The Warren Hellman Museum and the Music of the Great Recession
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s a little strange to be floating down the Rhone River in France, eating fois gras while writing an article on Warren Hellman, the Hellman Museum and the music that has emerged from the Great Recession of 2008. I just finished reading two books “Detroit – An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff and “The Unwinding of America” By George Packer which really put a fine point on what the horrifying bottom looks like for those who really got the short end of the stick from this world wide calamity.
I was hoping to interview Steve Earle for this article. I received a call six months ago from Tracey Buck who along with several other volunteers oversee the Hellman Museum behind Slims nightclub on Eleventh Street in San Francisco. She invited me over to see the Museum and added “don’t tell anybody but Steve Earle is appearing here tomorrow” Dawn Holliday, Tracey Buck are two of the primarily organizers, museum curators (along with Michael Pedro), and long time music concert promoters in the Bay Area . Holliday worked for Bill Graham’s organization for years and learned the ropes for staging successful, safe, hassle free, large world class events involving major talent. When Warren Hellman decided to put on a little concert featuring his banjo mentor Hazel Dickens, he tapped Holliday to put together the logistics. The smallish three day gathering thirteen years ago was called Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. It featured a few a few big name artists including Hazel Dickens, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris who traditionally closes the concert each year. This year the concert is expected to attract a half a million attendees who will have a chance to see and hear major and upcoming alt country artists including Ralph Stanley, Bonnie Raitt, Jesse Dee, Father John Misty, First Aid Kit, Natalie Maines,and one of my favorite artists Dave Alvin playing in a unique duo with Greig Leisz. Last year the event attracted the Lumineers who at the time were an emerging popular traditional music act. They now play stadium concerts. As Holliday pointed out when we talked “they became an overnight sensation after last year’s event and we probably couldn’t afford to bring them here this year”.
I arrived at the Hellman Museum a few minutes after the impromptu concert by Earle began and found the cramped three room building packed to the rafters. Word of mouth news travels quickly in the tight nit Hardly Strictly community. I met Buck and took a quick look around the outer rooms of the museum with walls covered with pictures of Hellman and the artists who have played Hardly Strictly over the years. There was no way I was going to even being able to catch a glimpse of Steve Earle let alone hear music from his new album, the Low Highway. I told Buck that I’d be back when I could actually take some time to chat with her and check things out more closely. A few weeks later I went to the Hardly Strictly website and they were streaming the entire concert. Steve Earle was not only performing music from his incredible new album but also was talking about the Great Recession. I heard him reprise this subject on his SIRUS radio show, Hardcore Troubadour, as well as read a number of articles. Being a product of the sixties who grew up in Berkeley during the Viet Nam War years, Earle’s comments prompted me to wonder where the sense of outrage and activism is these days when it comes to popular music. Literature is starting to pour out about the consequences brought on by greed and deregulation but there are only a few artists talking about the demise of America’s middle class and the plight of the working class.
Steve Earle’s and my schedules never hooked up for a phone interview but I was fortunately enough to have the Hellman Museum broadcast and an interview that appeared in Mojo Magazine conducted by Sylie Simmons, an old acquaintance of mine. In the video of the concert as well as some additional sources the internet turned up. Earle talks about “seeing an America closer to what Woody Guthrie saw” I was told by Holliday that Steve Earle travels around and basically lives in a very high end bus. Earle told Simmons that his bus costs ” more than most people’s houses” . In all the interviews with Earle that I heard, particularly on his own radio show, he talked about driving around the country looking out the window of his bus and seeing a world “becoming more and more desperate.” He links these observations back to his occupation that of a troubadour linked to Woody Guthrie who had “one foot in the dust bowel and one foot in the Depression.” Earle talked at length on his radio show (and I’ll paraphrase since I was driving at the time) about how the great post Depression/Guthrie activist troubadours….Dylan, Morello, Springsteen, the Byrds, Mellancamp, etc have been “faking it” when it comes to seeing national, worldwide hardship. An example that Earle gave to illustrate his point was the cover of the second Band album where they dressed to look the part of hard scrapple dust bowl, Appellation singers (and the comment was not made to diminish the importance of their music – Levon Helm certainly did come out of the dust bowl farming tradition). He is quoted in a Men’s Journal interview admitting ” It dawned on me that I’m part of a job description that Bob Dylan kind of invented in the Woody (Guthrie) image, making music based on the Depression and even dressing like it’s the fucking Depression. But we’re seeing times that hard now. Instead of emulating people who write about the Depression, I ended up writing about the Depression, which I didn’t think would happen in my lifetime.”
Ry Cooder put out two albums in the heart of economic downturn that were outspokenly angry about the Great Recession and the unfair hand that has been dealt to those who live the closest to poverty line in the United States. The two cd’s, “Pull up Some Dust and Sit Down” and “Election Special” are filled with songs with titles that spit venom at the situation we find ourselves in today: “No Banker Left Behind”, “Humpty Dumpty Word” “Mutt Romney Blues” and “The Wall Street Part of Town”. Rap music has always been quick to reflect the plight of the oppressed and bottom rung of humanity but nobody has come out more intelligently or direct as Ry Cooder with lyrics like:
“My telephone rang one evening my buddy called for me
Said the bankers are all leaving better come ‘round and see
It’s a startling revelation they robbed the nation blind
They’re all down at the station not banker left behind.”
