Remembering Fred Hellerman

Fred Hellerman — an often unnoticed but hugely influential folk singer, guitarist, songwriter and producer — died yesterday at his Weston home. He was 89, and had been in failing health for several months.

In 1948, Hellerman joined with Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays to form the Weavers. Their renditions of songs  like “Rock Island Line,” “Midnight Special,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” “If I Had a Hammer,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine” and “Wimoweh” were key to a national folk revival — and directly influenced many who followed, including Bob Dylan. the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary.

In 1950, “Goodnight Irene” was #1 for an astonishing 13 weeks.

That same year — in part because of Hellerman and Seeger’s involvement with left-wing groups during the 1930s and ’40s — the Weavers were swept up in the McCarthy era Red Scare.

Weavers at Carnegie Hall

From right: Fred Hellerman, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Pete Seeger.

Blacklisted, they were unable to perform in concerts, or on radio or TV. They broke up in 1952, but in December 1955 reunited for a legendary (and sold out) Carnegie Hall concert.

The Weavers continued (with a few personnel changes) through 1964. They released more than 25 albums during their time together.

Their Thanksgiving reunion concert in 1980, and a 2nd appearance 7 months later at Seeger’s Clearwater Festival, brought them back into the public eye. A 1982 documentary, “Wasn’t That a Time!” secured their place in music history. (It also inspired the 2003 parody, “A Mighty Wind.”)

The Weavers in 1980. Fred Hellerman is at right.

The Weavers in 1980. Fred Hellerman is at right.

Hellerman’s roots in the folk world ran deep. He performed with Woody Guthrie — and produced his son Arlo’s classic (and very long) epic “Alice’s Restaurant.”

Hellerman produced many more songs, working on some in his home studio on Goodhill Road.

I first met Fred when he was an Oscar’s regular. (He earned a spot on that legendary back-wall mural.) We continued our coffee conversations years later at Great Cakes.

Fred Hellerman

Fred Hellerman

I knew instantly he was one of the truly good guys. But it took many years before I realized what a huge name he was, and what he’d accomplished on the music scene. He would not offer too many stories — yet when I asked, he had some great ones. (Particularly about Dylan.)

Fred and I were of different generations. We shared many of the same political sentiments, though. I learned a lot from him.

I’m honored to have known this talented and genuine man, who shared his music with the world.

And I’m proud to have called him a friend.

(Fred Hellerman is survived by his wife, Susan Lardner, and his sons Simeon and Caleb. A memorial service — with music — will be held at a date to be determined.)


15 responses to “Remembering Fred Hellerman

  1. Dan, what a wonderful column – thanks so much. You brought Mr. Hellerman back to us for important memories. I know you’ve lost a friend… please accept my condolences… and America lost a great patriot and musician.

  2. Jose is heartsick; he didn’t realize that Fred lived in town. Another treasure snatched away from us…rest in peace…

  3. I was introduced to The Weavers at college in the late ’60’s by a campus group whose guitarist had studied with Pete Seeger as a middle school student in Manhattan. Their songs, like “Emmett Till”, opened a whole new world of activism and commitment.

    Fred and his friends have an extraordinary place in American history.

  4. I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend Dan.

  5. A.David Wunsch

    A wonderful portrait. Thanks
    ADW Staples 1956

  6. The Weavers were musical heroes for me in the late 1940s, before they were nationally popular. I went to their concerts and liked everything about them.
    Pete Seeger got most of the attention but all four were equals as musicians.
    Many years later I wasn’t aware that Fred Hellerman lived in Weston until I began seeing him at Sally’s Place and having good conversations. It was nice to talk with a successful person who is also modest.

  7. Fred was a gentle soul with the political heart of a lion. My fellow Y’s Man and his warm smile will have a special place in our hearts. Dan, your loss is our loss. But oh what we’ve gained. Good night Fred, dear Fred, good night

  8. Great piece Dan. I have nice memories of his visits to our home when my mother’s performing arts series in 1960 -61 featured the Weavers at Staples. We lived in good Hill Road in Weston 50s he was a friend who’s political leanings we’re also those of ours. I have some old pictures I can share some time. Thanks for your lovely obit for a treasure of a man


    Sent from my iPhone


  9. Jonathan Greenwald

    you know your stuff,Dan. >

  10. i remember picking with Fred around the fountain in Washington Square in the early 50s. he was always treated as a very special person even though
    he tried to be just one of the rest of us pickers. kind of like Pau Casals, he had become a larger than life political example due to the blacklisting, and thus a hero to us all. RIP Citizen Fred !

  11. Thank you, Dan, for writing such a beautiful tribute. My parents were huge fans of the Weavers, of their music and their political beliefs, and I feel fortunate to have grown up listening to and appreciating their music. The McCarthy era was such a sad and shameful time in our history. We were overjoyed when the Weavers were able to perform again. Fred Hellerman, beautiful human being, light and love to you. You will be missed. And my condolences to you, Dan, for the loss of your friend.

  12. Thank you Dan- Fred was a great guy…always a smile when coming the store.. we will miss him.

  13. My 6th grade teacher in NJ loved The Weavers. I was part of a girls quartet that sang many of their songs after school. One of the most memorable events of my elementary school life was when he took us to see The Weavers live in concert in NYC in what must have been 1957 or 58. So I may not have seen Mr. Kellerman with the group but I certainly remember him from their albums, one of which I still have and treasure. I so wish I too knew he frequented Oscars so I could have thanked him for being a beautiful part of my life.

  14. Fred was a member of Theatre Artists Workshop, and when I joined I was thrilled to be in his presence…as I was very familiar with the Weavers, Seeger, the black listing and the weaving (okay intended) of politics and art. He was a treasure! Fred was part of our staged reading of the play HAVE YOU NOW OR HAVE YOU EVER BEEN? And spoke after the performances about his up close experience of McCarthyism. Thank you Fred for your artistry, talent, and good humor. I share the sadness, we have lost a terrific human being.

  15. Dan,
    What a lovey tribute you’ve written to a man I wish I had met!
    Thank You.