June 2, 2013

Interview with Harold Leventhal (b. 1919, d. 2005).           Leventhals' office 57th Street, NYC. Sept., 1992.

Harold Leventhal was closely involved with Pete Seeger, was the manager of the Weavers. Known as the 5th Weaver, he later worked with Joan Baez.

Q:  What about Leadbelly? You mentioned you knew him slightly.
 L:  Slightly. But that again was because I remember going to a concert he was part of at Town Hall, it might have been '48 or something, and I loved the way he was dressed, a debonair dresser with spats on and a bow tie and a very handsome man. But I wasn't used to that music, I didn't know much about that kind of blues, but I was taken by him. 

Q:  Did you meet at parties or anything like that?  

L:  I didn't, not until later on; but he died early on. Actually, when the Weavers recorded "Goodnight, Irene" he had been dead at least a year.  

Q:  Did they do any other music by him? 

L:  Oh yeah, "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," they did a lot of his stuff. As they did Woody's stuff. And that's the first time that both Woody and Leadbelly earned money from their songs. 
Woody and Lead Belly (with bow tie.)

L: I originally came from the music publishing business, out of high school, and this is going back to 1939. When I left school, I worked for a while in the factory, gave that up and I was able to get a job with Irving Berlin music company. I was there for a number of years and worked my way up very rapidly, become what's called a "song plugger." And, after I left the Berlin outfit I worked for Benny Goodman's music company — music publishing — and I was one of the rare political guys in that scene at that time. When I came back from the army in 1946, I met up with Pete Seeger because what we had in common was political background, and also an interest in music. And it was that time — you had People's Songs going, which I was slightly involved with, and then it was later, in late '49, when Pete asked me would I take over and manage the Weavers, which I did, and that kind of led me into that area. And, you know, I worked with Woody Guthrie at that time although he was not really fit as a performer. He was pretty sick. I knew, very slightly, Leadbelly, at that time, and with the rise of the Weavers and the great interest in folk music, I branched out and began to manage other people.
Q: Were you in at the beginning of People's Songs?
L: No I wasn't. I became more involved, obviously, in 1950, because of my involvement with the Weavers.
Q: When you talk about being a "song plugger" — how did that work?
L:  At that time, we would go around with, say, an Irving Berlin song and bring it to the bandleaders, cause the swing bands were the big things of that day, and because they had radio time. See, records were not a big factor — it was radio time — and we would go around to them and try to promote the songs of the company we were with. This meant you'd go to Harry James or you'd go to the big name bands, Glen Gray etcetera, and they would see you and you'd plug your songs, exactly what it says.
Q:  Presumably, to be successful at this, you'd have to have some pretty good songs, and I guess people would rely on you?
L:  Yes. Well they relied if you're coming from Irving Berlin company, if it was an Irving Berlin song they paid attention to it. Not all of his songs made it in that sense. A lot had to do with the quality of the song you had, as it always has to do. 
Q:  When did you find yourself interested in Pete Seeger's kind of music?
L:  Well, when I got involved with the Weavers. Up to then I was mostly involved with the jazz scene in New York or what you call the, er, Benny Goodman music, the pop stuff. TIn Pan Alley. I was marooned in Tin Pan Alley. 

Q:  The Weavers — Did they do any other music by Leadbelly?

L:  Oh yeah, "The Midnight Special," "Rock Island Line," they did a lot of his stuff. As they did Woody's stuff. And that's the first time that both Woody and Leadbelly earned money from their songs.
The Weavers
The Weavers' records sold in the millions. As songwriters (before that time) they earned no money. They earned money, and it was very small at that, as performers. And that was limited at that point to the Union scene and the radical circles who kind of was more interested in that music. And the public at that point wasn't.

 Q:  So they were playing mostly for Union Hall gigs. . . ?
L:  That's right, for the Union rallies, meetings and so forth.
Q:  Which weren't necessarily the biggest paying gigs.
L:  No they weren't. I mean, I have references to Woody getting $15 if he went somewhere. Well [laughs] if you do make $30 a week, it ain't bad. I mean, I used to make $12 a week when I got out of high school, so if you made thirty, you were in the upper middle class [laughs].

