Thinking about brush arbor gatherings got me to thinking about that old-timey word “hootenanny.” In days past, a hootenanny was as fun as the word itself; friends and families would gather, and because this was a time without television or Super Bowls, and weekends weren’t even really a ‘thing’ for most people in the south, music was often the preferred method of entertainment. Folk music in particular. Especially after the second world war, these gatherings grew in popularity. The practice varied from place to place, but in general, you can think of a hootenanny as a jam session for various folk musicians, often with people watching and enjoying the music.
The word itself goes back a long ways and has at times indefinite meanings. I found one meaning from a folk singer that made me laugh. He made this up; Woody Guthrie said: “We was playin’ for the Lumber Workers’ Union. We was singin’ around in the shingle mills. There was a lady out West out there in the lumber camp and her name was Annie and so every time they’d have a songfest Annie would outshout all of them. So people got to call her Hootin’ Annie but the name got spread all over and so out there when they are going to have a shindig they call it Hootenanny” (Time Magazine, 1946).
The thing about folk music is that often it has a sense of humor, which is part of its appeal. There were a few folk singers from the forties and fifties who are credited with applying the word hootenanny to mean a folk music gathering, of which Guthrie is one, but also in particular would be Lee Elhardt Hays and Pete Seeger, who were longtime friends and musical collaborators.
Lee Elhardt Hays was actually from Arkansas, and he has many ties to our state. He was born in Little Rock (1914) and he and his family moved a lot. His father was a Methodist preacher and by the time that Lee was a teenager, he had lived in Little Rock, Newport, Paragould, Conway, and Booneville. Eventually they moved out of state and by the time Lee graduated from high school, he and his family were living in Georgia, and when he was in the height of his musical career, he became based in New York.
Both Lee Hays and Pete Seeger were ambitious and saw folk music (considered by many the ‘traditional music for the poor’) as a venue of achieving political goals. Another aspect of folk music is that it focuses a great deal on culture and ideals, and in this way, it was a perfect instrument for them to utilize in this way. As their popularity grew, their ideals reached more people, and that was a heady success. They strongly believed in peace and wrote many songs as an expression of their philosophies. They created the band The Weavers, which were very popular (even while being blacklisted for their political ideas many years later), and they paved the way for many other folk music bands of the time and in years to come.
In the latter 1940s and in the 1950s, during the Cold War and McCarthyism, many people in the entertainment industry were blacklisted by the government in its attempt to find and arrest every communist; The Weavers were blacklisted at this time. Pete Seeger and Lee Hays were called to testify and Seeger was convicted for contempt in his defiance by pleading the first amendment, which invokes freedom of speech. It was quite gutsy of him; no one else until then had called on the first amendment since the infamous Hollywood Ten trials about five years earlier. Seeger was put under surveillance, and later the charges were dropped, but it hurt his career for many years. More about the Hollywood Ten next time.