by Michael Carman
Struggling to describe what Billie Holliday’s music had meant to him, a jazz piano player once told me, “It’s like this: Other blues singers sing about their pain. Billie is singing about mine.”
From the first few bars of Darling Corey, the opening song of the new Work o’ the Weavers folk music quartet, you feel a similar jolt of recognition: Four people have just come onstage, ripping into a give-’em-hell Appalachian Mountain tune at breakneck speed, singing about a pistol-packin’ mama who operates a still, beds down whomever and wherever she wants, and drinks herself to death. Yet somehow, the song feels both contemporary and urgent. Somehow, Darlin’ Corey is you, or your lover, or maybe just your splendid fantasy. You can hardly sit still in your seat.
What’s going on?
For starters, sitting still is definitely not on the agenda. Work o’ the Weavers, who opened in the greater New York area at Walkabout Clearwater Coffeehouse in Katonah, New York, last December 13 (2003), is a new group created and assembled by folksingers David Bernz and James Durst to present the work of the original Weavers folk music quartet-Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The show is a kind of reification of the original group’s musical and social ideal, a two-hour-plus musical performance of more than 40 Weavers’ songs, interlaced with the story of who the Weavers were and why their music and their lives captivated this country during one of its most difficult times.
It’s a tall order, but for the most part, this group of consummate musicians more than fills the bill. The music itself is infectious and sounds surprisingly relevant. In some kind of visceral way, it touches an emotional nerve. The musicians are top-notch, and the performance itself is thrilling like a runaway train, with all of us giddy on the ride.
The original Weavers got together as a group in 1948 to sing folk music they liked and that meant something to them in their lives. They sang and made famous Goodnight Irene and Tzena, Tzena, a double-sided hit that skyrocketed them to the top of the pop music charts in the summer of 1950; So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh; This Land is Your Land, an all-time American favorite tune by Pete Seeger’s friend and mentor, Woody Guthrie; the patriotic Woody Guthrie standard, Roll On, Columbia; If I Had A Hammer, a song Hays and Seeger wrote together; and hundreds of others.
The Weavers were the inspiration for, if not the musical parents of, the Limeliters, the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Don McLean. They were musical godparents to Woody Guthrie’s son, Arlo. And they influenced everyone from Joan Baez and Bob Dylan on down to any singer today who sets out to sing music that rises up out of people’s real-life experience.
Writer/raconteur Studs Terkel, interviewed for the documentary, Wasn’t That a Time, a full-length feature written by Lee Hays after the original Weavers’ legendary reunion at Carnegie Hall in New York City in the fall of 1980, said, “Folk music is anything that deals with the daily lives of people. The Weavers were able to enter authentic folk music into the mainstream of American popular music. This had never been done before.”
From today’s vantage-point, it sounds as if the Weavers provided the most wholesome of family entertainment, but in 1955 the Weavers were threatened with imprisonment for their socially conscious songs like Union Maid and Solidarity Forever, their antiwar songs like Venga Jaleo, from the antifascist movement against Franco in Spain, and for their civil rights and pro-peace songs. Worse, they believed and lived what they sang.
“Songs are dangerous,” Ronnie Gilbert said, in that 1980 documentary. “The Weavers sang about unions, civil rights, and friendship of all nations, at a time when the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to censor our beliefs.” Under the cloud of McCarthyism, the Weavers were hauled up before the committee in 1955 and charged with “communism,” anti-Americanism, anti-patriotism, and sedition, the singers of On Top of Old Smoky and When the Saints Go Marchin’ In were blacklisted for nearly 25 years.
So when David Bernz (Work o’ the Weavers’ tenor vocals, banjo and guitar) was first approached by James Durst about doing Weavers’ songs, he hesitated. “I’d been thinking about doing Weavers music for a long time,” he said. “But I knew I would never feel right just taking the Weavers’ music and singing it. That would just be pure nostalgia. It wouldn’t do them justice.”
Part of Bernz’ concern arose from a long-standing intimacy with the original Weavers group itself. Bernz’ father had been Lee Hays’ best friend and next-door-neighbor when Bernz was growing up. Both Bernz’ parents had been musicians and social activists, and his father had helped organize unions in the garment district. Pete Seeger had become a friend of Bernz when Bernz expanded his own music career as a folksinger. And Bernz remains a friend and neighbor of Seeger’s today.
