BY ELLIOT STEPHEN COHEN
“I think the main reason they wanted me on this festival, was because I’m probably the oldest person who worked with Pete and is still living,” laughs Hellerman, 87, regarding his scheduled July 20th appearance at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, where he'll be sharing a bill with singers Judy Collins, Peter Yarrow, and Tom Chapin, plus speakers Harry Belafonte and Michael Moore. It’s part of a four-day “Seeger Fest,” organized by Seeger’s grandson, Kitama Cahill-Jackson, in tribute to the iconic singer and activist who passed away January 27, at age 94.
Hellerman is sitting in the back yard of the Connecticut home he’s resided in for nearly 50 years. A sign in the parking lot reads “For Guitar Players Only.”There’s still a kind of mischievous twinkle in his deep-blue eyes when recalling something particularly funny, or something from his younger days as a ladies’ man. They redden noticeably with tears when speaking about Pete Seeger with whom he became famous, along with fellow singers Ronnie Gilbert and Lee Hays in the 1950’s, as part of the legendary folk group, The Weavers.
Recalls Hellerman, "The last time I saw Pete was at a memorial service for [his late wife] Toshi last year. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and I was shocked at how frail he’d become,” he says, visibly shaken by the memory. "So, I certainly wasn’t surprised when my wife woke me to tell me that Pete had died. Even so, it takes a while for something like that to really sink in.”
The Weavers were riding high in 1950 with their first hits “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” and “Goodnight, Irene,” when they became victims of blacklisting, because of their Communist affiliations. Radio stations banned their records, most concert halls and clubs considered them “persona non-grata,” and Seeger himself was kept off network television for nearly 20 years, until the Smothers Brothers were courageous enough to let him perform the anti-war song “Waist Deep In The Big Muddy” on their show in 1968.
Seeger left the Weavers in 1958. With various replacements, Hellerman stayed on until the final breakup in 1964, with periodic later group reunions. He's achieved musical success in other areas, such as working as a studio musician with the likes of Joan Baez and Judy Collins. In 1967, he produced Arlo Guthrie’s famous “Alice’s Restaurant” album and, two years later, served as the film’s musical director. His songs have been covered by artists as disparate as Harry Belafonte, best known for Calypso, country singer Don Williams, pop crooner Bobby Vinton, soul music icons Sam Cooke and Roberta Flack, as well as rockers Ronnie Lane and The Band.
However, it's his years with The Weavers and Seeger that he'll always be most remembered for.
Examiner: What is your first recollection of meeting Pete Seeger, this tall, lanky guy, back in the 1940s?
Hellerman: Well, he was definitely tall and lanky. I certainly knew who he was from his work with Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers, and I was in awe of him. I began getting involved with “People’s Songs.” I already knew Ronnie Gilbert and, with Lee Hays, the four of us began singing together, a lot of good union songs, good left-wing songs, and some folk songs, like "On Top Of Old Smokie." We would meet in Pete’s basement apartment down on Bleeker Street.
Examiner: How long did it take for the group to start getting paid as performers?
Hellerman: We started getting little bookings together, but it was for nickels and dimes. Things were really rough for all of us. I remember coming to Pete’s place one night. He was lying on a cot saying, “Maybe I should get a job in a factory,” and I was thinking about going off to the University of Chicago for some post-graduate work. Ronnie was planning on going out to California to work as a secretary, and Lee wanted to continue working on some serious writing.
Examiner: But the four of you of you obviously didn’t break up?
Hellerman: No, Pete had worked in this little club in Greenwich Village called The Village Vanguard. So, the owner, Max Gordon, invited us to come down and do a little set, and he liked us. He offered us $200 a week, between the four of us, plus hamburgers. He came in one night and Pete was making a hamburger about a foot and a half long. Max, said, “No more hamburgers!” We said, “Max we can’t afford your prices.” So, we went across the street to White Castle, where they were about a nickel, and came back into the club and started ripping up these noisy paper bags, while another act was on. Max, said, “Let ‘em have the hamburgers," and that was the end of that.
Examiner: It was at the Village Vanguard, that Gordon Jenkins, the famous bandleader and A&R man at Decca Records, became aware of The Weavers.
Hellerman: Yes, and he was the number-one record seller in the US in 1950 and 1951, and became a wonderful friend to The Weavers. He knew that we did our first show at the Vanguard at 10. So one night he called the club about five minutes before we went on and had someone leave the pay phone off the hook, so he could hear our set. Gordon, bless him, fell in love with us Without him, I don’t think The Weavers would have ever made it. He bridged the gap between the folk thing we were doing, and pop music. He was the one who chose “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena” for our first record, with “Goodnight, Irene” on the flip side. It became a huge hit, probably the fastest-selling hit record ever, but then there was this booklet called “Red Channel” that listed everyone who seemed to be the “right” of Attlila, The Hun.” They attacked performers, radio and television stations that employed anyone they suspected of being Communists.
Examiner: It seemed that Pete was singled out more than any of the other Weavers.
Hellerman: Well, he was the only one, at first, who was called to testify in front of The House Of Un-American Activities, but sooner or later, me and Lee Hays were also called; not together, but individually. Ronnie wasn’t called because she had a newborn baby, and The F.B.I., who was being paid millions of dollars, couldn’t track her down. She wasn’t in hiding. She just had a different last name from being married, but they still couldn’t find her.
Examiner: Now, Pete left the group in 1958, allegedly because the Weavers were planning on accepting money to do a cigarette commercial, something he opposed.
Hellerman: That’s what I heard. I can’t tell you how correct that was, but we were preparing a commercial. I don’t even remember what the cigarette company was. Now, while this was happening, Pete was slowly skipping away from us, never announcing that he was leaving. Now, me and the other Weavers were very much put out that Pete had put us in this position (by leaving). He was certainly entitled to the strong feelings he had, but he never gave us the opportunity to say, “Well, Pete, you know you may be right about this. Maybe, maybe there are some arguments to be made," but he just left, … but OK, that’s the way life goes on sometimes.
Examiner: What do you think his greatest legacy will be, his music, his environmental concerns, his political activism?
Hellerman: All of that. I don’t know anyone as big a figure as Pete. I know that’s a big statement. I can’t think of anybody of the magnitude of Pete who covered as much territory, music, civil rights, ecology, just for a start; the way he helped clean up the Hudson River. When he couldn’t raise money, he went out, did concerts up and down the river doing concerts to help build a sloop. He did it himself. Then once it was up and running, he felt it was more important for it to be taken over by a group with a crew assigned to it, than to sit around taking credit for what he'd done. It was just incredible, the things he did. When I read his obit in the New York Times, although I knew him for like 70 years, and thought I knew everything about him, I couldn't believe all the things he'd done.
Examiner: Final comments on Pete Seeger.
Hellerman: He was one of the great ones who ever walked the earth. He really was.