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.
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.”)
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.
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.)