So it was understandable that Bernz, who sings some of Fred Hellerman’s and some of Seeger’s parts in the Weavers’ songs and plays the instruments Seeger played, would be chary of the possibility of dishonoring the Weavers’ legacy through simple imitation.
“Anything that drew on the Weavers’ work would have to be done with complete respect for them as people as well as musicians,” he said.
But in the early part of 2003, “with the run-up to the Iraq War,” Bernz said he was beginning to think history might be repeating itself. “With the resurgence of the words ‘anti-American’ and ‘unpatriotic’ in the mainstream media used to describe anyone with a dissenting opinion in these troubled times,” Bernz says, “it dawned on me that maybe now would be a good time to tell the Weavers’ story. To tell the story, and tell it through music–that would be something I could really be part of.”
Bernz contacted Durst and the two agreed to proceed on that basis: While music would form the core of the performance, the story of the Weavers would also be told. Bernz and Durst wrote-and are still refining-that narrative.
At this writing, refinement of the narrative remains the only unfinished piece of the project. On the one hand, Bernz and Durst are committed to honoring the substance of the Weavers’ work and lives in this way, and to letting younger people know about their musical and social heritage. On the other hand, they are aware that too much educational material can sound like speechifying and could deaden the performance.
Original Weaver Fred Hellerman, now in his 70s but looking barely older than he did in the 1980 documentary, addressed this issue with the new group recently. On hand for the Katonah performance, Hellerman said he favored letting the music speak for itself. But unlike Hellerman, not everyone today knows what the Weavers did and what their music meant.
“Musically, though,” Hellerman told me at intermission in Katonah, nodding toward the stage, “they’re solid.”
No one could take issue with that. Hellerman’s compliment is proved over and over, for instance in Johnny Is Gone for a Soldier (Buttermilk Hill) a beautiful, unsentimental lament sung by Martha Sandefer, whose stunning alto solo takes no back seat to the work of the original Weavers’ powerhouse, Ronnie Gilbert. Or Durst’s guitar work on Buttermilk Hill, or the vocals on Lonesome Traveler and My Lord, What A Morning (When the Stars Begin to Fall).
Just as the Weavers sang songs from every aspect of life, Work o’ the Weavers samples a little of everything. There is a dance medley of the polka, hora, and the Bahamian folk song, Hey Li-Lee-Li-Lee-Lo. There is the eternal favorite popular ballad, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, and the silly old favorite, Go Tell Aunt Rhody (“the Old Gray Goose Is Dead”).
(And by the way, anyone who thinks this 250-year-old song about a goose is out-of-date should look in the children’s section of any modern bookstore today: Go Tell Aunt Rhody is featured as a bestselling illustrated children’s book (Simon & Schuster 1996). Toward the end of the book, in a double-page, full-color spread, the orange webbed feet stick gaily in the air from the middle of the pond. Across the bottom of the page runs the song’s last line: “She died in the mill pond, standing on her head.”)
Work o’ the Weavers sings everything from protest to elegy, from noodling to nonsense–songs about living, loving, losing, longing, objecting, and standing up for people’s rights to breathe free. In the same mysterious way that is true of their opening number, all these songs seem fresh, urgent and important.
When Work o’ the Weavers sang So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh, the audience hummed. When they sang, Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, heads swayed back and forth. When they sang, When the Saints Go Marchin’ In, everything broke loose.
Perhaps one of the reasons the show is so strong is that unlike so much of contemporary popular music, largely created as a commercial venture to be imposed upon a “market,” the Weavers chose songs that grew out of people’s individual and collective experience, songs that arose from, were intrinsic to, the thoughtful, intense lives of their creators.
Follow the Drinking Gourd grew out of the antislavery movement and the Underground Railroad. I Never Will Marry may have arisen from slave life too, but it could just as well be an early feminist statement or a song about the experience of being a woman.
