Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lee Hays' "Lonesome Traveler"

I mentioned a few weeks back in a post about "Shady Grove" that the other half of the Kingston Trio's medley - "Lonesome Traveler" - involved a somewhat darker and sadder story than did the traditional "Grove" song. That was because LT came from the pen and imagination of Lee Hays, a founding member of the first two real popular folk groups, the Almanac Singers and The Weavers, and his story is surprisingly sad, bordering even on the tragic.

With his friend/opponent/collaborator/nemesis Seeger, Hays was easily the most prominent of the four Weavers because of his voice, his size, and the force of his personal presence. The son of a strict Methodist preacher from Arkansas, Hays spent most of his life in rebellion against any element of power that he felt stultified, cramped, or confined the hopes and aspirations of individuals as he felt his father had done to him. The deep and conservative religiosity of the father spurred Hays into the embrace of leftist agnosticism, though as even a casual acquaintance with his music indicates, he continued to frame his angry radicalizing in terms rooted in religious expression - he remained a great singer of spirituals and spiritual-based music, though like Woody Guthrie, who was Hays' friend and collaborator before Seeger met either of them, he often replaced "Jesus" in camp meeting songs with "union" and made similar transformations in other lyrics.

Hays and Seeger were in the Almanac Singers together, and though their avowed purpose was to sing at union organizing meetings and other political rallies, what Seeger and Hays found that they had in common was a belief that the music that rural child Hays had grown up with and the urban and educated Seeger had adopted as his own had the potential to unite common people into a united front against what they perceived as the tyranny of capitalism. It was a Utopian ideal that the two held to so strongly that it drove them into affiliation with the Communist Party - oddly for Hays, since few other organizations have ever been as top-down authoritarian as the Stalin-era CP was. But as I noted a few years back in a piece on Seeger - the Utopia envisioned by Hays and Seeger wasn't the brutal collectivism of Stalin's USSR but more an almost Jeffersonian Arcadia of The People as imagined by Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg and practiced by communal religious groups like the Amish.

Hays and Seeger turned out some of the great songs of the era - "If I Had A Hammer," the arrangements we know today of "We Shall Overcome" and "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine", and the Weavers' signature protest against McCarthyism, "Wasn't That A Time" (a rousing piece that NBD or NBJ would have rocked on). But there had always been a strain in their relationship - Seeger was far the more talented of the two, more articulate, and to Hays' chagrin, more knowledgeable about American folk music. In fact, when Seeger decided to leave the post-blacklist re-formed Weavers in 1957 - ostensibly over the group's 3-1 vote to sing on a radio commercial for a cigarette company (wouldn't I love to find that recording!) but actually to free himself from the commercial restraints of a pop-folk group - Hays complained that he took with him knowledge of over 300 songs that he, Fred Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert just didn't know and would find it nearly impossible to locate and arrange.

Though Hays stayed with the Weavers through their post-Seeger reunion tours, he sank further into the related pits of depression and alcoholism that he had struggled in for his whole adult life. The diabetes brought on by the latter condition and his weight problem led to Hays' loss of both of his legs and eventually his life at the age of 67 in 1981.

I'd bet that prior to Peter, Paul and Mary's stirring re-write of the Hammer song (and both Seeger and Hays acknowledged that the pop-folk trio had vastly improved their composition), "Lonesome Traveler" was probably Hays' best-known original composition and certainly the most widely covered. Everybody doing folk music took a swing at it - it just sounded so authentic, and it had that signature Hays combination of a cry for secular/political reform couched in camp--meeting religious terms.

