Fred Hellerman was best known as a singer, guitarist, and songwriter with the folk group the Weavers from the late '40s to the mid-'60s.
During and after the group's existence, however, he also maintained a varied career behind the scenes in the music industry that included working as an arranger, session musician, and producer. In addition to writing songs for other performers, he also contributed music to motion pictures and the theater.
Born in the New York City borough of Brooklyn on May 13, 1927, Hellerman was the youngest of three children. His father, a Latvian immigrant, worked in the rag business. While serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, he taught himself to play guitar, and he continued to play after the war, performing in a group called American Folksay. At the same time, he was attending Brooklyn College as an English major. His musical activities brought him to the attention of People's Songs, an organization devoted to using topical folk music to support union organizing and other liberal causes, and its secretary, Lee Hays, sent him a postcard inviting him to visit the office. He did so and developed a friendship with Hays, which in turn led to his meeting Pete Seeger, another principal in People's Songs. He already knew the fourth future member of the Weavers, Ronnie Gilbert, whom he had met while working as a counselor at a summer camp in 1944.
Hellerman made his first recording in 1948, performing "The Little Cowboy" with Will Geer and Ernie Lieberman for Young People's Records. On Thanksgiving weekend of that year, he, Hays, Seeger, and Gilbert got together to provide a musical accompaniment to a group of folk dancers at a hootenanny. They worked up a medley of folk songs from several countries and called it "Around the World." Favorable audience reaction led them to begin weekly rehearsals and make further appearances. After performing as the No Name Quartet, they accepted Hellerman's suggestion that they adopt the title of an 1892 German play by Gerhart Hauptmann that he'd been reading in college, and called themselves the Weavers, a name they announced on Oscar Brand's WNYC radio program Folk Song Festival on January 2, 1949. That summer, Hellerman took a job as a singer at a resort in the Catskills Mountains; Gilbert worked there, too, as a secretary. Both attended an open-air benefit concert held in Peekskill, New York, on September 4, 1949, headlined by Paul Robeson and also featuring Seeger, but neither was caught up in the riot that followed the event, when vigilantes set upon many of the concertgoers as they attempted to leave, in an early example of the anti-Communist fervor that swept the U.S. in the late '40s and early '50s.
The Weavers, as a singing group and individually in spoken word accounts of the event, made their first recording later that month, "The Peekskill Story, Pts. 1-2," on either side of a single released by tiny Charter Records, with Hellerman introducing himself as "Freddy Hellerman of People's Artists," the organization that staged the concert. Later that fall, the Weavers recorded their first purely musical single for Charter, pairing Hays' song "Wasn't That a Time" with a Bahamian folk hymn, "Dig My Grave," following shortly after with a single cut for another small label, Hootenanny Records, of Hays and Seeger's "The Hammer Song" (aka "If I Had a Hammer"), backed with Les Rice's "Banks of Marble." All this recording activity, however, did not indicate that the group was making much progress in its career. In fact, the Weavers were on the verge of disbanding, with Hellerman, having obtained his B.A., planning to take up graduate studies at the University of Chicago.
In a last-ditch effort to make them a going concern, Seeger got the group a two-week engagement at the Village Vanguard club in New York's Greenwich Village in late December 1949. It was extended week after week as they slowly caught on; eventually their residency lasted until June 1950. Among those who came to see them was orchestra leader Gordon Jenkins, who was musical director of Decca Records, one of the major labels. Jenkins got them signed to Decca, and their first recordings for the label, made in May, included a version of the Israeli song "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" and one of Huddie "Lead Belly" Ledbetter's "Goodnight Irene," which were released together as a single. "Tzena, Tzena, Tzena" peaked at number two in the Billboard chart in July; "Goodnight Irene" hit number one for the first of 13 consecutive weeks in August; and the record reportedly sold two million copies. The Weavers were launched as a major pop act, but at the same time their left-wing backgrounds started to become fodder for the red-baiting tactics of the emerging McCarthy era: Seeger was cited in the publication Red Channels: Communist Influence on Radio and Television, and a contract that would have put the group on a network television series was quickly canceled. Nevertheless, they embarked on a lengthy national tour of nightclubs and theaters.
