Left to Right: Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert, and Fred Hellerman. (Redferns)
The Embattled Lee Hays
By Jeff Sharlet
In 1950, Lee Hays sent his siblings the first proof of his existence they’d had in more than a decade: baby-brother Lee, all three hundred pounds of him, harmonizing his deep, dark bass voice on a recording of “Goodnight, Irene,” the No. 1 hit in the nation. Lee was thirty-six, but his voice sounded old and smooth, and at the same time hard, exposed: an oak shivered open. “Stop rambling, stop your gambling,” Lee sang, a verse ironic in more ways than one:
Stop staying out late at night
Go home to your wife and family
Stay there by your fireside bright
Last any Hays had heard of Lee, he was on his way to getting lynched, a gentle fool of a giant running after dangerous dreams: lily-white Lee planning a black Boy Scout troop in Mississippi, pinko Lee organizing a mixed-race union of sharecroppers in Arkansas, “Professor” Lee teaching Yankees how to put on Communist plays in Southern churches. And then he’d gone missing. In a ditch? In a river? To Moscow? Now he resurfaced on top of the charts, in Time magazine, singing on TV for Uncle Miltie. He was the foundation of a “folk sensation,” a hillbilly quartet by way of Greenwich Village: the Weavers: Lee’s bass, Freddy Hellerman’s neat baritone, Ronnie Gilbert’s fire-alarm alto, and the wry tenor of Lee’s old pal Pete Seeger, all dipped in the syrup of an orchestra imposed by the record company and loved only by Lee. He appreciated a sound as big as his belly, his politics. He called himself a socialist, but he liked to say he didn’t know what kind. That wasn’t quite true; he was the singing kind. As far as he was concerned, collectivism meant four-part harmony. He hated to sing alone, took no solo bookings, insisted on sharing credit for his songs. “Sharing made him a little less vulnerable,” remembered a guitarist who backed him. “Lee needed a group to be Lee Hays,” says one of his protégés, the singer Don McLean. “That’s why he invented the Weavers.” They were all Lefties, but it was Lee’s longings—one part Red, one part religion, one part the angry empathy of a closeted gay man raised holy-roller in rural Arkansas—that provided the tilt that made “Goodnight, Irene” lilt so lovely out of jukeboxes across the country.
Lee and Pete had borrowed the song from an idol of theirs named Leadbelly. A good many of the Weavers’ songs were Leadbelly’s. Lee and Pete probably first gleaned “Midnight Special,” “Rock Island Line,” “Goodnight, Irene,” and the tune to which Lee wrote “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine”—all huge Weaver hits—gathered round Leadbelly’s twelve-string guitar and a bottle of bourbon in his Lower East Side apartment. Both Lee and Pete worshipped the black ex-con Life magazine had called a “Bad Nigger”—an actual headline. The real Leadbelly was a sophisticated artist, a font of American songs. Not just the blues, but also ballads and folk and gospel and reels, country, jazz, and pop. He remembered everything he ever heard and mixed it together as the spirit led, as the hour demanded, as the liquor flowed. Leadbelly taught Pete what Lee already knew: “authenticity” was a trap, purity was a dead-end, no song belonged wholly to anyone. Lee didn’t “appropriate” Leadbelly’s songs, he made sub-versions, each one a variation of an old song both new and noisy with the ghosts who’d sung it before him. “Art is a weapon,” went a radical slogan of the day; Leadbelly was an armory.
Pete memorized the notes; Lee felt them. He was loose with language. Not careless; agile. Before he went North, he specialized in what he called “zipper songs.” He’d make them out of hymns and sing them at the secret meetings of the sharecroppers union back home in Arkansas— “zipping” radical words into a song like “The Old Ship of Zion” (“It’s that union train a-coming-coming-coming”), prepared, he explained, “to break into the hymn words if gun thugs should appear.”
