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TWO PILLARS OF PROGRESSIVE FOLK MUSIC
by Bennett Muraskin
Fred Hellerman (May 13, 1927 - September 1, 2016) was the last surviving member of the Weavers, the legendary folk group made up of Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Hellerman, and Ronnie Gilbert. The group formed in late 1948, named by Hellerman after a German play that depicted an uprising by exploited weavers in the 19th century.
Originally, the Weavers played for free at union halls, labor rallies and benefit concerts for leftwing causes. They got their first paid gig at the Village Vanguard, with a two-week run that was extended to six months. Their first recording, a single “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” with “Good Night Irene” on the flip side, were huge hits. The former, a Hebrew song, celebrated the promise of a a Jewish state in Israel; the latter was a ballad by black folk and blues musician Hudie Ledbetter aka “Lead Belly” who died in 1949.
The Weavers received a recording contract from a major label and appeared on prime time TV.However their commercial success was fleeting. By the end of 1950, they began to feel the effects of McCarthyism’s blacklist, collectively and individually. By 1952, the group was forced to disband for lack of work. Seeger and Hays were later called to testify before congressional committees established to root out “communist subversion.”
The Weavers reunited in 1955 and performed until 1964 (Seeger left the group in 1958, replaced by Erik Darling.) They came together one last time for a memorable concert in 1980, which was the basis for the acclaimed documentary film, Wasn’t That a Time? (1982). Hays died shortly before the film appeared.
The Weavers are widely credited with inspiring the folk music revival that took off in the late 1950s and early 1960s and inspired such ensembles as the Kingston Trio. The Limeliters and Peter, Paul and Mary. The latter made famous the Weavers’ standard, “The Hammer Song,” renamed “If I Had A Hammer.” The Weavers themselves helped keep alive the songs of Woody Guthrie.
Hellerman played rhythmic guitar parts, and his amber voice created compelling harmonies with Seeger’s tenor, Hays’ bass, and Gilbert’s clear and bold contralto. Hellerman also wrote songs for the group and collaborated on many arrangements. He was occasionally featured as a soloist at their concerts and on their albums, delivering strong renditions of Yip Harburg’s Depression ballad, “Brother Can You Spare a Dime” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s coal miners’ lament “Sixteen Tons.” In 1963, the Weavers recorded a Hebrew love song adapted by Hellerman, “Tapuach Hineni.” He also co-authored (with Fran Minoff) “Come Away Melinda,” an anti-war classic, and recast numerous folk songs.
During the 1950s, Hellerman taught guitar and wrote many songs for other artists, including Harry Belafonte, and worked as the musical arranger for Theodore Bikel’s two albums of Jewish folksongs. In the early 1960s he appeared as a guitarist on the debut albums of both Joan Baez and Judy Collins. Hellerman, who knew Woody Guthrie, produced his son Arlo’s first album, Alice’s Restaurant (1967), named for the twenty-minute song about Arlo’s misadventures getting arrested for littering and appearing before his local draft board. Hellerman was also the musical director of the 1969 movie version of that song. In 1979, he produced an album for Ronnie Gilbert, on which he sang back-up.
In 2005, he released his only solo album, consisting of vaudeville songs. His last public appearance was at a 2014 memorial concert for Pete Seeger.
Hellerman was born in Brooklyn. His father was a Jewish immigrant from Latvia who became a small businessman. As a young man, Hellerman worked as a counselor at the interracial communist summer camp Wo-Chi-Ca in New Jersey, a faux Indian name that really stood for Worker’s Children’s Camp. It was there that he met fellow counselor Ronnie Gilbert. Hellerman served in the Coast Guard during World War Two and, after the war, earned a degree in English from Brooklyn College.
He is survived by his wife Susan Lardner and two sons. Susan Lardner is the granddaughter of journalist and screenwriter writer Ring Lardner, Jr, who was one of the Hollywood Ten, blacklisted by the Hollywood movie studios during the McCarthy Era. She had a distinguished career writing for the New Yorker magazine.
OSCAR BRAND (February 7, 1920—September 30, 2016), the folksinger whose weekly radio show on WNYC, “Folksong Festival,” ran continuously for over 70 years, died in Great Neck, Long Island at the age of 96. He hosted and sang with everybody who was anybody in folk music: Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, Josh White, Harry Belafonte, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Odetta, Jean Richie, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Carly Simon, Phil Ochs, and many others. He also recorded over a hundred albums of traditional folk music, sea shanties, protest songs, funny songs, bawdy songs, drinking songs, old political campaign songs, and children’s songs.
Brand’s most popular compositions include the children’s classic “When I First Came to This Land;” an anthem celebrating Canada’s natural beauty, “This Land Of Ours;” and a scatological ditty about “Three Old Ladies” locked in a lavatory. Brand was at once a folk-music legend, a folk-music encyclopedia — and a character.
Born to a Jewish family in Winnipeg, Canada, where his father worked as an interpreter for the Hudson Bay Company in communicating with indigenous peoples, Brand moved with his family to the U.S. at 7 and settled in Brooklyn, where he attended Erasmus Hall High School and Brooklyn college, earning a degree in psychology. He served in the U.S. Army in a stateside assignment during World War II.
As a teenager during the late ’30s and early ’40s, he frequented Greenwich Village, basking in the aura of the folk-music scene. After his discharge from the military in 1944, he began his career in earnest as a folksinger in New York. In December 1945, he volunteering to create a folk music show for radio station WNYC, which was then owned and operated by the city. Brand showed up week after week and never asked for or received a penny for his services. It was clearly a labor of love. During its first decade, he invited blacklisted artists like Pete Seeger to perform.
In 1959, Brand joined with Seeger, Theodore Bikel, and Albert Grossman to found the Newport Folk Festival. During the early 1960s, Brand hosted a Canadian TV show, Let’s Sing Out, which broadcast from college campuses and helped launch the careers of Canadian singer-songwriters Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell.
He had a brush with commercial success in 1954 when he wrote the lyrics to a song, “A Guy is a Guy” that became a hit for Doris Day. Brand also wrote the scores for two Broadway musicals, including “The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N,” based on the humorous Leo Rosten novel about a boisterous Jewish immigrant who struggles mightily to learn English.
Brand’s interest in children’s programming bore fruit when he was chosen to serve as a member of a panel assembled by the Children’s Television Workshop that developed Sesame Street. He claimed that the character “Oscar the Grouch” was named after him, because he fought for a gritty urban setting for the series.
His politics were leftist, but Brand was also anti-communist. This did not prevent the McCarthyite organization that published Red Channels from identifying him as a red in 1950. Brand’s condemnation of Soviet communism and the fact that he was relatively unscathed by the blacklist may have been what led Irwin Silber, the communist editor of Peoples Songs and Sing Out magazine, to falsely accuse him of collaborating with the FBI.
Brand regularly appeared at an International Jewish Arts Festival held in the Suffolk Jewish Community Center in Commack, Long Island, where he performed Jewish songs in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. At one performance, he included the sarcastic Tom Paxton song “Ten Million Lawyers,” bemoaning their proliferation. Brand observed that his wife was one of them. As noted, he was a character.
Brand received a Personal Peabody Award in 1995 upon his 50th anniversary as host of “Folksong Festival.” He was honored for providing “more than an open microphone for the American folk music scene,” but also for striving “to present music and artists who were considered politically unpopular…”
Brand was the last of an era that dated back to Woody Guthrie. May his memory, and the music, endure.
Bennett Muraskin conducts the “In Memoriam” column for Jewish Currents and is a contributing writer to our magazine. He is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman, and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.