Vocalist/guitarist Fred Hellerman, a founding member of The Weavers who died Sept. 1 at 89, was the last surviving original member of the historic quartet, which formed a vital link between the folk music revival of the 1950s–which emerged out of the labor movement–and the peace-oriented folk revival of the `60s.
“As a founding member of the Weavers, Fred Hellerman’s place in American folk and pop music is secure,” notes music historian John Alexander. “While the other original members–Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, and of course Pete Seeger–are more well-known, Hellerman’s contributions cannot be minimized. It’s a magical blending of all four voices that made songs like ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘On Top of Old Smokey,’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter Than Wine’ come alive and embed themselves in our memories.”
“And let’s not forget that Hellerman produced Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant, one of the most defining albums of the ’60s,” adds Alexander.
The Weavers also introduced songs like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Midnight Special,” “The Sloop John B,” “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” “This Land is Your Land,” “Wimoweh,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” into American popular culture. They paved the way for generations of important musicians including the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul & Mary, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.
“The music of the Weavers, for which Fred Hellerman was best known, continues to resonate not just within the folk music community, but globally, pertinent to social issues that remain at our core every day,” says Stephanie P. Ledgin, author of Discovering Folk Music. “I was never fortunate to meet Hellerman, but was thrilled to attend the 1980 Carnegie Hall Reunion.”
During the Red Scare of the 1950s, Seeger and Hays were identified as Communist Party members, with Seeger judged guilty of contempt for refusing to testify—though his conviction was later overturned. But The Weavers were no longer allowed to perform on TV or radio, and were dropped by their label. Denied airplay and the ability to record, and with their concerts besieged by right-wing protesters, they were essentially forced to disband in 1952.
The Weavers did reunite for a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall in 1952, and a recording of the show was released in 1957. The group continued to perform after Seeger, who had established a successful solo career, left in 1958; they split up for good in 1964, though the original foursome got together occasionally through 1980, when their last full performance was the Carnegie Hall concert attended by Ledgin.
“We are very saddened to learn of the passing of influential folk music vocalist, guitarist, and producer Fred Hellerman,” said Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow in a statement. “A 2006 recipient of The Recording Academy Lifetime Achievement Award with the iconic group the Weavers, Fred and his bandmates were best-known for performing timeless versions of American folk standards such as ‘Goodnight, Irene,’ ‘If I Had A Hammer,’ and ‘On Top Of Old Smoky.’ Their musical talents, and commitment to social activism, were a strong influence on the folk music revival of the 1960s. We have lost a true innovator.”