August 26, 1981 – Lee Hays was born March 14, 1914 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the youngest of the four children of William Benjamin Hays, a Methodist minister, and Ellen Reinhardt Hays, who before her marriage had been a court stenographer. William Hays’s vocation of ministering to rural areas took him from parish to parish, so as a child, Lee lived in several towns in Arkansas and Georgia. He learned to sing sacred harp music in his father’s church. Both his parents valued learning and books. Mrs. Hays taught her four children to type before they began learning penmanship in school and all were excellent students. There was a gap in age of ten years between Lee and next oldest sibling, his brother Bill. In 1927, when Lee was thirteen, his childhood came to an abrupt end as tragedy struck the family. The Reverend Hays was killed in an automobile accident on a remote road and soon afterward Lee’s mother had to be hospitalized for a mental breakdown from which she never recovered. Lee’s sister, who had begun teaching at Hendrix-Henderson College, also broke down temporarily and had to quit her job to move in with their oldest brother in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1930, Lee’s brother Rueben helped him find a job at the public library in Cleveland, Ohio, and the 16-year-old’s informal education began. “Every book that was considered unfit for children was marked with a black rubber stamp,” Hays recalled later. “So I’d go through the stacks and look for those black stamps.” Hays stayed at the library until 1934 — the longest he would ever hold a single job — and then returned to Arkansas.
Hays had heard of a Presbyterian preacher in Logan County, Claude Williams, who had been organizing miners and sharecroppers in the area, both black and white. Hays enrolled at the nearby College of the Ozarks and studied for the ministry himself for about a year. Hays stayed under the wing of Williams through the 1930s — even as Williams was forced to leave his Paris church, was beaten by police and union busters in Fort Smith and moved to Little Rock.
Hays worked with two of the state’s best-known so-called “radical” organizations of the era — the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, organized in Tyronza in the mid-1930s, and Commonwealth College in Polk County, founded through the American socialist movement that gained momentum though World War I. Beyond its curriculum, those from the college advocated for coal miners in Western Arkansas and sharecroppers in Eastern Arkansas. Notable attendees of Commonwealth included future longtime Gov. Orval Faubus. Hays’ uncle, folklorist Vance Randolph, was among those in the state’s liberal community with ties to the college. At Commonwealth, Hays honed his songwriting skills and his bass singing voice.
In 1940, Hays left Arkansas for New York to further his emerging political interests. There, Hays met a compatriot, Pete Seeger, whom Hays would collaborate with for decades. Through the early 1940s, Hays, Seeger and Woody Guthrie — as part of the Almanac Singers — toured college campuses and union rallies. Guthrie nicknamed Hays “Arkansaw Hard Luck Lee.” Hays didn’t play an instrument, but was skilled at writing and adapting songs from hymnbooks and the like to fit their messages. Unlike the Weavers, the Almanac Singers did sing songs about unions, pacifism and politics.
But the success of the Weavers in the late 1940s and early 1950s attracted more attention in the McCarthy era. The group’s first single, “Goodnight Irene,” hit the charts a few weeks after the death of its composer, Leadbelly. As the group kept putting out hits and selling out concerts, the Weavers found themselves under increased scrutiny, and were eventually blacklisted. “Songs are dangerous,” Hays once said. His government apparently agreed.
One of Hays’ most enduring compositions is “If I Had a Hammer,” composed with Seeger at a rally. It was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary and subsequently by many more artists. Hays also had some short stories and poems published, but remained best known as a Weaver. Through the 1960s and 1970s, Hays lived simply, mostly off his royalties for songs such as “Hammer.” One project he did go for was a small part as a preacher in the Arthur Penn-directed 1968 film “Alice’s Restaurant,” starring and based on the song by Arlo Guthrie, his old friend Woody’s son.
The Weavers never really recovered from the blacklisting, despite successful recordings and reunion concerts. By the late 1970s, Hays had a pacemaker and both legs had been amputated due to diabetes, but a final reunion concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall was staged and filmed by a documentary crew in October 1980.
Hays died from diabetic cardiovascular disease at home in Croton on August 26, 1981. He was 67, having seen his 1950s blacklisting go from a source of shame to a badge of honor.
In Dead Earnest
If I should die before I wake,
All my bone and sinew take:
Put them in the compost pile
To decompose a little while.
Sun, rain, and worms will have their way,
Reducing me to common clay.
All that I am will feed the trees
And little fishes in the seas.
When corn and radishes you munch,
You may be having me for lunch.
Then excrete me with a grin,
Chortling, “There goes Lee again!”
Twill be my happiest destiny
To die and live eternally.
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