in Pete Seeger's in-laws' apartment in Greenwich Village and founded People's Songs, "organized to create, promote and distribute songs of labor and the American people". They elected Pete Seeger president and Lee Hays executive secretary. Corporate counsel was Joseph R. Brodsky. In his new position Hays found some of his old energy returning. He wrote to friends, old and new (a new one was Fred Hellerman, later of the Weavers), who he thought might be interested. He brought in his old friend Waldemar Hille to be music editor of the People's Songs Bulletin
and solicited songs and stories from Zilphia Horton, who sent in her new favorite, "We Shall Overcome". In its first year every issue of the People's Songs Bulletin
featured a new song by Hays. One, written with Walter Lowenfels after a disastrous accident in a coal mine contained this verse:
Do you know how the coalminers die
To bring you coal from the earth?
They die by the hundreds and they die by the thousands
And that is what your coal is worth.
Bernard Asbell, a member of People's Songs, who in 1961 wrote the best-selling book,
When FDR Died, recalled: When I think of that period I think of Pete and Lee. Lee and Pete. Lee’s deep bass singing "Roll the Union On”. He and Pete are the two guys who made folk music serve political purposes. .. . Lee was the one with the sense of history, who tied it all together. He was the one who brought the sharecroppers in, and the union songs based on hymns. His images inspired us... convinced us that the Left was the great continuum of the American tradition, or at least that it was part of the mainstream of the American tradition. Lee thought in terms of events, history; he saw large, and that rubbed off on the rest of us. He was the philosopher of the folk music movement. He stretched the canvas. And he was funny—and God, we needed that. There wasn’t much humor around.
Although the first year of People's Songs was very successful, once again his co-workers found Hays "difficult" and indecisive. At a board meeting in late 1946, Pete Seeger proposed Hays be replaced as executive secretary with energetic young friend of his, Felix Landau, whom Pete had met during his army days in Saipan. In retrospect, Pete confessed “I think it was a mistake. Lee’s perceptions were probably truer than mine.”
Crushed, Hays returned to Philadelphia to stay with Walter Lowenfels and family. From there he began contributing a weekly column to the People's Songs
Bulletin aiming to educate younger people about Claude Williams and the labor and civil rights struggles of the 1930s.
In 1948, People's Songs put all of its efforts into supporting the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace on the Progressive Party ticket. Not long after Wallace's decisive defeat, People's Songs went bankrupt and disbanded. A spinoff, however, People's Artists, showed somewhat more vitality.
The Thanksgiving after Wallace's defeat, People's Songs decided to put on a fundraising Hootenanny that included folk dances from many lands. A group of People's Artists, comprising Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert, worked up a musical accompaniment to the dances, which they called (in the "One World" spirit of the Progressive movement) "Around the World". It featured an Israeli song, the Appalachian "Flop-eared mule", and "Hey-lally-lally-lo" from the Bahamas. The audience went wild. In 1949 the new quartet began appearing at leftist functions and soon they were featured on Oscar Brand's WNYC radio show as "The No Name Quartet". Four months later they settled on a name: The Weavers.
People's Artists sponsored the concert given by Paul Robeson and classical pianists Leonid Hambro and Ray Lev in Peekskill, NY, that sparked the Peekskill Riots on September 4, 1949. The Weavers were present. Hays escaped in a car with Guthrie and Seeger after a mob claiming to be anti-communist patriots attacked the cars of audience and performers after the show. Hays wrote a song, "Hold the Line", about the experience, that the Weavers recorded on Charter records with Robeson and writer Howard Fast. If I Had a Hammer", written with Pete Seeger and also recorded on the Charter label, dates from this embattled period.
A few months later, in December, The Weavers began an incredibly successful run at the Village Vanguard. One fan, Gordon Jenkins, a bandleader who had had numerous hits under his belt and was a director of Decca records, returned night after night. Born in Missouri, Jenkins was especially entranced with Lee Hays' folksy stage patter, laced with colorful Ozark anecdotes. Jenkins convinced his reluctant fellow executives at Decca to record the group. Jenkins backed them up with his own lush string orchestra and huge chorus, but tactfully and with care, so as not to obscure the words and musical personalities of the groups' personnel. To everyone's surprise, The Weavers, who seemed to fit into no musical category, produced billboard hit after billboard hit, selling millions of singles. However, the Korean War had begun and the red scare was in full swing. In September 1950, Time magazine reviewed them this way:Last week a group of four high-spirited folksters known as the Weavers had succeeded in shouting, twanging and crooning folk singing out of its cloistered corner into the commercial big time...After the war the four met in Greenwich Village get-togethers, and decided that their voices, plus Pete's banjo and recorder, and Fred's guitar, made just the right blend. Sponsored by Red-tinged People's Songs, they got enthusiastic but unremunerative backing from fellow travelers who have long claimed folk songs as their particular province.
