Obituary: Fred Hellerman


It was the million-selling double single Tzena, Tzena Tzena based on a Hebrew song which brought folk-pop status to the 1950s American folk band The Weavers. Fred Hellerman, who has died aged 89, was the main songwriter and last survivor of the band whose transformative energy revived the folk song movement in Britain and across the pond. Their arrangement of Goodnight Irene topped the US Billboard charts in 1950.

With Pete Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays, The Weavers literally wove into their folk music the new dawn of the civil rights movement, which would later inspire Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.

But it was Tzena Tzena, Tzena which brought the group to the unwelcome attention of the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. As the shadow of McCarthyism loomed in 1950 the group toured the USA, and scored a hit with Kisses Sweeter than Wine. The Weavers were left-wing sympathisers and had to answer questions about Communist party membership. Quoting the Fifth Amendment, Hellerman refused to give evidence. But the group was blacklisted.

The trouble started in 1952 when a (later discredited) FBI informant testified against The Weavers, saying three of the four members belonged to the Communist party. This forced it to disband, although it re-formed in 1955 and continued until 1964.

Hellerman’s anti-war song Come Away Melinda, first recorded in 1963 by Harry Belafonte, was covered by artists of all genres, including Dylan of whom Hellerman complained: “he can’t sing, he can barely play and he doesn’t know much about music at all!”

Hellerman often wrote for other artists under assumed names and his Just a Country Boy, co-written under the pseudonym Fred Brooks, later became a hit for Belafonte and Don Williams.

Hellerman was born in Brooklyn, New York, the youngest of the three children of Latvian Jewish immigrants Clara née Robinson and Harry. After Lafayette High School he served in the US Coast Guard and took an English degree at Brooklyn College, while teaching himself the guitar. In 1948 he met Hays and Seeger and dreamed up the band name, The Weavers.

With Baez and Judy Collins, Hellerman produced Arlo Guthrie’s best-selling LP Alice’s Restaurant in 1967. He also wrote the musical score for Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film Lovin’ Molly, and the 1982 TV remake of The Rainmaker.

After a series of concert revivals and a 1982 documentary The Weavers: Wasn’t that a Magic Time! Hellerman recorded his first solo album Caught in the Act in 2005 and his final performance was at a Pete Seeger memorial concert in 2014.

He is survived by his wife Susan (née Lardner), his sons Caleb and Simeon and three grandchildren.

Gloria Tessler

Born May 13, 1927. Died September 1, 2016

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