So long to Lee Hays

By Stephen Courtney
North County News, September 2 - September 8, 1981. Editor's Column.

Lee Hays died last Wednesday morning at about 7 o'clock, leaving a huge gap in his neighborhood in Croton and in the world. To the young people who visited Lee over the 14 years he lived there, his home was a link between their street and several worlds: the world of the South in the Depression in which Lee got his informal but comprehensive education; the world of his friends in the world of folk music and television; and Lee's own world.

Friday afternoon I visited his house, a stage set from which the main character had departed. I had read the obituaries and the fine personalized description of the aftermath of his passing written by Jon Craig in the Ossining Citizen Register. I had wept Friday morning, and it was good to see his living room, with letters from his worldwide acquaintances and the battery of magazines and books on current affairs that kept him up to the minute in his observation of society. It struck me that all the obituaries referred to him as a folksinger, but few -- except for some of the radio broadcasts of taped interviews -- conveyed his standing as one of the greatest American humorists since Mark Twain. His writing and comments on the comedy and tragedy of the world were some of the most pungent ever penned.

His last years saw a revival of his amazing productivity. Lee was prey to bad health, and his life was cut short at 67, not really old -- 30 years younger than Roger Baldwin of the ACLU, for example, who died the same day. Diabetes robbed his legs of the circulation necessary to heal infection, and his lost one leg and then another a couple of years later. Apparently this horrifying side effect of the disease was spreading to his arms at the time of his death. It was Lee's constant fear that he would lose the hands from which flowed so much of the joy that he imparted to the world, be it in song lyrics for "If I Had a Hammer" and "Kisses Sweeter than Wine," short stories, or anecdotes for the "posthumous memoirs" he was writing in the past few years.

For several years of his life in Croton he was happy to cultivate his garden and his friendships. But after he lost his second leg, his interest in creativity seemed to revive. He stared work on the memoirs. Public Broadcasting System filmmaker Jim Brown, who was one of the kids that flocked into his house in the 60s, convinced him to participate in a film about the Weavers, and the film led to the historic Weavers reunion in Carnegie Hall last November and the final "rehearsal reunion" at Croton Point Park in June during the Hudson River Revival.

Lee was born in Arkansas, son of a Baptist minister. He could show the spot where a rattlesnake bit him while he played on the railroad tracks near his town. He witnessed nine lynchings when he was five years old.

While his brother and sister moved on to live fairly conventional lives, Lee (who had learned Sacred Harp singing in his fathers' church) moved north to take part in the radical movement of the 1930s, teaching at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee and getting to know young men and women who were making music -- Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Cisco Houston, Huddie Leadbetter (Leadbelly) and others.

"I used to tell the story of Orville Faubus at Weavers concerts in the 50s," Lee said once. Faubus was the Arkansas governor who defied federal orders to integrate the schools in Little Rock, leading then-President Eisenhower to send in troops to enforce the law of the land. "Orville was a grass-roots populist in his early days, and worked at the Highlander school. He was in charge of the sanitary facilities, and he kept it beautiful; he even put curtains up in the windows of the two-holer we had. But what he was best at was shoveling it out, a function which had to be performed periodically. He really put his back into it."

"Now he's in the Arkansas State House, performing the same function," Lee used to tell audiences.

With Guthrie, Seeger, and others he formed the Almanac Singers, who performed at union halls and strike meetings throughout the country. Songs like "Which Side Are You On," a rousing recital of the class war in Harlan County, Kentucky, and "Plow the Fourth Boy Under," a World War II peace song, came from this period, as did his bluesy "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan":

The boss comes up to me with a five dollar bill
Says, get you some liquor, boy, drink your fill
Get thee behind me Satan, travel on down the line.
I'm a union man, gonna leave you behind.

His passion for justice and the memory that the lynchings seared on his vision led him into the left-wing causes of the 1930s. He wasn't a Communist, but many of his friends were, and he sang at gatherings and for groups throughout the 30s and 40s that later became suspect during the witchhunts of the 1950s.

By the 1960s, he was just as radical but mistrustful of party-line jargon. "I guess we followed a pretty totalitarian line in those days," he admitted. He pointed out to a youthful friend enamored of the Castro government that a lot of the people Castro wiped out in summary trials after he came to power were just ordinary farmers.

But basically Lee felt capitalism was worse, and he had his run-ins with it. In 1949 he took part in a concert in Peekskill at which the star performer was Paul Robeson, the great bass, whom he greatly admired. The concert was attacked by local hoods who called themselves patriots, with at least the passive connivance of the police. His memories of the Robeson Riots was bitter, although he spoke with humor of how Woody Guthrie pinned a shirt up against the window of the car he, Seeger, and Lee were riding in to keep the windows from shattering inward as the rocks flew.

"Wouldn't you know it, Woody pinned up a red shirt," he said.

His most famous run-in with the anti-Communist mania came in the 50s, after the Weavers had gained fame with "Goodnight Irene." The group was "named" by professional informers in a publication called Red Channels, and found concert halls and television closed to them. Their songs and a lot of their style were picked up by the Kingston Trio, a more sanitized group.

Lee was subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and pleaded the Fifth Amendment to questions about Communism; he didn't want to play the witch-hunters' games. He was surprised to hear his home address read out by the committee; it was the address of a Lee Hayes, with an "e," also active in the entertainment world. "Hayes couldn't get a job the whole time I was blacklisted," said Lee.

At the Weavers' concert last year, Lee gave the last word on the whole sordid period: "If it wasn't for the honor, I'd just as soon not have been blacklisted."

Living in New York City after the Weavers' breakup, Lee got together with a few friends, including actor Alan Arkin, and formed the Babysitters, who made some of the finest records for children available. In the repertoire were traditional children's songs, old Weavers' songs, and newly written tunes, but all were put together in a new way to suit the group -- some members of which were Arkin's own children. To them, and to probably hundreds of other children of his friends, Lee was "Uncle Lee."

