LIVE: Work o’ the Weavers @ the Eighth Step at Proctors, 1/18/19
Review by Don Wilcock
“Close enough for anti-government work,” quipped David Bernz as he tuned his banjo one song into the set. To the unsuspecting, Work o’ the Weavers is simply a cover band for The Weavers, whose career beginning in 1948 ushered in the “folk scare” of the ’60s with songs that were a bridge over troubled waters at a time in American history that was even more problematic than the struggles we face today.
The irony of this group is that not only does their presentation stand on its own, but these four artists are more professional than the majority of folk acts I saw in the early ’60s. They began their career in 2004 with the endorsement of the then three remaining live members of the original Weavers: Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman. The original Weavers sold more than four million records between 1948 and ’52 when they were brought before the House Committee on Un-American Activities during the McCarthy era and disbanded soon after. More importantly, they changed the definition of folk music for the next wave of artists.
Back when the Weavers were the voice of the folk world, before the term “underground” was applied to rebellious youth reinventing culture, before Dylan told us something was blowing in the wind, and before Jerry Garcia psychedelicized America’s folk roots, there was a schism in folk music. Acts like Dylan, Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton were nearly sacred, their music absorbed in Harvard Square’s Club 47, New York’s Gaslight and Saratoga’s Caffe Lena like psalms for a life style that bordered on an almost religious fanaticism.
The folk fans of the early ’60s often drew a hard line in the sands of time between the commercial acts like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four vs. THE WORD of The Weavers, Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and eventually the Greenwich Village and Harvard Square coffeehouse performers.
One of The Weavers’ early members was Pete Seeger. He was the resurrection. He never sold out to commercial interests. His popularity was fueled by a cross section of common folk and academics who were appalled by a world run on profit, public relations machines and advertising to the masses.
The Weavers were the Old Testament in delivering The Word. They were Christlike in the eyes of the labor movement and the common man from the ’40s into the early ’50s. The Weavers were “saviors” who were “crucified” by the Communist witch hunt and the McCarthy anti-Communism hearings. In 1990, Ronnie Gilbert told me she was warned to keep her hotel room door open in Chicago when she rehearsed with the quartet. “If I closed the door and was found in the room with three men, the vice squad would have an excuse to make trouble for us. It was nasty.”
In front of an audience of fewer than 40 people at the Eighth Step at Proctors’ The Addy, Work o’ the Weavers brought history to life, a tableau of timeless Weavers classics including “Irene Goodnight,” “Rock Island Line,” “I Am a Lonely and Lonesome Traveler,” “This Land Is Your Land” and “Underground” about the underground railroad where salves escaping north were told to follow the Big Dipper which they often called “the drinking goard.”
The songs live on in the Work O’ the Weavers, a very professional act by design but commercial by accident: Mark Murphy on bass and vocals; Travis Jeffries on guitar and vocals; vocalist Martha Sandefer; and banjo player and walking encyclopedia of everything Weavers, David Bernz, also on guitar and vocals.