Steve Earle called Warren Hellman his “favorite capitalist”. I was curious when I sat down with Holliday and Buck at the Hellman Museum what Warren’s thoughts were regarding the Great Recession. Hellman was described in one article as a “banjo-pickin billionaire investment banker”. Hellman died in December of 2011, several years into the recession after it had become apparent that most of the major financial institutions had a major role in this collapse. In talking with Holliday and Buck it became apparent that Hellman was very private about his politics or his concerns, reactions or response to the Great Recession. I was hoping that he might have had some conversations with Steve Earle or privately with his family or with Buck and Holliday. I do know this from personal experience that Warren was a philanthropist who cared greatly about his community, about his religion, the University of California and about humanity. It’s always been remarkable to me that Warren, who did many remarkable things in his life outside of making money, would be the founder of a concert featuring in the main, either people like Hazel Dickens who came out of a coal mining tradition, or Doc Watson or Earl Stanely who came up from the unimaginable hardship to current alt country singers who lean more to the left than to the far right which has often been an unfair categorization regarding traditional country music.
After I took a tour of the three rooms with Buck and was later sat down with Holliday and her dog,Joey, in front of a monitor flashing incredible shots of artists including quite a few nostalgic shots Warren. Holliday talked about Warren’s first meeting with Hazel, their diametrically opposed backgrounds and the immediate respect and friendship that came out of that conversation. Dickens born in 1936, according to cultural blogger John Pietaro “ didn’t just sing the anthems of labor, she lived them and her place on many a picket line, staring down gunfire and goon squads embedded her in the cause.” Hellman on the other hand was born in 1934 and was the great grandson of Isaias W. Hellman, President of the Wells Fargo Bank, a noted philanthropist and a founder of the University of Southern California. Hellman decided he wanted to put on a concert featuring Hazel and a few other acts and as described by Holliday “we didn’t know if anybody would come”. Like all of Warren’s passions, his interest in bluegrass music and the banjo eventually lead to him taking up the instrument well into his 70’s . Bluegrass music soon became a shared family passion but as Holliday commented with a laugh “I wouldn’t let Warren perform at Hardly Strictly until he’d earned it.”What became apparent to me as we talked was the deep and extremely sincere love and respect both Holliday and Buck have for Warren Hellman. Holliday is quoted in the SF Chronicle that last year’s Hardly Strictly, the first concert following Hellman’s death, “We were just a mess of emotions.” I could still sense those emotions as we talked about Hellman his connection to the music and as we tried to think if he ever said anything about the Great Recession. My take away from the all of the musical encounters I had with Hellman over the years is that Hardly Strictly wasn’t about politics or social issues. It was all about his love of the music and his respect for the musicians who produced the music. He wanted to expose musicians who didn’t have the followings he felt they deserved to a wider audience. When I met with Hellman regarding a magazine project we were both involved in a few years after the first Hardly Strictly concerts, I was looking at pictures around his office of him posing with Presidents of the United States and musicians from Hardly Strictly. He pulled out a picture of himself with Emmylou Harris and said “this is my favorite picture of all of these.” I gave Hellman a copy of the “Briar and the Rose”, a collection of essays by Greil Marcus and in turn he invited me to a UC Berkeley class reunion meeting he had at the Bancroft Museum to meet Hazel Dickens (who I knew nothing about at the time). It was one of those moments that I’ll never forget.
A few years later Hellman received the Berkeley Foundations Alumnus of the Year Award. As I was leaving the event I saw Warren playing with several student bluegrass afficiados playing on the meridian of a two way street. At a presentation of awards for the Hellman Fellowships at the Freight and Salvage nightclub, Hellman took the stage with his friend and fellow musician Laurie Lewis. I don’t think there was an event that I attended where Hellman was involved during the last two years of his life that he didn’t find an excuse to start playing his banjo. If Hellman was at a Tupperware Party and had a chance to play he’d pull out his banjo. As Holliday pointed out “just playing the banjo made him happy”.
The Hellman Museum it turns out is a two year “Popup Museum” which is getting ready to close in January 2014. I commented that I found this to be a crying shame and asked if there isn’t some benefactor who would step forward to keep the quirky part of San Francisco history open to the public. Holliday said that she hasn’t been approached by anybody who wants to make that happen. The Hellman Museum is open Hardly Strictly week with extended hours from 11:00 am to 7:00 pm up until Wednesday October 16th and you never know who might be stopping by to hang out or play music. Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller dropped by the last time they were in San Francisco. I urge you to make the pilgrimage over the next two weeks and if that isn’t possible before it closes in January of 2014.. Its filled with fantastic memobellia, great music and photography and most of all it capture’s Hellman’s quirky, often humorous, intelligent personality. I set out in this article to make a connection between Hellman’s occupation as financial genius, philanthropist and the Great Recession and I have to confess that there appears to be little or no correlation. But I do know that Warren cared deeply about his community, his musical preferences and for promoting anything that he viewed as adding value to all of our lives. If you are lucky enough to live in the Bay Area and don’t believe me, do yourself a favor and make the trek out to Hellman Hollow this coming weekend to witness three days of incredible music that truly reminds us of just how passionate Warren Hellman was when it came to what he viewed as quality music and how much he wanted all of us to hear and share his appreciation for these remarkable musicians. And I guarantee you that you’ll also get an earful about the plight of the middle class and the times we live in.
(Photo courtesy of Ken Friedman)