Fred Hellerman, the last surviving member of the influential Fifties folk group the Weavers, died Thursday at his home in Weston, Connecticut. He was 89. Hellerman’s son Caleb confirmed his father’s death to the New York Times. No cause of death was provided.
Hellerman, along with the Weavers’ Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays and Pete Seeger, helped spark the folk revolution of the 1960s thanks to their renditions of standards like “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” Woody Guthrie’s “So Long, It’s Been Good to Know Yuh” and Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene.”
Weavers songs penned by Hellerman include “The Honey Wind Blows,” “Walkin’ on the Green Grass” and the antiwar song “Come Away Melinda.” Hellerman also often employed aliases to write tracks for other artists: His “Just a Country Boy,” co-written under the pseudonym “Fred Brooks,” would become a hit for Harry Belafonte and Don Williams.
The politically active group’s early concerts were free performances set up at union meetings and picket lines. After nearly breaking up in 1949, the Weavers secured a two-week residency at New York’s Village Vanguard; that run ended up being so successful that the Weavers spent six months at the Village Vanguard, which resulted in a Decca Records contract. The band’s first Decca single, “Tzena, Tzana, Tzena,” climbed to Number Two on the Billboard charts, and with its flip side “Goodnight Irene” sold over 2 million copies.
However, despite their popularity, the Weavers’ political leanings – at various points during the height of McCarthyism era, Seeger, Hays and Hellerman were all investigated for their Communist ties – resulted in the group’s blacklisting from performing and recordings. On one occasion, after Seeger refused to “name names” to an anti-Communism committee, Hellerman bailed his band mate out of prison. As a result of the blacklist, the Weavers broke up in 1952, with Seeger embarking on a solo career.
In 1955, as the “Second Red Scare” dissipated, the Weavers reunited and remained together until 1964, when the next generation of folk artists the Weavers inspired – Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and May, the Kingston Trio and many more – began shaping the face of pop music in the early Sixties.
Despite the Weavers’ impact on folk, Hellerman was initially derisive of the artists the folk troupe influenced. “How on earth can you say that he is such a great this-and-that?,” Hellerman once said of Dylan to author Robert Shelton, as documented in the book No Direction Home. “He can’t sing, and he can barely play, and he doesn’t know much about music at all.”
However, Hellerman would eventually contribute guitar on albums by both Joan Baez and Judy Collins’ debut albums and, in 1967, served as producer on Arlo Guthrie’s classic Alice’s Restaurant. The Weavers reunited once more in 1980 before Hays’ death in 1981.
Hellerman’s death comes follows the January 2014 passing of Pete Seeger at 94 and the June 2015 death of fellow Weavers singer Ronnie Gilbert at the age of 88.