Just before that tour started, however, Hellerman recorded a solo single for Jubilee Records, pairing the anti-nuclear novelty song "Old Man Atom" with the satiric "Pity the Downtrodden Landlord," although the record was issued under a pseudonym, Bob Hill. Soon after, he began using another assumed name. The Weavers' creative process often consisted of taking existing folk songs and adapting and arranging them to their quartet sound, with substantial changes in melody and lyrics frequent. When those songs were ones that had never been copyrighted, with no known authors, the group began claiming them for purposes of songwriting royalties, adopting the pseudonym "Paul Campbell" created by their manager, Pete Kameron, and song publisher, Howie Richmond. Thus, Paul Campbell was given the songwriting credit for "Suliram" and for arranging the medley "Hush Little Baby/I Know Where I'm Going," recorded November 6, 1950. The credit had become pervasive by May 4, 1951, when Paul Campbell was listed as songwriter or arranger for four of the five songs the Weavers recorded at a New York session: "Follow the Drinking Gourd," "Darling Corey," "Greensleeves," and "Easy Rider Blues." "Campbell" scored his first big hit in the summer of 1951 with "Kisses Sweeter Than Wine." The tune had begun as an Irish folk song called "Drimmer's Cow" that Lead Belly heard and made his own. Seeger and Hays wrote a new set of lyrics, and the resulting song was credited to Campbell and Joel Newman, the latter a pseudonym for Lead Belly. The Weavers' single peaked at number 19 in September 1951. In 1957, pop singer Jimmie Rodgers revived it for a Top Five hit. Paul Campbell also earned a songwriting credit for "Wimoweh," actually a South African folk song called "Mbube" collected by Solomon Linda, which the Weavers recorded in October 1951 and which reached number 14 in April 1952. ("The Lion Sleeps Tonight," a number one hit for the Tokens in 1961 also based on "Mbube," did not credit Paul Campbell, even though the credited songwriters doubtless first became familiar with the song through the Weavers' recording.)
By then, the Weavers' career was suffering greatly from the anti-Communist blacklist. In February 1952, an FBI informant had testified before the House of Representatives' Committee on UnAmerican Activities that three of them were members of the Communist Party and the fourth a former member. The testimony was false, as the informant later admitted, and he served five years in prison for perjury. But in the meantime, it became more and more difficult for the group to book shows, and their record sales plummeted. They continued to perform through the end of the year, giving a final concert at Town Hall in New York on December 27, 1952. And they made a final recording session for Decca on February 26, 1953. Then they disbanded.
After the breakup of the Weavers, Hellerman embarked on what would be the major activities of his career from then on. He began teaching guitar; arranging music for singers; and trying to place his original songs with recording artists. Harry Belafonte, not yet established as a star, became an early client. On January 4, 1954, Belafonte recorded "I'm Just a Country Boy," a song credited to Marshall Barer and Fred Brooks, the latter another Hellerman pseudonym, as a single for RCA Victor Records. Over the years, "I'm Just a Country Boy" became one of Hellerman's more valuable copyrights. Don Williams revived it in a recording that hit number one on the country charts in 1977, and it has also been covered by the Band, Sam Cooke, Ronnie Lane, and Bobby Vinton. Also in 1954, Belafonte recorded another Fred Brooks song (co-written by Lester Judson) for single release, "Pretty as a Rainbow (After the Rain)." And Belafonte kept alive the Paul Campbell name. No less than seven selections on his 1954 LP Mark Twain and Other Folk Favorites were credited to Campbell as songwriter, along with "Delia," by Brooks and Judson. Meanwhile, Gordon Jenkins had not forgotten the Weavers. Finding a song similar to "Goodnight Irene" called "Goodnight, Sweet Dreams," he summoned Hays and Hellerman into a New York recording studio, along with Sally Kaminsky, one of Hellerman's music students (Gilbert, married and living in California, was unavailable), and the resulting single was released in 1955 under Hays and Hellerman's names on RCA Victor's "X" subsidiary label.
The record did not chart, but that a major label was willing to issue it was some indication that the red scare might be easing somewhat in the music business. Further indication of this came later in the year, when the Weavers successfully reunited for a Christmas Eve show at Carnegie Hall, their first live performance in three years. The show was so well received that it revived their career as a concert act, although the individual members' existing personal and professional commitments kept them from doing more than weekend shows; Hellerman claimed that the only ones who really profited from their reunion were the airlines, and he continued to make most of his income from his other activities. Also, they remained banned from television and radio, where the blacklist held. But they did sign a contract with the small independent label Vanguard Records, previously known only for classical releases, beginning the association with a live recording of the reunion show, The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, released in April 1957. Hellerman took a solo turn on the recording, singing his version of the recent hit "Sixteen Tons." Shows performed in Lenox, Massachusetts, in August and September 1957 provided the material for their second Vanguard album, 1958's The Weavers on Tour, after which they began recording a studio LP.