Another reason undoubtedly has to do with the way the songs are presented. “Lee Hays used to say, “Every song has a spine, ” David Bernz recalls, “and that needs to be recognized. Other groups would perform as if they were saying, “Look how cute our arrangement is,” whereas the Weavers kept the song itself out front.”
Still another reason for the music’s appeal may lie in what Sandefer describes as the reason folk music has such resonance and staying power in the first place: “Folk music turns out to be the best kind of music for teaching “ear training,” Sandefer says. Sandefer, a trained singer and lifelong musician, is now completing a master’s degree in music education. She hopes to design an integrative curriculum for schools using the Work o’ the Weavers music as a central model.
“Human beings respond to the honesty in folk music,” Sandefer adds. “This is one very deep well of reality-along with blues, of course, and gospel.”
Finally, Work o’ the Weavers relies on the solid musicianship of each of the performers individually and jointly, and the success of their blending. From James Durst’s strong, higher tenor and accomplished guitar-playing; to Martha Sandefer’s terrific, lusty alto, which, like Ronnie Gilbert’s, soars easily over the men’s voices when she needs it to; to David Bernz’ gifted banjo-picking, guitar-playing and clear vocals; to Mark Murphy’s sensuous string bass playing and his dead-on bass voice-all the new Weavers are very strong professional musical performers, both individually and as an ensemble. Onstage, it’s clear they have a lot of respect for each other, which adds to the easy balance and vitality of their singing.
Work o’ the Weavers have Durst and Bernz to thank for that blending. Durst chose Martha Sandefer, with whom he’d worked on his own albums before, for her glorious alto voice. Uncannily, the attractive Sandefer, with her lovely smile and natural enthusiasm, does remarkably recall Ronnie Gilbert. “Martha was the only woman I could think of who could fit this bill,” Durst said. “And David and I both knew Mark Murphy and his terrific bass playing. The surprise to us was-Mark could sing! Actually,” Durst adds, “this was a group hand-picked. There were no auditions.”
Durst sings many of Pete Seeger’s lead tenor parts and plays most of the guitar parts formerly played by Fred Hellerman, but he and Bernz swap roles, depending on the needs of a given piece. With his sweet soft tenor and easy-on-the-ears storytelling voice, Durst gives the musical introduction and storytelling, which he also shares with Bernz, a cozy, engaging tone. His early training in radio and TV communications is evident in the professionalism he brings to this narrative role, and his career as a kind of international balladeer makes him right at home with the multicultural songs. (The Weavers sing some Spanish and Hebrew songs in their original languages.) Durst’s exuberant tenor riff on Wimoweh (Wi’Mbube) is one of the high points of the evening.
Durst says the idea for the group came about because of a “whole melange of things.” Durst had started out as a folksinger in California, and has sung all over the world, including in India and the Far East. By the time he arrived on the east coast, in the late 1990s, “some of the things that New York City folks took for granted were new to me ” such as that you could get to know Pete Seeger. Folks here took it for granted that Pete was around that he was a flesh-and-blood fellow like the rest of us. I learned he doesn’t really float three inches off the ground.”
Singing with Pete Seeger and some of the groups allied with the environmental sailboat Clearwater, a grass-roots organization Seeger launched in 1965 to help clean up the Hudson River, Durst came to know the Weavers’ music and history better. He began to think it should not only be revived but also perhaps should be restated in some way.
“It’s one thing to tell the Weavers’ story in the context of their times,” says Durst. “It’s another to tell it in the context of ours.”
To Durst, it seemed a natural or maybe even inevitable happening. “We’d also like to give something back to them, to the Weavers for what they’ve given us.”
Sandefer puts it another way: “I think in a way this music gives the culture back to itself,” she says. “Our interest is not to recreate the Weavers but to shine the light on that time and on that era. The music of the Weavers is a part of the culture that we as a people have lost. This is one way to restore that.”
As the youngest new Weaver, Mark Murphy says, “I came on the scene after the heyday of the Weavers was over. So it’s been an eye-opener for me, becoming so familiar with their work. Musically, their work is very diverse. It’s taken from so many sources. Blending it together into an evening of music that is so specific is a challenge, but an exciting one.”
