Jim Brown and George Stoney’s 'The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time'
One night, when I was about 16, living in suburban Long Island, The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time, a 1982 documentary film about the radical folk singing quartet, beamed out of my family’s black-and-white TV set, and wrapped itself around my heart.
Pete Seeger, banjo in hand, was talking about what it meant to be part of a group of young, up-and-coming “blacklisted” troubadours whose self-appointed job was to protest injustice in Cold War America. “We sang for unions and left-wing groups,” he related. “We sang songs of hope. We thought if we sang long enough and loud and hopeful enough we could make a difference.”
I remember feeling as if Pete Seeger was speaking directly to me; I turned to my mother: “That's what I want to do.” “What?” she asked doubtfully. “Play the banjo?” “No, I want to make movies like that.” “Oh,” she said, looking relieved. “That’s a documentary, dear.”
Twenty-two years later, I watched The Weavers again. The film had become a personal reference point for my own evolution as a filmmaker. Truthfully I was a little worried: What if it wasn't as good as I remembered? So, alone one night, I watched The Weavers on my all-in-one set, singing “awimowat... awimowat” at the top of my lungs.
And gratefully, I reveled in that all-too-rare convergence of intention, irreverence, historical moment and craft. Perhaps most important—and most surprising—was how funny this now-classic “social change” documentary was.
Humor, I have learned, can be important—all the more so when exploring injustice, censorship and anti-unionism. The humor in The Weavers is primarily conveyed through the acerbic wit of Weaver Lee Hayes, the comic relief and arguably the emotional and mortal impetus for the film.
“People who were blacklisted get all sorts of honors today,” Hayes quips. “If it wasn’t for the honor, I’d just as soon not be blacklisted.” Hayes, a writer on the film, is wheelchair-bound, both legs amputated due to diabetes. Ever resourceful, he arrives—quite alive and ready to sing—at the 1980 reunion concert at Carnegie Hall in a hearse borrowed from a local funeral home.
This was not the first reunion at Carnegie Hall for the Weavers—just the first filmed by the team of director Jim Brown and producer George Stoney. Once student and teacher, here they’re deep collaborators, along with co-producer and long-time Weaver manager Harold Leventhal. As retold in the film, in 1955, the Weavers were blacklisted for three years, dropped from their record label, shunned from TV and generally without work. But thanks to Leventhal, they performed at Carnegie Hall. In the audience was future folk singer Holly Near, who, in the documentary, describes going back home from that concert “inspired” by Ronnie Gilbert (the woman in the Weavers), who “gave a lot of woman singers permission to throw their head back and sing.”
In this way, The Weavers: Wasn't That A Time is so much more than a “concert film.” It is a reflection on mentorship, the responsibility of being in the limelight and using it effectively, the role of the storyteller, the need for long, unending conversations between generations.
In the last shot of the film, the camera pulls back to reveal the crowd in silhouette. They are screaming and cheering, and the Weavers, smiling, sing their farewell encore, “Goodnight, Irene.” Many in the audience, I suspect, went home understanding better why songs can be “dangerous.” And many of us who watched on TV stood up and decided to join the chorus. I did.
Judith Helfand’s films include Blue Vinyl; The Uprising of ’34, co-directed with George Stoney; and A Healthy Baby Girl.