The Weavers and the Red Scare
In 1950, Pete Seeger was listed as a probable subversive in the anti-communist pamphlet Red Channels and was placed on the entertainment industry blacklist along with other members of the Weavers. Lee Hays was denounced as a member of the Communist Party during testimony to the House Committee on Un-American Activities by Harvey Matusow, a former Communist Party member (he later recanted).
Their records dropped from Decca's catalog and from radio broadcasts, and unable to perform live on television, radio, or in most music venues, The Weavers broke up in 1952. Subsequently, Hays liked to maintain that another entertainer, called Lee Hayes, spelled with an "e", was also banned from entertaining because of the similarity of his name. "Hayes couldn't get a job the whole time I was blacklisted," he claimed.
Hays spent the blacklist years rooming with the family of fellow blacklist victim Earl Robinson (composer of "The House I Live In", "Ballad for Americans", and "Joe Hill"), in a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights. He wrote reviews and short stories, one of which, "Banquet and a Half", published in
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and drawing on his experiences in the South in the 1930s, was the recipient of a prize and was reprinted in the U.S. and Britain. In 1953, Hays' mother, whom he had seen only once since her entry into custodial care, died. In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities: he declined to testify, pleading the Fifth Amendment. 1955 was also the year of a sold-out Weavers Carnegie Hall reunion concert. The Weavers had not lost their audience appeal—the LP of the concert (
The Weavers at Carnegie Hall) issued two years later by Vanguard, was one of the three top-selling albums of the year. This led to a tour (made difficult by Hays' invalidism and anxieties), another album, and more tours, including one to Israel.
In 1958, Hays began recording a series of children's albums with The Baby Sitters, a group that included a young Alan Arkin, the son of a family friend of the Robinsons. After the great financial success of Peter Paul and Mary's cover of "If I Had a Hammer" in the mid-1960s, Hays, whose mental and physical health had been shaky for years, lived mostly on income from royalties.
In 1967, he moved to Croton-on-Hudson, New York where he devoted himself to tending his organic vegetable garden, cooking, writing, and socializing. He wrote to a friend that in his new surroundings he had no idea how to earn new money but that, "Having a listed number with no fear of Trotskyite crank calls is a huge relief". At the insistence of his old friend Woody
's son, Arlo Guthrie, however, he did appear, playing himself as a preacher at a 1960 evangelical meeting, in the film Alice's Restaurant (1969), based on Arlo's hit song of that name.
Hays, who had always been overweight, had been diagnosed in 1960 with diabetes, brought on by alcoholism, depression, and the use of a strong drug, a condition the doctors thought he had probably suffered from, along with TB, for many years previously. This led to a heart condition and he was fitted with a pacemaker. Both his legs eventually had to be amputated. Younger friends, among them Lawrence Lazare and Jimmy Callo, helped to take care of him.
His bad health notwithstanding, Hays performed in several Weavers reunion concerts, the last of which was in November 1980 at New York City's Carnegie Hall. His last public performance with the group took place in June 1981 at the Hudson River Revival in Croton Point Park. Two months later he was dead. The documentary film
The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!, for which Hays had written the script, was released in 1982.
Near the end of his life Hays, wrote a farewell poem, "In Dead Earnest", inspired perhaps by Wobbly organizer Joe Hill's lyrical "Last Testament" but with an earthy Ozark frankness:
In Dead Earnest
If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take:
Put them in the compost pile
To decompose a little while.
Sun, rain, and worms will have their way,
Reducing me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishes in the seas.
When corn and radishes you munch,
You may be having me for lunch.
Then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, "There goes Lee again!"
Twill be my happiest destiny
''To die and live eternally.
He died on August 26, 1981 from diabetic cardiovascular disease at home in Croton, and, in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were mixed with his compost pile.
El contenido de este artículo ha sido extraído total o parcialmente de la Wikipedia en inglés bajo licencia Creative Commons.
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