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Lee Hays, photograph, Lee Hays papers, 1923-1981, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections

Lee Hays papers, 1923-1981

This is an excerpt from the resource guide for the Lee Hays papers, 1923-1981, in the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive.

The Lee Hays papers measures 7.85 cubic feet and dates from 1923 to 1981. The collection includes original writings, correspondence, and miscellaneous projects by Lee Hays; business records, interviews and features related to Lee Hays, including photographs; clippings saved by Lee Hays; and audiorecordings made by Lee Hays.

Lee Hays (1914-1981) was an influential American singer, songwriter, author, and activist. His legacy, both literary and musical, emphasizes the dynamic relationship between traditional culture and contemporary events and issues. As is clear from his essay "The Folk Song Bridge", Hays conceived of "folk music" as a living, breathing "process". Born in Arkansas in 1914 to a Methodist preacher, Hays' first experiences with music revolved around the church. His political awakening came later, when he returned to Arkansas from Ohio in 1934. Under the wing of mentors such as Claude Williams and Zilphia Horton (maiden name: Zilphia Johnson), Hays began to fight for the cause of sharecroppers and union workers. His musical ability and passion for social justice came together as he used music to represent the voice of labor, replacing the religious motifs of traditional and gospel songs with pro-union themes.

Upon moving to the North in 1940, Hays met Pete Seeger, another musician of the Folk Revival. Hays and Seeger shared the common goal of spreading political topical songs, and their collaborations with Woody Guthrie and Millard Lampell led to the creation of the Almanac Singers the same year. Later, the four band members, along with other musicians such as Burl Ives and Sis Cunningham, established the People's Songs organization and publication to create and distribute labor songs. However, interpersonal conflicts with members, including Pete Seeger, led to Hays' pressured resignation from both of these endeavors. He moved in with his mentor, Walter Lowenfels, and began to focus more on his writing. Though Hays was a prolific writer whose work spanned articles, essays, short stories, poetry, and songs, he is rarely recognized for his literary achievement. His writing often centered on the social and political themes for which he is best known—labor rights, racism, poverty and inequality—and used vernacular culture and narrative to address those problems.

Seeger and Hays eventually made amends, and in 1948 they formed The Weavers with Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert, bringing music of the Folk Revival to a national audience. However, as the Red Scare impacted the American political climate into the 1950s, the Weavers were blacklisted and ultimately had to disband. Though he was under investigation by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and had no steady income, Hays continued to write both fiction and non-fiction during the three year blacklisting. In 1955, the Weavers finally reunited for a highly successful revival under manager Harold C. Leventhal, but as years passed, the group split up again, and Hays began to focus on other projects. It was at this time that he produced the bulk of his memoirs, began a project on Cisco Houston, and recorded folk music for children with his group The Baby Sitters. In 1980, the Weavers reunited for a concert in Carnegie Hall and Hays' last performance with them was in 1981. Hays died in 1981 as a result of diabetic cardiovascular disease.

See the full resource guide here