Fred Hellerman, the last surviving member of the Weavers, died on Thursday in his Weston, CT home at the age of 89.
Hellerman was born in Brooklyn, the son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. While in the Coast Guard, he taught himself to play guitar and, after discharge, went to Brooklyn College where he studied English. While there, he played with the group The American Folksay.
His first recording experience came in 1948 with Will Geer (later actor on The Waltons) and Ernie Lieberman. In November of that year, Lee Hayes and Pete Seeger, former singers with The Almanac Singers, were looking for additional performers for a Thanksgiving hootenanny, bringing in Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert. All four had been involved in left-wing organizations over the years and their common political leanings cemented their relationship into the new group, The Weavers.
Although initially unable to find regular work, the new group eventually became regulars at The Village Vanguard where they were seen by Gordon Jenkins who arranged for their signing with Decca Records.
In 1950, The Weavers scored the biggest hit of the year with a cover of Lead Belly’s Goodnight, Irene and followed with Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, Kisses Sweeter than Wine, Guatanamera, This Land is Your Land, So Long It’s Been Good to Know You and many more but the red scare brought their success to an abrupt halt when Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes were named as communists.
Unable to secure appearances on radio and TV, their sales began to wane, their records were removed from the Decca catalog and right wing groups protested at and disrupted their concers. By late 1952, the group split up and Hellerman started writing music for other artists and teaching guitar to make ends meet.
As the red scare began to end, the group came back together for a December 1955 show at Carnegie Hall. Vanguard Records signed the group and released the concert to great acclaim in 1957 which led to a new concert tour; however, the reunion was short lived when Seeger refused to record a cigarette advertisement with the rest of the group. He left to go solo and Erik Darling of The Terriers replaced him.
After a series of popular albums and a revolving door of singers, The Weavers broke up in 1964 although they reunited a number of times, with Seeger, over the years for special appearances.
Hellerman went on to perform with, produce and engineer for other artists, including Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant and the debut albums of both Joan Baez and Judy Collins. He also occasionally performed solo and released an album in 2005. Among his compositions were Come Away Melinda, I’m Just a Country Boy, The Borning Day and The Honey Wind Blows.
Hellerman is survived by his wife of 46 years, Susan, two sons and three grandchildren.
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