Murphy adds that he still finds it mind-boggling to see “how many times this music has been covered by other artists and other styles.” For instance, Murphy says he recently heard a reggae version of Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. Harold Leventhal, the Weavers’ longtime manager and friend, remarked, on the 1980 reunion documentary, that at that time there were 116 recordings of If I Had a Hammer worldwide. Surely in the 20 years since, there have been more.
“The Weavers’ music has the broadest appeal to large audiences of any of the music I’ve played,” adds Murphy.
Even though the Work o’ the Weavers wants to evoke but not imitate the original group, the question inevitably arises: How does the new group compare with the original?
One answer arises in the generous support given the group by the three original Weavers (Lee Hays died in 1981).
Pete Seeger, still performing in his 80s, asked the group if he could join them in their rehearsal at the Beacon Sloop Club near his home. When the group arrived, Seeger had started a fire in the fireplace, arranged the chairs, and made everything ready. He offered to take the entire script home and make corrections and suggestions, assistance for which the group was extremely grateful.
“Fred Hellerman was also so generous with us,” says Bernz. “He spent hours and hours talking to me about the Weavers’ music.” And in the front row of the Katonah concert, when Hellerman was called up onstage at the end of the show, he took the mike and told the crowd, “I never had a chance to sit out front and listen to the Weavers. Tonight I did.”
Ronnie Gilbert met the group after the 2003 Carnegie Hall concert and told them, “You really do sound like the Weavers!” Like Hellerman, she too generously gave the group interview time to discuss music, technique and life stories.
And Leventhal, who has an office in New York City, has opened the Weavers’ archives to the new group for their research purposes, as has Nora Guthrie, who maintains the Woody Guthrie Foundation archives nearby.
If initial audiences are any indication, people are crazy about Work o’ the Weavers. At every performance from their summer 2003 tryouts in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to their December opening in Katonah, people clap, shout, laugh, shed a few tears, sing along and invariably end up on their feet.
The key to their future, however, may rest on how well the uninitiated respond to this old-new music. So far, audiences have been either oldtimers who knew the Weavers “when,” middle-aged people and younger people who follow the folk music scene, and fellow musicians. Whether or not the “unconverted” will respond is a big question.
Lee Hays, whom David Bernz calls a modern-day Mark Twain for his sharp tongue and sharper wit, believed the bottom line was the music. In the tag line for the 1980 Weavers’ reunion documentary, Hays says, “The music is gonna go on cause it always has.”
Work o’ the Weavers is proof of that.
Michael Carman, who worked for many years as a journalist, editor and publisher in Manhattan, is a writer who lives in Westchester County, New York. She has just completed a chapbook of her poetry and is at work on a novel.
(Vocals, banjo & guitar)
David Bernz, who covers some of both Fred Hellerman’s and Pete Seeger’s vocals in Work o’ the Weavers, grew up in the New York City area in the Weaver tradition, if not in a kind of Weaver milieu. He is the son of Harold Bernz, himself a musician and Lee Hays’ best friend. One of seven children in a Jewish family who worked in the tanning cellars of Lower Manhattan, David’s father became involved in union work early on. Harold Bernz contributed to the People’s Songs Bulletin, a forerunner of Sing Out! magazine, launched by Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives and others. Bernz senior and Hays shared an apartment before Bernz married. “My father bought the groceries,” David says, “while Lee did the cooking and cleaning.” Harold Bernz married Ruth Levine, a singer, and by the time David was three or four years old, Lee Hays was the next-door-neighbor of the Bernz family in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and he was “Uncle Lee” to little David.
“There’s something about that music that went into my brain early on,” says Bernz, “and it never left. That music is deeply, viscerally alive. I’ve rarely heard it in other music.”
Like his fellow new “Weavers,” Bernz was always a musical person, singing and playing first guitar, then banjo. Like others, too, he went through his Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin phase, and he spent his high school years pulling blues riffs from B.B. King and Eric Clapton albums and playing in local rock bands. Heavily influenced by the folk music of the ’50s and ’60s, as well as by blues, R&B, jazz, and rock, David has been writing and singing songs of many different kinds for almost two decades. By the time he was in college at SUNY Albany, he had joined Charlie Bell at the Campus Coffeehouse. He continued his music after transferring to Boston University, and music remained his first love, even through law school.
