Movies are always subjective. We all try to pretend to be objective about the movies we see, to pretend that we judge them on the sheer filmmaking ability they display and not on anything to do with us: our lives, our sentiments, our politics, our histories. Of course that's not true, but in the interests of fairness I'll divide this review in two:
As a movie--
As a movie, "Wasn't That a Time" is a simply made, well-constructed documentary about a the reunion of The Weavers, a four-person group of singer/musicians who helped bring about the public revival of interest in folk music that blossomed in the fifties and sixties. It features much of their music as it illustrates their history as a group, from their initial success to their subsequent blacklisting, and on to their triumphant comeback(s). It is narrated with self-deprecating humor and tremendous charm by Lee Hays, the bass singer of the group, who, having already lost his legs to diabetes, died shortly thereafter. The concert footage is exceptional and the interviewees are entertaining and informative. The whole thing is as entertaining and funny and fun as all get-out.
As for me--
Most of the folksingers who came along in that fifties/sixties boom were college kids or young musicians who wanted to "join the scene" or take a political stand or simply make a hit record. Some, like the Kingston Trio, took a few tunes, performed them with spirit, made a few hits and vanished again; some, like Dylan, recreated themselves as inheritors of a great tradition and went on to forge something new. The Weavers came from the generation before-- they had grown up in families of laborers or had labored themselves-- Hays, for example, had been a migrant farmhand and a roving preacher, among other occupations. They had gone where the trouble was, to strikes, to mines, to migrant camps-- they had sung the songs back to the people who made them, the workers and the farmers.
The Weavers were born of an old-time bedrock unionizing leftism that McCarthy and the HUAC nearly erased from the American past. At one point, at a neighborhood picnic, they sing one of the old-time union songs-- a pragmatic warning to the worker: "Keep your eye upon the dollar..." When they finish Hays wryly adds: "We will now pass out among you...." The opening statement to a passing-of-the-hat that an organizer might have done at a laborers' meeting back in the days when unions had to be fought for, and paid for, against real violence and big moneyed interests. It's a joke, of course, and the audience laughs, but you know Hays has said that before, under different circumstances.
I was born in 1970, an early Gen-X-er. My parents were older than those of most of my age-- children of the Depression, old-school liberals. The Weavers' albums were prominent among the collection of records they had acquired over the years, and I listened to them over and over, thrilling as Seeger's voice hit the high notes on "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore," and laughing at "The Talking Blues."
The Weavers are part of a history that has gone now-- erased by television, computers, George Lucas, the New Economy, etc. America is simultaneously the country with the least appreciation of its own history and the most reason to celebrate it. Seek out this film, whatever your politics or age, and learn from it. It does not itself explore much in the way of history, but the Weavers themselves embody it: a solid, funny, down-to-earth, committed collective voice from the past. Not to be missed, and not to be forgotten.
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