But that was back in the ‘30s, when Lee led with a movie-star chin and followed with smiling blue-sky eyes, when he was still filled with enough Holy Ghost—Lee always had the Ghost—to believe that change was coming soon. “See the lynch rope a-swinging,” he’d write, “see the torches burn / The people said, wake up, it’s time to learn / Time to get together, drive the evil men out / And make a new land in our own South.”
In the end, though, it was Lee, no fighter, who got driven out, running North by stages: to Cleveland, where he educated himself working in a library, reading all the books marked with a black stamp as indecent—D.H. Lawrence, Upton Sinclair, tales from a renaissance said to be taking place in Harlem; to Philadelphia, where he became “Uncle Lee” to the household of the avant-garde poet Walter Lowenfels; to New York City, where he shared a place on West 10th Street with a gangly green banjo picker named Pete Seeger, a living catalogue of five hundred songs, enthrallee of Lee’s Southern storytelling bona-fides. “Lee and I found we got along very well,” Pete would tell Lee’s biographer, Doris Willens. “He liked the sound of my banjo accompanying him, and I really admired his way with an audience.”
Lee’s signature song was “State of Arkansas,” a dirge about the miseries of his home state that shifts effortlessly to hillbilly humor. The song’s narrator pays for a bottle of whiskey with a mink skin and gets “three ‘possum hides and fourteen rabbit skins for change.” Then the song turns again, ending, like most of Lee’s thoughts, somewhere between mournful and funny:
If you ever see me back again
I’ll extend to you my paw
But it’ll be through a telescope
From hell to Arkansas
Pete, built like his long-necked banjo without the curves, empty-pocketed scion of the New England Seegers all got-up in sharecropper drag, became the straight man to Lee’s shambling, smoky lush, big-eared and bag-eyed, a black suit draped over his giant frame. Joining them was a half-pint Okie already of some renown, Woody Guthrie, with whom Lee shared a bottle nightly, more frequently if it could be arranged. Woody was fond of ripping Pete’s working-class affectations to tatters, pointing his nose in the air and dripping Harvard vowels. Pete—known as “The Saint”—couldn’t or wouldn’t come up with a response, so Lee would find himself defending the Yankee barely out of his teens. Together with a revolving cast that included Cisco Houston, Josh White, and Sis Cunningham, they called themselves the Almanac Singers. They were the group from which Bob Dylan would take his talking blues, and to which every folk, pop, rock, and hip-hop radical who followed owes a debt of rebellion. “If you want to know what’s good for the itch, or unemployment, or Fascism, you have to look in your Almanac,” Lee declared in a radical newsletter he put out later in the decade, People’s Songs. “That’s what Almanac stood for.” Soon there were more Almanacs than Lee could count, singers and songwriters and guitar pickers and accordion squeezers crowding into unheated urban communes Lee called Almanac Houses. They sang “Which Side Are You On?” in churches, “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” in union halls. “Songs about peace, white collar workers, air raid wardens,’” Lee wrote, “the sinking of a destroyer, love, unemployment, coal miners, songs about the Almanacs themselves.”
They also sang the party line, although often as not they fell out of tune. As “order-takers,” Lee confessed, they were a failure. Lee sang for the Communist Party, campaigned for it, believed in its goals. But he never joined it. “If Communists liked what we did,” Lee summed up, “that was their good luck.”
But even up North, Lee couldn’t escape the torches burning, the lynch-rope swinging. In 1949, after the Almanacs had dissolved because of the war and because Pete kicked Lee out (some would say it was politics; Lee would say it was because he’d been lazy), and after a union of radical folkies they’d organized folded (Lee, lazy, kicked-out again), a mob of lowercase people, actual workers and farmers, attacked a concert Lee and Pete helped organize in the Hudson river town of Peekskill, just north of New York City.
The headliner was Paul Robeson, the stage and screen star of Show Boat, Othello, and The Emperor Jones. The “Russia-loving Negro baritone,” the local Evening Star called him, an advance man for Moscow. The paper urged the local citizenry to stop Robeson and his Red friends by any means necessary.
