Wimoweh … Enter Pete Seeger

This story by Rian Malan was originally published in the May 25, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.

Pete Seeger, on the other hand, was in a rather bad way. He was a banjo player living in a cold-water flat on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village with a wife, two young children and no money. Scion of wealthy New York radicals, he’d dropped out of Harvard ten years earlier and hit the road with his banjo on his back, learning hard-times songs for people in the Hoovervilles, lumber camps and coal mines of Depression America. In New York he joined a band with Woody Guthrie. They wore work shirts and jeans, and wrote folk songs that championed the common man in his struggle against capitalist bloodsuckers. Woody had a slogan on his guitar that said, “This machine kills fascists.” Pete’s banjo had a kinder, gentler variation: “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.” He was a proto-hippie, save that he didn’t smoke reefer or even drink beer.

Pete Seeger - Wikipedia

He was also a pacifist, at least until Hitler invaded Russia. Scenting a capitalist plot to destroy the brave Soviet socialist experiment, Pete and Woody turned gung-ho overnight and started writing anti-Nazi war songs, an episode that made them briefly famous. After that it was into uniform and off to the front, where Pete played the banjo for bored GIs. Discharged in ’45, he returned to New York and got a gig of sorts in the public school system, teaching toddlers to warble the half-forgotten folk songs of their American heritage. It wasn’t particularly glorious, the money was rotten, and on top of that, he was sick in bed with a bad cold.

Came a knock on the door, and, lo, there stood his friend Alan Lomax, later to be hailed as the father of world music. Alan and his dad, John, were already famous for their song-collecting forays into the parallel universe of rural black America, where they’d discovered giants like Muddy Waters and Leadbelly. Alan was presently working for Decca, where he’d just rescued a package of 78s sent from Africa by a record company in the vain hope that someone might want to release them in America. They were about to be thrown away when Lomax intervened, thinking, “God, Pete’s the man for these.”

And here they were: ten shellac 78s, one of which said “Mbube” on its label. Pete put it on his old Victrola and sat back. He was fascinated – there was something catchy about the underlying chant, and that wild, skirling falsetto was amazing.

To Pete [Seeger] it sounded like, awimboowee or maybe awimoweh, so that’s how he wrote it down. Later he taught “Wimoweh” to the rest of … the Weavers, and it became, he says, “just about my favorite song to sing for the next forty years.”

“Golly,” he said, “I can sing that.” So he got out pen and paper and started transcribing the song, but he couldn’t catch the words through all the hissing on the disk. The Zulus were chanting, “Uyimbube, uyimbube,” but to Pete it sounded like, awimboowee or maybe awimoweh, so that’s how he wrote it down. Later he taught “Wimoweh” to the rest of his band, the Weavers, and it became, he says, “just about my favorite song to sing for the next forty years.”

This was no great achievement, given that the Weavers’ repertoire was full of dreck like “On Top of Old Smoky” and “Greensleeves.” Pete will admit no such thing, but one senses he was growing tired of cold-water flats and wanted a proper career, as befitting a thirtysomething father of two. He toned down his politics, excised references to dark sexual lusts from Leadbelly standards, and threw some hokey cowboy songs into the mix. He even allowed his wife to outfit the band in matching corduroy jackets, a hitherto-unimaginable concession to showbiz, when they landed a gig at the Village Vanguard.

The pay was $200 a week plus free hamburgers, and the booking was for two weeks only, but something unexpected happened: Crowds started coming. The gig was extended for a month, and then another. The Weavers’ appeal was inexplicable to folk purists, who noted that most of their songs had been around forever, in obscure versions by blacks and rednecks who never had hits anywhere. What they failed to grasp was that Seeger and his comrades had managed to filter the stench of poverty and pig shit out of the proletarian music and make it wholesome and fun for Eisenhower-era squares. Six months passed, and the Weavers were still at the Vanguard, drawing sellout crowds, including the odd refugee from the swell supper clubs of Times Square.

One such figure was Gordon Jenkins, a sallow jazz cat with a gigolo’s mustache and a matinee idol’s greased-back hairstyle. Jenkins started out arranging for Benny Goodman before scoring a huge hit in his own right with, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” an appalling piece of crap. These days he was working with Frank Sinatra, and holding down a day job as musical director at Decca Records. Jenkins loved the Weavers, returning night after night, sometimes sitting through two consecutive shows. He wanted to sign them up, but his bosses were dubious. It was only when Jenkins offered to pay for the recording sessions himself that Decca capitulated and gave the folkies a deal.

