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September 27, 2004

Chicago Sun-Times

Pete Seeger was standing in the corner of the big dressing room, playing a tune on his recorder. Fred Hellerman was planted on a chair, listening. "It's an old Japanese air," Seeger said, putting down his recorder. "I've heard you play a whole opera on that thing," Hellerman said.

This was last week at the Toronto Film Festival, where the Weavers were going to sing that night for probably the last time. Three of them -- Seeger, Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert -- go back more than 55 years together, and their songs are like the American national soundtrack. Think of "Goodnight, Irene," "Wimoweh," "This Land Is Your Land," "If I Had a Hammer," "Midnight Special" and "Rock Island Line," and it's their voices you hear in your memory.

Pete Seeger is now 85. Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman are pushing 80. Lee Hays, the fourth member of the original group, died in 1981. Erik Darling and Eric Weissberg have joined the group for reunions since then, and now all five gathered for a conversation before their rehearsal.

The occasion was the premiere that evening of Jim Brown's "Isn't This a Time," a documentary about a Carnegie Hall concert in honor of Harold Leventhal's 50th anniversary as an impresario. It was Leventhal who booked them into Carnegie Hall the first time in the late 1940s, and Leventhal who reunited them a few years later at the height of McCarthyism, when the group's left-wing politics had made them victims of a show business blacklist. In between, they'd had a No. 1 hit with Leadbelly's song "Goodnight, Irene," become the most popular singing group in the country and then faced oblivion because of the blacklist. More

Posted by acapnews at September 27, 2004 8:48 PM