Goodnight, Brooklyn native Fred Hellerman
Last Surviving Member of The Weavers Dies at 89
Fred Hellerman, the last surviving member of The Weavers, died on Sept. 1 at age 89. Born in Brooklyn on May 13, 1927, Hellerman was the son of Latvian Jewish immigrants and he received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Brooklyn College in 1949.
Hellerman was one of the original members of The Weavers, one of the most popular groups of the late ’40s and ’50s, along with Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger. The Weavers’ roots were in folk music, and they helped inspire other groups and artists including The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. Of the four original members, Seeger went on to achieve the greatest solo success.
Seeger and Hays co-founded the Almanac Singers in 1941, along with Millard Lampell and Woody Guthrie. In 1948, The Weavers were formed, and it was Hellerman who suggested the group’s name, which was taken from the 1892 play “Die Weber (The Weavers)” about a 19th-century workers uprising.
After playing shows at the famed Village Vanguard jazz club, The Weavers were discovered by bandleader Gordon Jenkins and signed to Decca Records. In 1950, they released their rendition of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” a haunting folk ballad that remained at No. 1 on the charts for 13 weeks and sold 2 million copies. The song solidified The Weavers place on the pop charts, and the single’s B-side, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” a popular Israeli folk song, also became a best-seller.
With the Red Scare raging during the 1950s, the group was investigated by then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Committee for alleged Communist activity. That same year, Seeger and Hays were labeled Communists in Red Channels, an entertainment industry blacklist publication. Two years later, a paid FBI informant testified that Hellerman and Gilbert were also communists. The informant was ultimately discredited and served 44 months in prison for perjury.
But the damage had been done, and the group’s recording contract with Decca was terminated. Their records were deleted from its catalog, and they were denied airplay.
Being blacklisted, the group had to stop performing until 1955, when it reunited for a successful concert and album recording at Carnegie Hall, which was released in 1957 on the independent Vanguard record label.
Seeger left the group in the late ’50s for a solo career. Erik Darling, of the folk group The Tarriers, replaced him, and The Weavers continued performing together until 1963. They reunited once again in 1980, shortly before Hays’ death, and the concerts were documented in the 1982 film “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!”
Hellerman was also a noted songwriter, recording engineer and producer. He frequently collaborated with Harry Belafonte, for whom he co-wrote the 1963 hit “Come Away Melinda” with Fran Minkoff. He played on Joan Baez’s first album in 1960 and produced Arlo Guthrie’s classic “Alice’s Restaurant,” one of the most defining albums of the ’60s, along with its follow-up “Arlo.”
Hellerman was married to Susan Lardner, the daughter of sports writer John Lardner, and the granddaughter of sports columnist and short story writer Ring Lardner. They have two children, Caleb and Simeon.
As a founding member of The Weavers, Hellerman’s place in American folk and pop music is secure. While the other group members may be more well-known, Hellerman’s contributions cannot be minimized. The Weavers inspired an entire folk movement and were the first to record standards like “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” “(The Wreck of the) John B” (aka “Sloop John B”), “Wimoweh” and “If I Had a Hammer.”
And it was a magical blending of all four voices that made songs like “Goodnight, Irene,” “On Top of Old Smoky” and “Across the Wide Missouri” come alive and forever imbed themselves in our collective memory.
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