He was Uncle Lee to my children. My son Ben started listening to the Babysitters several hours after his birth and when he was about four, was amazed to visit Uncle Lee and watch him take his teeth out. Lee had an artificial leg at the time (which he liked to put on backwards for company) and Ben left convinced that when you get old not only do your teeth fall out but your legs also fall off.

Lee moved to an old cottage on Memory Lane in Croton in 1967. There he planted what must be the most productive organic vegetable and flower garden in town. He employed the slightly mystified local kids to work for him, gardening, filing, cleaning, and cooking to his very precise directions. I recall following Lee down a row of holes in the ground one autumn, dropping in tulip bulbs as he pointed to each hole in order. He carefully built up the soil in his compost heap, which was turned and screened and turned again as he examined its texture.

His visitors would include such people as songwriter and performer Don McLean, David Bromberg, and Arlo Guthrie, Woody's son. Woody had died of a debilitating nerve disease that incapacitated him for years, and it was too much of a tragedy for Lee to dwell on. When I first knew him in the late 60s and early 70s he could not bear to listen to a Woody Guthrie record, although he had them all.

Someone described him on the radio this week as a "left-wing saint," but happily he was nothing of the kind. He loved to tell Mark Twain's story about the virtuous woman who died because she had no vices to give up. He had delightfully obscene parodies of old folk songs, and a wealth of salty stories, one called "Change the Name of Arkansas?" which I would love to hear him tell again.

But everyone who knew Lee has stories they would like to hear him tell again, and I for one lost the chance to ask him about many things I'd been meaning to. I never got to hear his thoughts on the Reagan Administration, though I know he regarded it as the lowest kind of reactionary, gun-happy crew. He did tell one story at the concert in June which summed it up pretty well: In typical Lee style, he led into it with a carefully-designed circumlocution.

He announced that everybody should know more about their history, and did the audience know that the field where they were sitting was once a pumpkin patch? He quickly moved from that dubious fact to the announcement that Major Andre was once captured nearby, which led to the exposure of Benedict Arnold and his plots which, if successful, might have defeated the American Revolution.

"If Arnold was successful, we would have had a set of horse-faced rulers," he said. "But that might be preferable to what we have now."

With his usual delicate touch, he let the audience's minds pursue the point to the obvious punch line: the other end of the horse.

Lee jokes had that quality. The were intricate and delivered deadpan. If the audience, be it in a concert hall or sitting on his sofa, was too slow with its wits to catch it, he went on to the next topic.

Spending almost all of his time at home, Lee drove his many friends as hard as he did the kids who worked for him. He once described how he tormented one. "I set him impossible tasks. I wanted strapping tape. Now Harry lives with his head in the clouds most of the time, he doesn't know anything about tape. Every time he brought a roll of some kind of tape, it would be the wrong kind. I now have about 50 rolls of different kinds of tape around the house. I still don't have strapping tape."

Lee's precise orders were also extended to book purchases, library orders (he kept a constant flow of books coming into his house through the hard work of Croton librarian Helen Burnham) and cooking. He was cook for the Almanac Singers in the 1930s, and he could still cook (or at least set other people to cooking) delicious foods with the flavor of the South. Usually the produce involved was from his own garden, either fresh or frozen. He knew what he didn't like. He wanted apple juice that you could see through, not "natural" apple juice with "crud floating in it." His basement was full of cases of beer for adult visitors and soda for smaller ones. When his illness required diets, he prepared marvelous meals for his guests, and was just as stringent about its preparation.

He called me up a couple of times and was obviously frustrated when I couldn't get him a copy of a Supreme Court decision he read about that allowed telephone customers to install their own phones. What kind of a newspaper was Steve running anyhow? Another time he called I was successful, getting him the name of the local paper in his home town in Arkansas (he wanted copies from the time of the lynching), The Log Cabin Democrat.

"The Log Cabin Democrat," he repeated when I told him. "You don't know what memories that brings back."

He had helpers like Larry Lazare and Jimmy Callo, young men who took care of him during his illness and with whom he coexisted in a way that put the lie to the phrase "the generation gap." He had in Harold Leventhal a manager who kept track of his finances, who assured him royalties every time one of his many songs were performed and did his taxes. The Seegers and other performers pooled their resources to make his house accessible to his wheelchair.

I last saw Lee briefly after his concert at Croton Point, at which my three-year-old daughter, Rachel had taken off all her clothes. Jimmy wheeled him out to his car, and he patted Rachel on the backside and grinned. When I asked Rachel what she remembered most about Uncle Lee, she said, "The singing."

Looking around his living room last Friday, it seemed like he had just wheeled himself out for a minute. The special chair where sat, legless, like a Buddha was there; the books of folklore, the stereo system, the TV set. Jimmy offered beer as he would have when Lee was presiding. Jimmy and Bruce Murtaugh, one of the regulars in Hays' household, and I sat around and wondered what Lee would have made of it all. He had died days after one of his youthful friends, 21-year-old Andy Perry, was killed in a hit-an-run accident in Florida. He wrote a moving tribute for Andy's funeral. It was the last tragedy of his life.

Except his own death. But was that a tragedy? He wrote a humorous poem recently called "In Dead Earnest" in which he asked that he be buried in his compost pile so that "when on corn and radishes you munch, you may be having me for lunch." Lee body was cremated, and Jimmy said the ashes will go where he wanted them.

When Ben learned about this, he said, "Uncle Lee is really unselfish."

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
The excrete me with a grin
Chortling, There goes Lee again
'Twill be my happiest destiny
To die and live eternally

        Lee Hays, 1981