By Bruce Sylvester
Warren Hellman, banjoist in the Wronglers and billionaire angel of San Francisco’s annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, died of complications from leukemia on Dec. 18.
Born in Manhattan on July 25, 1934, into a family of investors with philanthropical concerns, he drew on his huge financial acumen to foot the entire bill for the festival, which, since 2001, has expanded from one stage to six and from one day to three, with people traveling from as far as Europe and the South Pacific to attend. A rough estimate of 600,000 festivarians enjoyed his generosity at this fall’s event.
Typical lineups have ranged from major acts to relatively unknown but worthy bands. Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Robert Earl Keen, the Flatlanders, Del McCoury, and the Mekons (or some other John Langford assemblage) have been regular or frequent performers. Robert Plant and Steve Martin too have played. The Felice Brothers and Devil Makes Three are among the younger acts the festival has presented. Moving far beyond bluegrass, Hardly Strictly has also staged MC Hammer, Mavis Staples, Marianne Faithfull, Elvis Costello, Randy Newman and Patti Smith. This fall’s event was dedicated to Hazel Dickens, the voice of Appalachian coal country, who’d played every year prior to her death in April.
Several years ago on stage, Hellman irreverently announced that he and his family had arranged to continue the event for at least 15 years “after I croak.”
Hellman began playing banjo in his seventies. Earlier this year, his Wronglers (which includes Krista Martin on fiddle, Bill Martin on mandolin, Nate Levine on guitar, Colleen Browne on bass and vocals and Heidi Clare on fiddle and vocals) teamed up with Jimmie Dale Gilmore of the Flatlanders on the CD “Heirloom Music” (Neanderthal Records), a skillful acoustic collection of vintage Americana songs such as the Carter Family’s “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blues Eyes” and “Foggy Moutain Top” and Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Pen.”
Besides funding Hardly Strictly, Hellman helped to finance San Francisco music venues Slim’s and the Great American Music Hall as well as Freight & Salvage across the bay in Berkeley. He also contributed to the aquatics program at University of California – Berkeley, the San Francisco Free Clinic and an online website for local journalism, Bay Citizen (www.baycitizen.org), which has a good history of the festival under the heading “Big Twang Theory.”
The city of San Francisco has changed the name of Golden Gate Park’s Speedway Meadow (Hardly Strictly’s site) to Hellman Hollow in his honor.
Next year’s festival is slated for Oct. 5-7. Warren would want you to attend.