On the scheduled day, the Leftist novelist Howard Fast (later the author of Spartacus) arrived early on the scene. It was one of those afternoons when the sun seems too sleepy to set, a goldenrod evening. The concert ground was a meadow at the end of a dirt road, its entrance a bottleneck; gathered around it like a noose was a crowd jeering at each passerby. Fast found a group of teenagers. “Just keep cool,” he told them. “Nothing will happen.”
Then a boy came running around the bend. Fast and a few dozen others followed the boy back to the entrance: Down from the banks of the road poured a mob of three hundred attackers.
Fast, a veteran of the Jewish street gangs of New York, found himself in command. He formed a small group of concert-goers into a defensive line at the entrance to the concert grounds, flanked by a ditch on one side and wetlands on the other. Fast surveyed his troops—skinny boys from Harlem in church clothes, summer-camp counselors, bohemian hoboes whose fingers were more used to plucking six-strings than making fists—and told them that now they’d learn to fight. “We stood in line in the gathering dark, arms locked, singing, ‘Freedom is our struggle, we shall not be moved.’ Every few seconds, there was a sickening thud as a rock crashed against the skull of one of our boys,” Fast would write for Daily Worker. “Some held their places with the blood pouring from their torn scalps; others went down.”
Night fell, a lull followed. They saw that the policemen had vanished. The mob shifted shape. Veterans in American Legion caps remembered their wartime lessons. They charged through the dark in waves, men with billies and men with bottles, Red-scared men swinging posts ripped from white picket fences.
Lee and Pete later memorialized the fight in a song, “Hold the Line,” which would become an anthem of the Civil Rights movement:
Hold the line! Hold the line!
As we held the line at Peekskill
We will hold it everywhere
But the truth was that they held the line only by backing it up, foot by bloody foot, till they were forced into a ring around the stage. Someone smashed the lights. Women led crying children in “The Star Spangled Banner.” The mob chanted “Kill a Commie for Christ!” The night turned brilliant with a bonfire of two thousand folding chairs. A wooden cross burned. Three government men in suits stood taking notes as the townsmen, now some seven hundred strong, gathered up songbooks and sing-along sheets and threw them into the flames.
The concert’s organizers rescheduled for the following week. And up from the city, from Brooklyn and the Bronx and the Lower East Side, came an army of three thousand union men to defend the concert-goers. Instead of the originally planned audience of two thousand, twenty thousand showed. Pete brought his banjo and belted out Lee’s lyrics to their new song, “If I Had a Hammer”: “I’m hammering out danger!” And Robeson sang his famously radicalized version of “Ol’ Man River”:
I must keep fightin’
Until I’m dyin’
And Ol’ Man River
He’ll just keep rollin’ along
After a few more numbers, the Lefty crowd was ready to declare victory and get the hell out of Peekskill.
The townspeople had made plans, too. With the help of some nine hundred local and state police officers, another mob funneled the concert-goers onto the aptly named Division Street, “a long gray tunnel” Lee called it in an account he wrote for the radical Sunday Worker. Thousands of protestors waited, pre-stacked rock piles at the ready. State troopers looked the other way; a police helicopter thumped overhead; local deputies cheered as each car had its windows smashed. “White niggers get back to Russia!” rioters screamed. Or, reduced by rage to one word, “Jews! Jews! Jews!” They began flipping vehicles, dragging out men first, and then women, for beatings with clubs and brass knuckles and, most of all, shoes—work boots and wingtips and women’s pumps swinging into the bellies and teeth of schoolteachers and garment workers and railroad porters.
Lee and Woody made it out on a bus, Lee close to crying and Woody cracking wise. “Anybody got a rock?” Woody called. “There’s a window back here that needs to be opened.” Then Lee started to sing: “I’ll sing out danger!” he began, in the middle of the lyric, his great barrel of a voice transcending his terror. ‘‘I’ll sing out a warning!” Woody joined in: “I’ll sing out love between my brothers, all over this land.”