The Weavers naturally recorded it first, in 1950 on Decca, under the direction of producer/arranger Gordon Jenkins. As I've noted here before in other posts - it's downright strange to hear what the gifted Jenkins thought folk music should sound like, a mere eight years before the KT's Voyle Gilmore created a pop-folk genre that sounded so much more "authentic":

Now listen to those crass commercializers, the Kingston Trio, offer their rendering as the second half of this medley. Which group fifty years later is considered the parent of modern roots/Americana/authentic folk music and recently won a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement? Hint: It's not the guys singing here:*

To be fair, even the urban traditionalist Greenwhich Village folkies had problems with the commercialism of the Weavers, especially after Seeger left. Sing Out! founder Irwin Silber lumped the Weavers in with the KT in decrying the "sallow slickness" of all pop folk music.

The pop folkies just continued to pop on, though, and few with more wit and verve than the Limeliters, making their first appearance on my blog here after 61 posts - a shame because they were a great group, and one that probably got the most attention for singing LT - here as a reunion in 1988 at the Chabad Telethon:

The second generation Limes do the song justice as well:

Skiffle legend and Beatle-influencer Lonnie Donegan released his version a year or two after the Kingstons:

Finally, a folk-rock version from the mid-Sixties by Esther and Abi Ofarim, an Israeli married couple who had their greatest success in that decade in Germany - there's a story there that needs to be told:

Makes you want to dig out those Carnaby Street fashions that have been lying in the attic for a few decades.

Back a long time ago in a less benighted time, art was considered separable from artist. Van Gogh could send his ear to the lady who spurned him, Gaugin could abuse friend, foe, ladies, and alcohol with a savage disregard, Beethoven could roll in garrets and die in the gutter - but the sublimity of their creations suffered no taint as a consequence. Lee Hays was more tragic and less objectionable as a person; at nearly 30 years after his death, perhaps we can remember Hays' friend and biographer Don McClean's observation that "weathered faces lined with care/Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand" - perhaps even the artist's own.


*Addendum: December 20, 2014
Thanks to the comment below from JC, I stopped by this article and was able to replace two videos that had been removed from YouTube, the KT and Lonnie Donegan versions. The Weavers had been awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006; when I wrote this in 2009, the Kingston Trio had not been so recognized, and that was the source of my ironic comment. However, just over four years ago, in December of 2010, the Trio was also voted the award, which sole surviving founding member Bob Shane accepted (with the widows of bandmates Dave Guard, Nick Reynolds, and Guard replacement John Stewart) in February, 2011.


Folksinger91 said...

I always wondered what ever became of that commercial too. I know it was never aired but I wonder if they still kept it I dig you blog

greenhawk46 said...

I always thought the hungry i album was the KT's best-raw, and lots of energy and great vocal and musical sounds-plus the songs were great ones

thanks Jim for all your hard work and research on this blog-


Jim H.

JC said...

Hays was a deeply flawed person. Rebellion and protest seemed to be what he lived for - an almost entirely destructive motive. No wonder he suffered from alcoholism and depression. His lifelong mental illness probably also explains his otherwise inexplicable support for Communism, and his possible homosexuality.

Jim Moran said...

JC - Thanks for the comment and note my ref to it in the addendum above. I agree with your comment, and I also could never understand how so independent and rebellious a person as Hays could ever have submitted to the aggressive authoritarianism of the CPA.
regards, Jim

Alan Javel said...

Somewhere on YouTube I found an old Winston cigarette commercial, with a group singing the jingle "Winston tastes good like a (clap clap)cigarette should." The female voice sounded a lot like Ronnie Gilbert's, and I wondered if this was the infamous commercial that temporarily broke up the Weavers. Anyone want to dig it out and comment?

Jim Moran said...

Hello Allan J. - You got me thinking too and running back to YT. I found plenty of Winston commercials, including a couple that sounded as if they just might have RG's voice and even one that I thought might include PS - but the singing style was just so far removed from that of The Weavers that I doubt those spots were ones that the group did. In the process, I did run across this little bit of trivia - note that the male lead is James Garner. It has to be 1957 or before, because once Maverick debuted that year, Garner became an overnight sensation and would not have appeared anonymously in any kind of commercial. Anyway, I think I'll keep searching old cig ads for The Weavers.

regards, Jim