The Highwaymen
By Sorradithep Supachanya

When five Wesleyan freshmen Dave Fisher, Bob Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, and Steve Trott first met in a rehearsal for a concert at a fraternity house, they never imagined that they would have the country’s number one hit before the start of their senior year.

The group, known as the Highwaymen, topped the Billboard chart for three consecutive weeks in August 1961 with their simple but memorable folk tune, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore.”

“ We were lucky,” Fisher recalled forty years later.

Luck presented only one side of the story. The Highwaymen were far from simply being a one-hit wonder. Their hootenanny style greatly influenced the subsequent development of folk music.

The Highwaymen had their origin during the period of folk revival in the late 1950’s, following the initial boom of rock ‘n’ roll and prior to the emergence of protest songs of the civil rights movement.

At this time, Wesleyan was an all-male school with the total student body of 800. While not everyone lived in one of eleven fraternity houses, almost all of the students ate their meals there. MoCon was not yet constructed, and the Campus Center was still classrooms. Thus, fraternity served as the center for social life. On weekends, each house held its own party with live jazz bands and sometimes rock groups.

Amid this environment, in the fall of 1958, Fisher, a former high school rock ‘n’ roll singer, was asked by his EQV fraternity brothers to perform for a weekend party at their house. There, he met Butts, Burnett, and Daniels. The band turned into a quintet when Trott later joined the group during practice sessions. At the beginning, they named themselves the Clansmen, and chose folk music over rock ‘n’ roll.

“ Once we left high school for college, it was expected of us to leave pop and rock music behind and start listening to folk and classical music,” explained Fisher.

The band drew inspirations from the two prominent folk groups of the era.

“ The Weavers, especially Pete Seeger, and the Kingston Trio were our biggest influences,” said Fisher. “The Weavers did their folk songs according to how the songs should be done, rather than adapting the songs to their style, which we did also. In addition, they had many recordings by then, which gave us a good broad selection of material to listen to. The Kingston Trio were, at that time, the most popular group around. We learned a couple of songs from them, but were not influenced stylistically. Their immense popularity influenced us to keep going in the genre.”

The band relied mostly on guitars and banjos, but also played a variety of instruments, including bongo drums, recorders, and even a Bolivian Charango, a ten-stringed instrument made from the back of an armadillo.

The Clansmen gradually grew in popularity and began performing at nearby New England colleges. At the end of their freshman year, they landed a summer job as a live band on a cruise ship. It was then that they decided to turn professional. Following auditions in New York, the band secured a contract with the United Artists record label and began recording their first album in December of that year. Their manager, Ken Greengrass, suggested the name change to the Highwaymen.

While the Highwaymen specialized in retaining the authenticity of the folk songs they sang, they also brilliantly arranged the tunes to reflect their own style. In one of the best examples, they turned a Georgian slave work song, “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” into a hymn with gentle acoustic guitar, perfect harmony, and mesmerizing whistling at the start and finish of the song.

Although “Michael” had the word “Hallelujah” sung at every other line, religion actually had little impact on the band’s music style. As a remnant of Wesleyan’s Methodist origin, all college men in the 1950’s were required to attend the chapel every Sunday. This practice discontinued by the time the band members entered their sophomore year. As a result, the band’s selection of folk tunes went beyond religious music.

Fisher was responsible for finding most of the songs for the group to play.

“I would find songs in my own record collection, in books, and from other singers. Also two of the members, Steve Trott and Chan Daniels, were from Latin America and they contributed some great South American and Mexican tunes.”

The Highwaymen’s collection, therefore, showed a myriad of repertoire, ranging from a sea shanty “Santiano” to a popular Irish song “Whiskey in the Jar.” They also drew on the works of the great folk singer Burl Ives (“Rock Candy Mountain”) and pioneered the usage of the overlooked Leadbelly songs (“Cotton Fields”), which later became an important trait of the Creedence Clearwater Revival and the Beach Boys.

Political activism now so characteristic of Wesleyan had not yet begun when members of the Highwaymen were still undergraduate students. Save for a few small demonstrations over the Cold War arms race, the campus was essentially protest-free. As a result, the critics used such terms such as “gentle” and “non-confrontational” to describe the band in its early years.

Although the Highwaymen did later release a war protest song entitled “Universal Soldiers” while living in the politically-charged neighborhood of the Greenwich Village in New York after their graduation in June 1962, the group effectively refrained from political-conscious lyrics.

“ We were out there not to make a statement but just to entertain people,” Fisher explained.

The United Artists record label signed the Highwaymen in 1959, and their self-titled LP was released a year later. Although the band was mostly responsible for choosing its own songs, the producers also had some say.

“ They [the producers] wanted us to include the song ‘Michael, Row The Boat Ashore,’ which we didn’t believe that it would be a hit. It was actually a filler for one of our concerts,” Fisher recalled.

“ Michael” appeared on the B-side of “Santiano,” their first 45rpm release. It took almost a year for the single to take off. By the summer before their senior year, Variety, Cashbox, and Billboard ranked it as the best-selling single in the country. Its popularity soon spread to Europe and even as far as Hong Kong.

When the band members returned to school for their senior year, they were celebrities.

“ The first thing we did was we bought shirts that matched,” joked Fisher.

During their final year at Wesleyan, they continued to perform concerts on weekends. Their new fame took them across the country and to Canada. They made television appearances on the Ed Sullivan show and Hootenanny. Amid the wave of success, they returned to the studio to record follow-up LPs. “Cotton Fields,” their second single release, reached number 13 on the Billboard.

Amazingly, they still managed to be involved in other activities on campus. Burnett was the vice president of the WSA and captain of the track team. For a while, he held the Wesleyan pole vault record. Fisher chaired the social committee of the student government. Chan was in the Cardinal Keys Club. Butts ran the radio station and did the PA announcements during the home football games. All of them also made the Dean’s List.

After graduating from Wesleyan in June 1962, the Highwaymen continued recording and within a few years turned up ten LPs in total. Unfortunately, the group stopped recording in 1966. With the exception of Fisher, the rest of the Highwaymen never intended to pursue a career in music. The band members went separate ways, although occasionally reunited for special events such as their 40th Reunion at Wesleyan in 2002. It was only very recently that they have spent more time together playing music as a group. Although Irish folk music has become their new source of inspiration, their acoustic-playing, harmony-singing hootenanny style remains unchanged.

“ We’re too old to go electric,” joked Fisher.

Currently, Dave Fisher is semi-retired from writing music for television shows in Los Angeles. Steve Butts is the director of information at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. Bob Burnett is a senior trust officer at Fleet Bank in Providence. Steve Trott is a federal judge of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal. Chan Daniels died of pneumonia in 1975.