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Monday 27 February 2017

Obituary: Fred Hellerman

Influential folk musician and member of The Weavers who was a victim of blacklisting during the McCarthy era

Independent.ie Newsdesk

Independent.ie Newsdesk

The Weavers performing in 1980: (from left to right) Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman Credit: Richard Drew/AP
The Weavers performing in 1980: (from left to right) Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman Credit: Richard Drew/AP

Fred Hellerman, who has died aged 89, was a singer, guitarist and songwriter and a founder member of the Weavers, the influential 1950s folk band formed in the immediate wake of the Second World War. Along with fellow band members Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, Hellerman anticipated the fusion of the civil rights movement with folk music and inspired a new generation of folk artists, including Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

The Weavers first performed together as a group in 1949. But it was their million-selling double single Tzena, Tzena, Tzena/Goodnight Irene (recorded in 1950 and based on a Hebrew song) which transformed them into a major folk-pop act.

It also brought the group unwelcome attention from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which was concerned about their Left-wing leanings and influence on the young. Seeger was subsequently referred to in the publication Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television, and a contract for a television series was cancelled.

Despite this, in 1950 the band embarked on a national tour of nightclubs and theatres, while Hellerman continued to write and record, although often under an assumed name. The following year the Weavers had a hit with Kisses Sweeter Than Wine, a reworking of Huddie 'Leadbelly' Ledbetter's version of an Irish song, which topped the charts again in 1957 when it was recorded by the pop singer Jimmie Rodgers.

But by 1952 the pressure of anti-Communist blacklisting was taking its toll on the band.

In February 1952 an FBI informant (who was later discredited and served five years in prison for perjury) had testified before the HUAC that three of the Weavers were members of the Communist Party and a fourth was a former member.

It was becoming increasingly difficult to book gigs and sell records, and after a final recording session in February 1953, the Weavers disbanded. Hellerman took up guitar teaching and began to write songs for other artists. One of his most enduring compositions was the anti-war song Come Away Melinda, which was first recorded in 1963 by Harry Belafonte and went on to be covered by numerous artists ranging from the country singer Bobbie Gentry to the heavy metal band Uriah Heep. Hellerman's Just A Country Boy (1954) was also a hit for Harry Belafonte as well as for Don Williams.

The Weavers reunited in 1955 and remained together until 1964, by which time they had influenced some of the best known emerging artists of the time, including The Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins and, crucially, Bob Dylan, of whom Hellerman once complained: "He can't sing, and he can barely play, and he doesn't know much about music at all."

Hellerman collaborated with both Joan Baez and Judy Collins, and produced Arlo Guthrie's best-selling LP Alice's Restaurant (1967), which prompted a film of the same name two years later.

Fred Hellerman was born on May 13, 1927, in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of three children and the son of a Latvian immigrant who worked in the rag trade.

While serving in the coast guard during the war, Hellerman taught himself to play the guitar, and when the war was over he joined a folk group while studying English at Brooklyn College, later joining forces with Hays, Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert to form the Weavers.

The Weavers held a number of reunion concerts in 1980, shortly before Hays's death. The band's story was told in a documentary The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time! (1982), which later inspired the spoof 'mockumentary' A Mighty Wind (2003). Hellerman was the last surviving member of the band.

Fred Hellerman, who died on September 1, married Susan Lardner in 1970. They had two sons.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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