For any of us baby boomer folkies who came to this great community of music we called folk in the early- to mid-1960s, the Weavers were our perfect gateway drug. I can admit to a sense of awe and gratitude through every interaction I had with each of them through my years here at Sing Out! … and that certainly included many terrific, warm, funny, helpful and insightful discussions, debates, philosophizing and advice from the always smart and thoughtful Fred Hellerman, who remained, for me, a key conduit and advocate into the great music publishing catalog that the Weavers left for us all, something that Sing Out! continued dipping into right into the almost present.
I regret that it had been a while since I last saw Fred. It was probably at the memorial gathering for Toshi, just a few months before Pete’s passing, where we gathered, sang, hugged, laughed, cried and remembered. I know when I heard the news of his passing, I could hear Fred’s lovely tenor and infectious wit loud and strong. Wasn’t THAT a time! We’ll miss you, our dear mentor and friend! — Mark D. Moss
Born in Brooklyn, Hellerman was the child of Jewish Latvian immigrants. He taught himself how to play guitar while in the Coast Guard, and later studied English at Brooklyn College.
He was discovered by Lee Hayes and Pete Seeger, formerly of the Almanac Singers, while working with Will Geer and Ernie Lieberman in 1948. Hayes and Seeger added Hellerman to the lineup of a new band, alongside Ronnie Gilbert. They were The Weavers, a politically left-leaning folk band.
With Decca Records, the four-piece released their biggest hit, a cover of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Their growth, however, was quickly stifled in 1950, as both Seeger and Hayes were named as communists. For his connection with left-wing organizations in the previous decades, Hellerman too was suspected to have communist ties during the McCarthy era.
The industry blacklist that followed made finding work a near impossibility, save for a few small gigs. They were forced to disband in 1952.
After the initial breakup of the Weavers, Hellerman found work writing for various folk musicians, and began teaching guitar to earn a living.
After the McCarthy era Red Scare subsided, the Weavers rejoined at Carnegie hall in 1955. This saw a of success for the group, however the group lost its founding member Pete Seeger after he refused to record a cigarette ad alongside the rest of the group. Erik Darling replaced Seeger, and the group continued recording and performing until 1964.
After the Weavers, Hellerman wrote for and performed alongside noted artists, such as Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie and Joan Baez. The Weavers would occasionally reunite, such as in 1980, before the death of Lee Hays, which is documented in the film The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!”
Hellerman was the final surviving member of the Weavers. He is survived by his wife Susan, sons Caleb and Simeon, and three grandchildren.