45cat - The Weavers - Old Paint (Ride Around Little Dogies) / Wimoweh -  Decca - USA - 9-27928

Their first recording came out in June 1950. It was “Goodnight Irene,” an old love song they’d learned off their friend Leadbelly, and it was an immediate click, in the parlance of the day. The flip side was an Israeli hora called “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” and it clicked, too. So did “Roving Kind,” a 19-century folk ditty they released that November, and even “On Top of Old Smoky,” which hit Number Two the following spring. The Weavers leapt from amateur hootenannies to the stages of America’s poshest night spots and casinos. They wore suits and ties, Brylcreemed their hair, appeared on TV and pulled down two grand a week. Chagrined and envious, their former comrades on the left started sniping at them in magazines. “Can an all-white group sing songs from Negro culture?” asked one.

The answer, of course, lay in the song that Seeger called “Wimoweh.” His version was faithful to the Zulu original in almost all respects save for the finger-popping rhythm, which was arguably a bit white for some tastes but not entirely offensive. The true test lay in the singing, and here Seeger passed with flying colors, bawling and howling his heart out, tearing up his vocal cords so badly that by the time he reached seventy-five he was almost mute. “Wimoweh” was by far the edgiest song in the Weavers’ set, which is perhaps why they waited a year after their big breakthrough before recording it.

Like their earlier recordings, it took place with Gordon Jenkins presiding and an orchestra in attendance. Before this, Jenkins had been very subdued in his instrumental approach, adding just the occasional sting and the odd swirl of strings to the Weavers’ cheery singalongs. Maybe he was growing bored, because his arrangement of “Wimoweh” was a great Vegas-y explosion of big-band raunch that almost equaled the barbaric splendor of the Zulu original. Trombones blared. Trumpets screamed. Strings swooped and soared through Solomon’s miracle melody. And then Pete cut loose with all that hollering and screaming. It was a startling departure from everything else the Weavers had ever done, but Billboard loved it, anointing it a Pick of the Week. Cash Box said, “May easily break.” Variety said, “Terrific!”

But around this time Variety also said, “FIVE MORE H’WOODITES NAMED REDS” and “CHAPLIN BEING INVESTIGATED.” It was January 1952, and America was engaged in a frenzied hunt for Reds under beds. The House Un-American Affairs Committee was probing Hollywood. Red Channels had just published the names of artists with Commie connections. And in Washington, D.C., one Harvey Matusow was talking to federal investigators.

Matusow was a weaselly little man who had once worked alongside Pete Seeger in Peoples’ Artists, a reddish front that dispatched folk singers to entertain on picket lines and in union halls. Harvey had undergone a change of heart and decided to tell all about his secret life in the Communist underground. On February 6th, 1952, just as “Wimoweh” made its chart debut, he stepped up to a mike before the House Un-American Affairs Committee and told one of the looniest tales of the entire McCarthy era. Evil Reds, he said, were “preying on the sexual weakness of American youth” to lure recruits into their dreaded movement. What’s more, he was willing to name names of Communist Party members, among them three Weavers – including Pete Seeger.

The yellow press went apeshit. Reporters called the Ohio club where the Weavers were scheduled to play that night, demanding to know why the Yankee Inn was providing succor to the enemy. The show was canned and it was all downhill from there. Radio stations banned their records. TV appearances were canceled. “Wimoweh” plummeted from Number Six into oblivion. Nightclub owners wouldn’t even talk to the Weavers’ agents, and then Decca dropped them too. By the end of the year they’d packed it in, and Pete Seeger was back where he’d started, teaching folk songs to kids for a pittance.

The Weavers perform their signature song at a Caregie Hall reunion concert

So the Weavers were dead, but “Wimoweh” lived on, bewitching jazz ace Jimmy Dorsey, who covered it in 1952, and the sultry Yma Sumac, whose cocktail-lounge version caused a minor stir a few years later. Toward the end of the decade, it was included on Live From the Hungry I, a monstrously popular LP by the Kingston Trio that stayed on the charts for more than three years (178 weeks), peaking at Number Two. By now, almost everyone in America knew the basic refrain, so it would have come as no particular surprise to find four nice Jewish teenagers popping their fingers and going ah-weem-oh-wayah-weem-oh-way in the summer of 1961.

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