At this point Seeger, who had continued to perform and record as a solo act, announced his departure from the group. The Weavers at Home, released in August 1958, showed the original foursome on the front cover, but "Eric Darling, guest tenor and banjo player, fills in for Pete Seeger" on five of 17 tracks, a note on the back cover revealed, and Darling replaced Seeger in the group. By now, Paul Campbell had disappeared from the songwriting credits, although the Weavers continued to offer -- and claim -- their versions of traditional folk songs. "Every Night" was written by Hellerman; "Come Little Donkey" was credited to Fred Brooks. Brooks was also the credited author of "The Way I Feel" and "Fare Thee Well" on Belafonte Sings the Blues and of "I Never Will Marry," "Green Grow the Lilacs," and "Walkin' on the Green Grass" on Love Is a Gentle Thing, two LPs Belafonte released in 1958. And Hellerman worked as a conductor on two albums by Theodore Bikel released by Elektra Records in this period, Theodore Bikel Sings Jewish Folk Songs (1958) and Theodore Bikel Sings More Jewish Folk Songs (1959).
The front cover of Traveling on with the Weavers, released in 1959, was a drawing in which the face of the banjo player was artfully obscured. Again, the performing credits were spelled out on the back; this time, Seeger played on five tracks, Darling on the remaining 11. The group members took songwriting credits on most of the songs, an exception being "I Never Will Marry," credited solely to Hellerman, as it had been on Love Is a Gentle Thing. On April 1, 1960, the Weavers returned to Carnegie Hall, where they recorded another live album appropriately titled The Weavers at Carnegie Hall, Vol. 2. It became their first album to reach the Billboard chart. Hellerman had two sole songwriting credits on the album, "There Once Was a Young Man Who Went to the City" and "Tapuach Hineni." Belafonte, who had appeared at Carnegie Hall in April 1959 and recorded a live album there that included a version of "Darlin' Cora" credited to Fred Brooks as well as a couple of Paul Campbell tunes, returned there in May 1960, singing "Chickens," written by Hellerman, Robert DeCormier, and C.C. Carter, which was included on Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall.
It was not common to credit session musicians on albums in the early '60s, so it is notable that Joan Baez chose to cite the presence of Hellerman as a guitarist on her debut Vanguard album, Joan Baez, released in 1960. Judy Collins did the same thing when she released her debut album, Maid of Constant Sorrow, on Elektra in 1961, as did the Chad Mitchell Trio when they issued At the Bitter End the following year. Also in 1962, Belafonte released The Many Moods of Belafonte, containing "Who's Gonna Be Your Man," credited to Fred Brooks, and "Long About Now," by Hellerman and Fran Minkoff. (Tony Bennett quickly recorded "Long About Now" for his 1963 album I Wanna Be Around...) And that April, the Weavers released a new studio album, The Weavers' Almanac. Hays, Hellerman, Gilbert, and Darling were credited as the group members, although Darling was leaving to be replaced by Frank Hamilton. Hamilton lasted a year, but by 1963, the Weavers were prepared to introduce Seeger's third replacement, Bernie Krause. They did so at two concerts in May back at Carnegie Hall that featured all four of their banjo players, and the shows produced two LPs, Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963, released in December 1963, and Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963, Pt. 2, released in August 1965. Included on Reunion at Carnegie Hall, 1963 was the Hellerman/Minkoff composition "Come Away, Melinda," a haunting antiwar ballad that quickly became a standard, recorded by Judy Collins, the Big 3, Kenny Rankin, Tim Rose, Bobbie Gentry, Uriah Heep, and UFO. Belafonte put it on his 1963 album Streets I Have Walked, along with another Hellerman/Minkoff song, "The Borning Day," and "My Old Paint," credited to Hellerman, DeCormier, and Milt Okun. Belafonte also found room for the Hellerman/Minkoff song "Sailor Man" on his live album Belafonte at the Greek Theatre, released the same year.