In 1980, Bernz attended the now-famous reunion concert of the Weavers at Carnegie Hall, wheeling “Uncle Lee” around in his wheelchair. (By that time, Hays had lost both his legs to diabetes.)
“Uncle Lee enjoyed staying at the Sheraton,” Bernz says, “and ordering up room service from the Carnegie Deli on 7th Avenue. It was one of the most amazing days of my life, as much for the experience of seeing three generations of people in the audience, as for the music. They gave the Weavers a standing ovation for six or seven minutes, non-stop.”
Bernz has appeared onstage throughout the New York area, New England, and in his native Hudson Valley, sharing the stage with Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Arlo Guthrie, Tommy Makem, Billy Bragg, Oscar Brand, Noel Paul Stookey, Peter Yarrow and many others. David has also toured Germany with “Dave, Perry, Rande” (featuring Rande Harris and Perry Robinson, son of composer Earl Robinson). He is a founding member (with Caryl Towner and Dave Tarlo) of the folk trio Stone Soup.
David produced and released Pete Seeger’s 2003 post-9/11 offering, Take It From Dr. King, and more recently, David produced Pete’s 2009 Grammy Award-winning At 89 CD. David’s solo CDs, Homespun One and Hudson Line, are in the works.
(Vocals & guitar)
James Durst, who sings many of Pete Seeger’s parts and some of Fred Hellerman’s vocals in Work o’ the Weavers, grew up singing in school and church choirs. Both of his parents had played instruments in their high school orchestras, and his dad continued throughout his life to enjoy playing organ by ear recreationally. James picked up guitar as a teenager and began at an early age to make a life in music. He was “largely self-taught–which means,” he says, “I’ve learned from everyone.”
During high school he became half of the duo The Songsmiths, with banjo and guitar player John Miller, who introduced him to Sing Out! magazine and the work of Pete Seeger, the Weavers and a world of traditional music beyond that folk music popularized by the media at the time. Even before graduating in 1969 from California State University at Long Beach with a degree in Radio/Television/Film Communications, he knew his life was for making music.
Peripatetic by nature, Durst chose an international career, touring extensively as a solo singer/songwriter beginning in the mid-1960s. He has traveled and performed in 49 states and 45 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, Scandinavia, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Japan and, most recently, India and Israel. In addition to singing in more than two dozen languages, he has composed hundreds of songs and recorded many of them. For most of the 1980s he partnered once again, with vocalist Ferne Bork.
Durst invited Martha Sandefer to sing on a couple of his albums and similarly, he asked Mark Murphy to record with him as a bassist. These working relationships became serendipitous ones when he and David Bernz agreed to develop Work o’ the Weavers.
With David Bernz, Durst has been a prime mover in the creation and establishment of Work o’ the Weavers and in his view, the process has all been nothing but positive. “Our experience from the very first rehearsal has been like a dream,” he says.
Sandefer agrees, recounting with a chuckle that after the group had sung its first two songs together in rehearsal, “James just looked at us with this big grin on his face.” “It was as if we’d been rehearsing together for months,” Durst says.
In addition to performing, singing and writing songs, James has also starred in a pair of award-winning children’s singalong videos, “A Great Day for Singing!” and “Another Great Day for Singing!,” and has written an eco-musical play entitled Hue Manatee’s Quest.
James’ dozen or so CDs and his children’s videos are available at worldwindcd.com, as well as cdbaby.com, efolkMusic.com and amazon.com. More information about James and his music can be found at jamesdurst.com.
(Vocals & upright bass)
Mark Murphy’s on-target bass-baritone voice was something of a well-kept secret until Work o’ the Weavers called on him. Most of his adult life, he’s been known as a highly polished bass player, touring and recording stand-up bass with Guy Davis, Walt Michael and others. When David Bernz and James Durst tapped him to play bass for Work o’ the Weavers, they were delighted to find he could cover the vocals for original Weaver Lee Hays’ bass part more than adequately.
“My father tells the story that I would sing jazz harmony to records as a toddler,” Murphy says. “And singing is something I’ve done off and on throughout my professional career, although I don’t have a lot of formal training.”