Q:  You said that Woody Guthrie was pretty much out of commission as a performer by that time? 
L:  In the '50s and '51 he was showing the signs of the illness. Unfortunately, those of us around him, and myself included, were not quite aware that this was a disease, and, we used to berate him for being drunk all the time because that disease - he would waver in walking and tremble a little and we thought he's drinking again. There you go - drinking! And we were not, I mean that's given us a tremendous guilt
Q:  What did he answer to that?
L:  Well, he'd, er, it was probably partly drinking, it was partly drinking, but this continuous movement of his body was pretty much at all times.
Q:  You began to suspect something?
L:  Well his - Marjorie Guthrie looked into this and was gone in hospitals and it was diagnosed as Huntington's Chorea, for which his mother died of, years ago, and unfortunately he was the only member of his family to get it. He has two brothers and a sister, none of whom got the disease.
Q:  Were you familiar with him as a performer before that time?
L:  To a limited extent. A lot of us in the New York scene otherwise regarded him as a kind of an imported hillbilly. The New Yorkers couldn't quite take to that style of music. Some of us.
Q:  He was quite a character though, wasn't he? [Yep] When you say he was a "hillbilly," didn't he sort of put that on a bit, too?
L:  He would exaggerate all of that because he knew that New Yorkers would look at him and then wonder the kind of guy - we didn't see these guys! [laughs] and he'd go to Chicago and do the same thing. Put it on. Yeah. And it worked for him.
Q:  What sort of places did the folk music eveolve in - like it was in the VIllage?
L:  I think a lot of it began in the Village in these little clubs, little cafes, or what they would call coffee houses. I mean Dylan started there, Peter, Paul and Mary started there, Woody Allen started there. It was really in these areas and Philadelphia had one or two clubs and Chicago, and that began to spread, and in Colorado I remember a club where I first saw Judy Collins perform, so the major cities, each of them, so we had a circuit to work, which was very good.
Q:  Were you one of the main bookers then?
L:  I wasn't booking as much as I was actually managing, but at that point the so-called "agencies" didn't know where the things were anyway, and it was too petty for them, so I would get on the phone and I knew the guys in Philadelphia, and book them into these places. However the Weavers did have major booking - William Morris Agency booked the Weavers and then later on we went to Joe Glaser who booked Louis Armstrong, people like that, who booked the Weavers into night clubs or into these hotels that had big rooms which doesn't exist anymore.
Q:  But there's a big distinction here. You're the manager, they're the booker. Where do you draw the line in what sort of things you do?
L:  Well, a manager literally does everything to see that his talent can function properly, always with the consent of the artist. We'll never book somebody into a place they don't like, they don't want to go or what have you, the manager has to be the co-ordinator of somebody's activities. 
Q:  You're almost like an extra member of the group that doesn't perform.
L:  I was called the "fifth Weaver." I shared in their income and all of that.
Q:  Did you have any thing to say about the songs?
L:  If I didn't like em I'd say it. [laughs] But I certainly respected them artistically. There were one or two things I never did care for, I'd say so, and they either paid attention or ddn't.
Q:  After you got involved with them, you didn't have much more to do with swing bands? Well, I guess swing bands were on the way out . . .
L:  They were on their way out, and also you have a change in the fact that the LP was beginning to function, and that revolutionized the communication of recorded music. Before that, you had breakable records, you know, nobody bought them to that extent. Then you had the transistor radio, you had a lot of elements of communication reaching, or even the airplanes to go to LA, we don't have to take the train anymore, made it easier to get the message out. 
Q:  Were you involved with Bob Dylan?
L:  I was when he came to New York because of his interest in Woody Guthrie. And we used to hang around a lot and I'd see him from time to time. Yes.
Q:  Cause he used to do Guthrie songs?
L:  He came to physically see Woody, and he did see him in Jersey, and of course Woody was getting worse and worse, and then we put a stop to him seeing outsiders. Only the immediate family or close friends cause it was a burden on him.
Q:  I have a recording of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly together, where Woody is kind of introducing Leadbelly, it sounds like a radio show?
L:  Probably taken off a radio show. Only I'm not too familiar with them - is that on a recording?
Q:  Yes - it's not Folkways, it's Biograph.
L:  Biograph is a label that took over some of the Folkways stuff that was not put out.
Q:  They might have recorded it from the radio, do you think?
L:  Unlikely. He was on radio, but when he was on radio, we have pictures of it here, Leadbelly was not with him. I don't know, unless it's WNYC, which was the public station in New York, and he might have been on that. He was on that, and he might have been with Leadbelly. Oscar would know. It was Oscar Brand's program. 
Q:  Oscar didn't know about that particular one - it seems to be a mystery as to where it comes from.
L:  There's a lot of mysterious things. Particularly in Woody. Every year somebody sends us something that he wrote, that he left behind, and we just recently, two years ago - for years, almost thirty years, Marjorie Guthrie had been looking for a manuscript of a children's songbook that she and Woody did. Woody did the drawings, all of Woody's songs, didn't know what happened to it. Two and a half years ago I got a call from a college, would I come up there and look at a manuscript of Woody's that they got, and that's the book we were looking for. Well, they gave it back to us and now it just came out as a, Harper put it out as a great book. I'll show you before you leave. And things like that, every time something crops up, he was a prodigious writer, never stopped. Whether songs or letters or memos, wherever he went, he wrote, either left them with people or what have you and they sent it to us. Some, some don't [laughs] I don't know what's there. We keep Woody's archive here - there's a lot of it there.
Published  in 1992

Q:  Has anybody ever used the archive to . . .
L:  We just got out a book called "The Pastures of Plenty,"  Harpers put out. A collection of his writings. Drawings, letters, stuff like that. And there can be ten more books like that. Course Woody had a tendency to be repetitious. If he'd write one song he'd do it ten different ways. So a lot of it, as I say, is repetitious. Try to pick the best of it. 

Q:  What are the favorite songs of his?
L:  Well I think the big song in this country is "This Land," and you have "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," er, "Pretty Boy Floyd" is big,  those are the three biggest, but it's constantly played, all kinds of his songs, the children's songs. 
Q:  Do you get people from overseas enquiring about him?
 L:  No. That's interesting because I believe his songs are so rooted in America and they're forty to fifty years old at this point, no, Woody's songs in Europe are not big. Never have been. Whereas you take a Pete Seeger song, "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" well that's a tremendous international song, whereas Woody's songs about the dust bowl or about unemployment became topical, and while they're of interest to this country, they're not to foreigners. It's never been a big market there.                                      

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