The Weavers disbanded in the winter of 1964 at the conclusion of a farewell tour, leaving Hellerman free to pursue his individual musical efforts. "Poverty Hill," a Hellerman/Minkoff composition, was featured on the Kingston Trio album The Kingston Trio (Nick-Bob-John), released in late 1964. The song also appeared on the Brothers Four's The Honey Wind Blows, released several months later, and the title song of that album was another Hellerman/Minkoff copyright, later covered by Glenn Yarbrough. Also in the spring of 1965, the Mitchell Trio put the Hellerman/Minkoff song "Which Hat Shall I Wear" on their album Typical American Boys. In December, they issued Violets of Dawn, which included "Business Goes on as Usual," written by Hellerman and Minkoff (and later covered by Roberta Flack), and "The Sound of Protest (Has Begun to Pay)," by Hellerman and Carter. Former member Chad Mitchell put Hellerman and Minkoff's "Quiet Room" on his debut solo album, Chad Mitchell, Himself, in 1966, while Belafonte named a 1966 album after the same song, and In My Quiet Room also included a re-recording of "I'm Just a Country Boy," "The Honey Wind Blows," and another Hellerman/Minkoff composition, "Our Time for Loving." In 1967, Belafonte released a single, "Sunflower," written by Hellerman and Minkoff, and in 1968 he followed with the LP Belafonte Sings of Love, featuring two more Hellerman/Minkoff songs, "In the Beginning" and "The First Day of Forever." Meanwhile, Hellerman had produced Arlo Guthrie's million-selling debut album, Alice's Restaurant in 1967, and he also handled the board for the follow-up, Arlo, in 1968, and later for Guthrie's sixth album, Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys (1973). (He was also the musical director for the Alice's Restaurant film released in 1969.)
On May 2, 1968, Hellerman entered another realm of the entertainment business when two of his and Fran Minkoff's songs, "A New Waltz" and "The Girl in the Mirror," were featured in the Broadway musical revue New Faces of '68. The show ran only 52 performances, but it produced an original Broadway cast album released by Warner Bros. Records. Hellerman moved to Weston, Connecticut, in the early '70s and built a recording studio in his home. One of his first projects in the new facility was his score for the 1974 film Lovin' Molly, directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the Larry McMurtry novel Leaving Cheyenne, and starring Blythe Danner, Anthony Perkins, and Beau Bridges. Hellerman was not much heard from in the second half of the '70s, but in 1979 Pete Seeger called on him to produce his album Circles and Seasons, and he and Ronnie Gilbert sang backup vocals on its final song, "Allelulia/Joy Upon This Earth." That inspired Seeger to think of having the former Weavers sing together at his next Carnegie Hall concert, and the next idea was to see if Lee Hays, retired and in poor health, might be able to join them. They began rehearsing and managed to perform two Weavers reunion concerts on November 28 and 29, 1980. The rehearsals and the shows were filmed for a documentary, The Weavers: Wasn't That a Time!, released in 1982, while Hellerman produced a concert album, Together Again, released on Loom Records in 1981. The Weavers made one final appearance, at the Croton Festival near Hays' home in Croton-on Hudson, New York, in June 1981, before Hays died on August 26, 1981.
In 1982, Hellerman composed the score for a TV movie remake of The Rainmaker. In 1994, after Vanguard Records was sold to The Welk Group, early live tapes of the Weavers were unearthed and issued as a two-CD set by Omega Records, run by former Vanguard executive Seymour Solomon. Hellerman produced the album. In 1995, he sang again, joining Peter, Paul & Mary on their LifeLines album, and he was featured on the subsequent video, LifeLines Live, taped in January 1996 and also released as an album. The same year, he performed at a tribute concert to Woody Guthrie at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that was recorded for the 2000 album 'Til We Outnumber 'Em, released on Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe label. In November 2003, he participated in a tribute concert to Weavers manager Harold Leventhal filmed for a documentary called Isn't This a Time!, and when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2004, he rejoined Seeger and Gilbert, along with Erik Darling and Eric Weissberg (who handled Lee Hays' parts) for a Weavers performance. In 2005, he released his first solo album, Caught in the Act, a collection of vaudeville songs of the 1910s and '20s, on his own Honeywind label. The last living member of the original Weavers, he died at his home in Weston, Connecticut on September 1, 2016 at the age of 89. ~ William Ruhlmann, Rovi