The next day started late in Peekskill. The sign at the outskirts that declared PEEKSKILL IS A FRIENDLY TOWN was joined by another, replicated in store windows up and down Main Street: WAKE UP AMERICA! PEEKSKILL DID.
If this was America, Lee thought, it’s not mine. “Sometimes I live in the country,” went the number he now sang after Peekskill, “Goodnight, Irene,” a subtler, sadder kind of zipper song.
Sometimes I live in town
Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump into the river and drown
Pete’s banjo plucks the rhythm, Ronnie Gilbert’s alto slips into the water, Lee’s big bass aches the lullaby. That’s all it was to the hit parade, but to Lee, especially, “Goodnight, Irene” was a secret language, “a great notion”—all that could be said for a nation that responded to folk songs with burning crosses, the “drowning” as much of an allusion to Leadbelly’s darker words (a junkie’s lament, a love gone cold) as Decca Records would allow. For those who could hear, the song was thick with broken-hearted meanings, an elegy for wrong choices and a hope for the sweet, revolutionary bye and bye.
Irene, goodnight. Irene, goodnight
Goodnight, Irene, goodnight, Irene
I’ll see you in my dreams
In 1950, when Lee sent out records of “Goodnight, Irene” to his siblings—one each to brother Reuben, a banker; to Bill, a salary man; and to Minnie Frank, a newspaper poetess—he attached a note relaying as much as he figured they’d be able to understand about where he’d been, what he’d seen, the revolution that didn’t happen. His letter was just six words long: “This is what I’ve been doing.”
That was as true as the three minutes and twenty-two seconds of “Goodnight, Irene,” from the first swell of the strings glued on by a hit-conscious record company to the fade of four voices.
This is what Lee had been doing:
After he’d given up on Reuben, Bill, and Minnie Frank for hopelessly bourgeois, Lee found new brothers and sisters among the black and white labor organizers who became his heroes, his muse. One evening, late 1930s, riding with them in a rump-sprung car through the cold Arkansas night, Lee discovered that singing could save him from his constant fear. Not the words of a song, but simply the sound of his voice mixing with others, those who sang along with him and those who’d sung before him, most of all his father. He’d been a big man, an itinerant preacher who carted a vast, eccentric library around Arkansas. He died in a car crash when Lee was thirteen; Lee’s mother went insane shortly thereafter. There was a sense in which Lee, too, never recovered.
Lee was not a brave man. Despite his size—his mastiff shoulders and a head as large and hard as a tree stump—he shrank from physical confrontation, from physical activity in general. He was tubercular, though he didn’t know it then, and the diabetes that would, piece by piece, rob him of his legs in later years may have already set in. He had run away from home, but he believed his family had abandoned him. (In a sense they had: His siblings were scattered across the country.) Hunger and loneliness aged him. Beneath the deep bass and behind his hillbilly routines, Lee was afraid, as permanent a condition as the sexual desires he referred to, obliquely, in a pseudonymous review of now-forgotten novels by gay writers he deemed too “defensive” about their longings. “Have you ever been married?” acquaintances who didn’t know better (which was most of them) would ask, and Lee would crack his broad thin lips in a grin, his little liquor-soaked teeth like a row of corn on the cob, and tell a tale about his first time, way back when, with a “golden-haired girl,” in a Confederate cemetery; no more questions, please.
His old fears were strong that cold night in the rump-sprung car. It was marked for violence, as was its owner, a labor organizer who’d once been whipped by bosses with the belly band of a mule harness. “The organizer drove warily, hunched over the wheel,” Lee wrote. “The young Negro boy beside him watched the road just as carefully, and his feet pressed the floorboards every time the organizer stepped on the brakes. The Negro man and the white woman who sat in the rear with me were tense, and I could feel their bodies tightening up every time we passed a car or went through town.
“The organizer started singing.”
