The Almanac Singers and the Revival in the Village

From about 1958-1965, Greenwich Village was the epicenter of a movement that would affect American music and culture for decades: the rise of folk music. The icons of the scene—coffeehouses and folk clubs, protests and performances, and the performers and songs themselves—have been sown into our culture and collective memory. In the Village today, signs of this folk past exist, changed and decontextualized. In the Village, folk history is one single layer mixing in a many layered past, including its own.

The revival of folk music in the late 1950s was actually a continuation of a movement with diffuse origins, beginning around 1940, partly in the Village. The early folk scene operated in progressive clubs like Café Society and the Village Vanguard, and featured the Almanac Singers, the first urban folk singing group. The Almanacs lived and worked communally in a string of apartments in Greenwich Village, from early 1941 until late 1942, when they dissolved due to fundamental political and artistic contradictions, personal tension and indifference, and the difficulties of World War II.

The Almanac Singers came into being when Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Millard Lampbell met in late-1940, and began singing together in Hays’ and Lampbell’s Chelsea apartment, composing anti-war and pro-labor topical songs set to traditional melodies. Though Hays had a background as a labor activist and song leader, and Lampbell was an aspiring writer with a radical sensitivity, Seeger was perhaps the one most connected to the emerging folk movement.

Through Alan Lomax of the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk-Song, Seeger had met and traveled with the singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie, honing his shaky skills in saloons and union halls. Through Lomax, Seeger also met Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Lead Belly, a virtuoso twelve-string guitarist and singer living on the Lower East Side.

Image Unavailable
Artwork for the Almanac Singers' debut album (1941)

When Seeger was invited to play at an American Youth Congress meeting in Washington in February 1941, he brought Hays and Lampbell along, and the group sang their anti-war songs to an excited crowd. Soon they were performing at left-wing parties and labor rallies in New York City, getting frequently written up in the Communist Party’s "Daily Worker," and recording the militantly anti-war, anti-Roosevelt, Songs for John Doe, in March 1941. The album adhered to the Communists’ platform of non-intervention, though the Almanacs were not members of the Party or any political group.

The Almanacs moved into a loft at 70 East 12th Street and Fourth Avenue, where they lived communally, sharing income from performances and recordings, and from their experimental Sunday rent parties. These attracted many of the folk performers living in the area, including Lead Belly, Aunt Molly Jackson, Burl Ives, and Josh White. They copyrighted songs as a collective and took turns singing lead. They made a conscious choice not to include their names on album jackets, preferring to remain anonymous. Pete Seeger became Pete Bowers, a choice made to protect his father’s job with the federal government, which could have been threatened by his radical leanings.

In May, the Almanacs performed in their street clothes to twenty thousand striking members of the Transport Workers Union in Madison Square Garden, introducing their new song, “Talking Union,” a combative call to organize, which was met with loud applause. Their success helped them book a cross-country tour of CIO locals in the summer of 1941, just after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. With the invasion the Left and the Communist Party was now ardently pro-war, dooming the Almanacs' peace songs and John Doe.

Joined by Guthrie, the group quickly recorded two albums of nonpolitical traditional songs, to complement Talking Union, a new album of labor songs. They left to play their union and labor songs, receiving a mixed, sometimes hostile reception, but ended the tour with a performance to one thousand cheering longshoremen in San Francisco in August.

Image Unavailable
The Almanac Singers

In the fall of 1941, the Almanacs moved to 130 West Tenth Street, occupying an entire townhouse. To help pay the rent, they held “hootenannies,” or singing parties, on Sundays in the basement. Lead Belly visited, as did the famous radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who left the group a suitcase of private papers of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) songwriter Joe Hill. Folk singers Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were temporary residents.

Guthrie lived upstairs on the second floor where he played blues records over and over, singing along to perfect his delivery, fell asleep working at the typewriter in the kitchen, or spent the day drinking at the nearby White Horse Tavern. Amidst growing friction, indifference, and change, the amorphous Almanacs, now joined by Agnes Cunningham and Arthur Stern, continued to sing and perform, though their quality varied from night to night. The group was soon evicted, moving to Sixth Avenue between Ninth and Tenth Streets.

Though the group had embraced the earlier peace movement, it now set out wholeheartedly to produce pro-war and anti-fascist songs, which included Guthrie’s “Reuben James,” about the first American ship torpedoed in the war. Having made this conversion, the fortunes of the Almanac Singers improved.

Image Unavailable
Dear Mr. President album cover art (1942)

In the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor in January 1942, they played at Madison Square Garden again, this time for a CIO rally that fused the union and war causes. In February, they performed for millions on the CBS radio show, This is War. That same month they recorded the pro-war "Dear Mr. President," written and sung by Seeger and addressed to Roosevelt, as a form of confession and call to arms. Their prospects for popular and commercial success were suddenly high.

The Almanacs had joined the battle against fascism, but they could not escape their reputation as radicals, and particularly John Doe. Shortly after their performance on This Is War, articles exposed the group’s earlier views, and raised allegations of Communist affiliations. The campaign dashed the group’s commercial hopes and they dissolved. Seeger received his draft notice in June 1942, and Guthrie shipped off with the Merchant Marines about a year later.

Returning from war, Seeger and Hays started People’s Songs in 1946 to promote progressive music. The founding meeting and first hootenanny were held in the Village, and members began performing in Washington Square Park on Sundays. In late 1948, the Almanacs resurfaced as the Weavers, a seminal group to the later revival. Beginning in late December 1949, the Weavers, including Hays and Seeger, played six straight months at the Vanguard, the same club that had presented Josh White and Lead Belly in 1941.

The dissolution of the Almanac Singers during World War II marked the end of an opening period of the folk revival. What is so interesting, in light of the revival’s late-1950s explosion in Greenwich Village, is that so much of importance in this early period also happened in the Village. A history of the folk revival, from 1940 to 1965, is in part a history of its evolution in Greenwich Village. The challenge of discovering continuity is as important as that of locating origins. It unearths basic questions: Why the Village, and why folk music? What is the Village, and what is folk music?


Beard, Rick and Berlowitz, Leslie Cohen. Greenwich Village: Culture and Counterculture. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993.

Cohen, Ronald D. Rainbow Quest: The Folk Music Revival and American Society, 1940-1970. Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2002.

Cohen, Ronald. "Wasn't That a Time": Firsthand Accounts of the Folk Music Revival. New Jersey: The Scarecrow Press, 1995

Denisoff, R. Serge. "Take It Easy, But Take It": The Almanac Singers. Journal of American Folklore 83 (1970): 21-32.

Dunaway, David. How Can I Keep From Singing: The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New York: Villard, 2008.

Klein, Joe. Woody Guthrie: A Life. New York: Knopf, 1980.

Transport Workers Union of America Records. Almanac Singers. 1942. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives.

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License