Mark comes from a highly musical family. His father, a school music educator, was trombonist with the U.S. Army’s 69th Division Show Band and played in the New York City jazz scene. His parents still perform together in contradance bands. His grandfather and grandmother were church musicians, his aunt a church choir director and organist and his uncle, also named Mark Murphy, is a professional jazz singer voted Best Male Jazz Vocalist by Downbeat Magazine a few years ago.
When Mark was in third grade, his father asked him which musical instrument he wanted to play–not whether, but which–and he chose cello, studying with “a wonderful teacher, Arthur Catricala,” who was principal cellist of the Schenectady Symphony Orchestra.
In high school he took up the electric bass, but when he got to college at SUNY Fredonia, he found the music program there too narrowly focused for his interests and so majored in his second love which was art.
At college he began playing upright bass, and soon after he graduated in 1981, he was playing professionally with Walt Michael, Tom McCreesh and Company, with whom he’s appeared on Nashville Network’s Fire on the Mountain and NPR’s Prairie Home Companion, the Carter Family Fold and other venues. The group also played for the Pilobolus Dance Company.
With Vanaver Caravan he has performed at Lincoln Center and the United Nations and he was part of the cast filmed for the historic dance reconstruction “Boston Fancy,” a work chosen for the National Archives. He has backed up blues artist Guy Davis (a W. C. Handy Award nominee) on four CDs, and has appeared with Davis on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and on tour with Davis in Europe. He has toured and recorded in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Mark agrees it’s a lucky coincidence that he both sings and plays the bass parts for Work o’ the Weavers. Although original Weaver Lee Hays didn’t play an instrument in the group, Mark says the Weavers often played with a pick-up bass on their touring performances, most notably with Percy Heath, bassist for the Modern Jazz Quartet.
“The Weavers’ music has the broadest appeal to large audiences of any of the music I’ve played,” says Murphy. “It’s a great challenge to play, and an exciting one.”
“The good musicians of any genre have a really good ear,” says Martha Sandefer, alto singer with Work o’ the Weavers. “Ear training and the study of music theory are things I’ve taken seriously all my life.”
Martha’s training and education show in the ease and strength of her singing. In Work o’ the Weavers, she sings the part originally sung by alto Weaver Ronnie Gilbert.
A singer all her life, Martha grew up singing in the Washington DC area, where she began to study music education at the University of Maryland. When she met Jim Scott, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, she left Maryland to begin performing full time.
Martha’s parents were both musical. Her mother, a minister, played piano and her father was involved with church music.
“You could get work anywhere in the 1970s,” she says, “but the kind of pop music people were singing then wasn’t fulfilling. We wrote our own charts, though, and worked hard on musicianship skills.”
In the 1980s, she self-produced her album, The Dream Is Still Alive, a collection of contemporary folk songs written by herself and Scott, who was for a time a member of the Paul Winter Consort, and two other folk composers. In general, she describes her personal singing style as “more rhythm and blues.”
In the 1990s she moved to Virginia to join the folk and contemporary musical group Trapezoid, a hammered dulcimer band in which Martha played bass and guitar. She has recorded and sung with Trapezoid, John McCutcheon, R. Carlos Nakai, Peter Kater and others, including some commercial projects. Martha has a keen interest in folk music from around the world and has most recently been studying frame drums, performing in concert with percussionist Glen Velez.
Now living and working in New England, Martha has recently received her Master’s Degree in Music Education with a focus on pedagogy at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut. She is committed to making Work o’ the Weavers the foundation of an educational curriculum so that the work can be taken into the schools.
Martha was thrilled recently to meet Ronnie Gilbert in person at the 2003 Carnegie Hall Thanksgiving folk concert, and to speak briefly with the dynamic alto singer with the original Weavers. “She told us we really do sound like the Weavers,” says Martha.
The next day Martha talked at length with Ronnie by telephone about the original Weavers’ music. “The two musicians who meant most to her in her early days,” Martha learned, “were a young girl she heard singing on a farm one summer–she listened to the girl singing for hours–and Paul Robeson.”
“I love the Work o’ the Weavers project,” Martha says. “I think it’s wonderful to be bringing these songs back into peoples’ ears.”