Ordinarily, they’d sing union songs. “But in this cold night we sang hymns.” They’d all been raised in the church and all had converted to the union; they believed in deliverance, here and now, not salvation in the hereafter. But they remembered the old words,
harmonies swelling and breaking (“Floods of joy o’er my soul like the sea billows roll”) bass voice giving way to sweet soprano, the organizer’s raspy baritone coming in with a verse or a chorus, one hymn after another, and all the voices searching, working for harmonies unheard and unknown, perfect blends of tones and feelings and fears.
I wondered about this, why we found such comfort in the old hymns, we whose eyes were fixed on a new day and a new way of life. For awhile it was possible not to be scared, even.
But the answer was there, and it came to me that the words of the song didn’t matter. They were there and we sang them, but what mattered was that we were singing.
Lee was a believer. Like his father who died pinned to the wheel of his overturned open-top Ford on a two-lane outside of Booneville, Arkansas, like his mentor, Claude Williams, a radical Presbyterian known as the Red Preacher, a white Arkansan beaten and jailed for the same Christian hope Martin Luther King, Jr., would die for decades later.
But Lee’s god wasn’t God, it was “The People,” that great abstract many-faced mass. You could call Lee’s religion communism, but he’d just as soon call it a song. “One dreams of a great people’s song,” he wrote in 1948, as close as he ever came to declaring a creed, “of our marching song which will come again, but hasn’t yet; of the great song which is still unsung” He believed it would be a battle hymn, remembered for generations, a victory song, like John Brown’s glory. He wanted in on it. He tried zipping labor and race into “We Shall Not Be Moved.” He wrote the words to “If I Had a Hammer.” He rang his aching vocal chords like two-ton church bells on “Hold the Line.”
And yet Lee harbored few illusions about his faith: He knew that the People, like the Lord, could be fickle or mad or mysterious, vengeful or loving or silent—painfully silent—in the face of injustice. The People, Lee’s divine, were only human. Maybe that’s why Lee could almost never get through some solemn labor anthem without a goof, a twist, a joke, sometimes a fable.
“I never knew but one person in my life that didn’t like singing or music in any form,” went a story he liked to tell between songs. “He was a Southern preacher who belonged to a church that thought all music was sinful, etc., etc. I would argue with him about it by the hour and say, ‘Preacher, I just can’t understand your point of view. Music is divine, it’s the language of the angels. It defines the indefinable, expresses the inexpressible.’ But he would just say, ‘I wouldn’t care if it unscrewed the inscrutable, it’s sinful and I don’t like it.’”
In 1951, Lee alone among the Weavers realized that the battle was lost. When they hit the top of the charts with “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” and Pete seethed over being booked in swanky fat-cat clubs in Hollywood and Vegas instead of union halls in Arkansas, Lee ordered room service and toasted every jukebox in America that made the Weavers the most popular group of the summer.
Besides, it was only a matter of time before some goon dug up their past and reported that the tuxedoed quartet was in truth a singing sleeper cell direct from Moscow. Some goon! An actual Judas, an F.B.I. informer named Harvey Matusow, aka “Harvey Matt,” the former head of the People’s Songs Music Center.
Matusow would later describe his fatal kiss in a book called False Witness. He and the editors of a newsletter called Counterattack—three former F.B.I. agents who functioned as a facet for J. Edgar’s leaks—found themselves frustrated as they mulled over the Weavers’ success. They loathed such hits as “On Top of Old Smoky,” “Pay Me My Money Down,” and “Midnight Special “—America-hating music, they believed, Commie-code. But they had nothing on the Weavers themselves. “They could not be placed in the Communist party,” Matusow wrote. “Having known all four of them, not as Communists, but as friends, I triumphantly said, ‘I know them, and they are Communists.’”
And that was it. Bookings disappeared. Records disappeared. Top of the charts in 1950, by the end of ‘52 their names weren’t safe to whisper. Called before HUAC in 1955, Pete invoked the First Amendment, a move that earned him a prison sentence of a year. Lee wasn’t so brave. Lacking Pete’s puritan pride, he was too scared to admit he even knew his own words. “We have just heard one of your songs, entitled, ‘Wasn’t That a Time,’’’ said the committee’s counsel. “Were you the author of it?”
