The Monday Book – Lonesome Traveler, The life of Lee Hays by Doris Willens

Guest reviewer this week is Jack Beck

A few weeks ago I reviewed a book about Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston and this one which I purchased at the same time is something of a companion to that.

Lee Hays was the left wing son of a Methodist preacher and became active in the New York folk scene in the 1940s alongside Woody, Pete Seeger and others in a group called ‘The Almanac Singers’. Eventually Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed ‘The Weavers’ who went on to enormous success and sold millions of records worldwide.

Willens lived next door to Hays in a New York apartment block and recorded many interviews with him, which are the basis of this book. It covers both his early life in Arkansas and his later involvement with radical organizations such as the ‘Highlander School’ in Tennessee, which led to his meeting up with Seeger.

This work is well researched, with a full section of references and doesn’t shirk from describing his difficult relationships with his family, the Almanacs and the Weavers.

Hays wrote a number of songs that have become part of the folk ‘canon’ and been recorded by numerous well known artists – ‘If I had a Hammer’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ may be the best known. He had a particular love of children and alongside his work with ‘The Weavers’ he formed a group called ‘The Babysitters’ which included the author of this book. They made a number of albums of songs either wholly or partly written by Hays.

The final chapter includes a very poignant description of the final farewell concert by The Weavers at Carnegie Hall where Hays was in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated due to diabetes.

I enjoyed reading this and recommend it to anyone interested in US left wing politics and folk music of the 1930s, 1940s, into the McCarthy era and beyond.

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