Lee declined to answer.
“I don’t think I have ever felt so damned alone as on that day,” he’d remember in 1981, the year he died. “When I got home my heart hurt and I place the beginnings of my heart trouble to that day.”
Lee would sing again, but in a sense the rest of his life was just a long, slow exhalation. Don McLean recalls Lee circa 1968. He lived on a half-acre up along the Hudson. His neighbors were fellow blacklist veterans. His visitors were young musicians who heard the love but not the danger in the song that paid for Lee’s liquor, “If I Had a Hammer,” made into a hit by Peter, Paul, and Mary. Some days were very fine. He still had his legs then, and he loved to garden. Some days he was afraid of what lay beyond, what he’d left behind. Some days he was just mean. He’d disappear into his cottage, waste the day filling an ashtray as big as an urn. “Lee still had his voice,” remembers McLean, “but he was shrinking. Like the air was coming out of him.”
At the end of 1955, the Weavers held a reunion. Their manager beat the blacklist by renting Carnegie Hall for a nameless quartet and then selling it out before anyone could complain. Their opening number was “Darling Corey.” If you’ve ever wondered what the Left once was in America—the Old Left that organized American labor and did FDR’s heavy lifting and fought fascists in Spain in 1936 and in Peekskill in 1949—listen to “Darling Corey” as the Weavers sang it in 1955. It’s a ghost, a memory even then, but still it’s more thrilling than anything that played on the radio that year—or last year, for that matter—a punk battle hymn for four voices. Pete tears it open with a single note, spitting bullets out of his long-necked banjo. He was mad and proud and bitter, playing for the fallen and the falling, for Leadbelly and Woody—who was two-thirds gone now, dying of Huntington’s Disease in Brooklyn—and for the Weavers themselves. It was a new sound for Pete, Woody’s sound. Not the jokes, but the anger. The difference between Pete and Woody could be seen on their instruments. In a neat circle bordering his banjo, Pete wrote, THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER. Across the hips of his guitar, Woody scrawled, THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS. That night in 1955, Pete turned his banjo into Woody’s old killing machine. The first spray of notes is followed by a plummeting spiral like a man stepping—leaping—off a cliff. Enter four voices: Wake up, wake up, darling Corey!
The song is about a moonshining mountain woman, but as Lee would say of his favorite hymns—he’d zip one of his hee-haw routines into “Amazing Grace” later that very evening—the words don’t matter. The opening blast of harmony is Gabriel’s horn, a mash-up of the Red Army Choir and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and an Alabama chaingang, the First Amendment and the Fifth and all the others side by side, singing out the most joyousfuck-you ever drawn up from the well of rage and heart hurting.
The first booming verse, of course, belongs to mighty Lee Hays:
Well first time I seen Darling Corey
She was standing by the sea
Had a .45 strapped ‘round her bosom
She had a banjo on her knee!
Maybe the words do matter.
Like these, the beginning of the third verse, Ronnie Gilbert’s alto whooshing in like cannonballs:
Ob yes, oh yes, my darling!
Lee was the reader of the group, a student of banned books and a writer of pornographic tales, so maybe he heard the Irish echo of James Joyce’s Molly Bloom. “Yes I said yes I will Yes,” the last words of Ulysses. Joyce thought Molly Bloom’s “Yes” signaled the end of resistance; acquiescence. Lee heard the “Yes” of “Darling Corey” differently, louder, even, than Molly Bloom’s transcendent submission, heard it to the end of his days, when he was legless in a little cottage up along the Hudson, not far from Peekskill, where he came to know and even befriend some of the men and women who’d had blood in their throats and rocks in their fists back in 1949. He heard that opening number in Carnegie Hall in the winter of 1955—sang it—like a hymn on a cold night in Arkansas. For awhile, it was possible not to be scared, even.