so many Americans expressing hostility toward wealthy Wall Street financiers,
Warren Hellman is one successful investment banker who's still much beloved in
his hometown of San Francisco. One reason is that for the past eight years,
he's given people free music – the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, held
each October in Speedway Meadow in the city's famous Golden Gate Park. Jan
Hellman's entry in his high school yearbook reveals his life-long passion for
bluegrass and old-time mountain music. Under his senior picture is a statement
about what he hopes to achieve. It reads, "Popularize bluegrass music all
over the country."
Hellman finally decided to do something about that nine years ago when he
was given a Hazel Dickens CD. Dickens was raised in the Appalachian tradition
of bluegrass and mountain music and has become an icon known for her feminist
songs, union anthems and blue-collar laments.
heir to a wealthy family of financiers told some friends that if he could get
Dickens to come to San Francisco, he'd produce his Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
When she agreed, he got up the nerve to ask Emmylou Harris to perform, too.
Since her song repertoire includes more than just bluegrass, Hellman renamed
his acoustic event the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
Dickens and Harris have performed at every festival since that first one.
This year, they were joined by more than five dozen other artists, including
Earl Scruggs, Elvis Costello and Laurie Lewis. The two-time Grammy award winner
is one of Warren Hellman's favorite artists, and she's a big fan of his, too.
Lewis describes Hellman as "a banker with a soul… genuine, low-key,
approachable, self-effacing, easy to talk with, funny, curious and
Back on stage for a fifth year, Lewis says she is always delighted to play
at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.
like no other festival in the world that I know of," she explains.
"It's totally free. Tons of people come here. There's such incredibly
great music, and they take such good care of you. It's amazing, and then you
never have to see any giant corporate sponsorship signs. So, visually, it's
probably the most pleasing festival I've ever seen."
Amateur Musician Gets Time on Stage
wanting to expose people to the music he loves, the 74-year-old Hellman has a
selfish reason for producing what's probably the biggest free concert in
America. It gives him a stage, so he can perform with his groups The
Wronglers and Band Joe and The Whyte Laydie.
The Whyte Laydie is the type of banjo Hellman plucks. He loves to tell the
ironic story about how, when he was 40, he gave it to his daughter's husband,
who wanted to learn to play the instrument.
course, they got divorced, and the Whyte Laydie went with him, and she was gone
for 30 years," he tells the crowd. "My teacher is a wonderful man
named Jody Stecher, and one Christmas about four or five years ago, Jody said
to my wife: 'We've got to get Warren a good banjo.' And Chris said: 'Once he
had a Whyte Laydie.' He said: 'I love Whyte Ladies.'
they looked all over the country, and at a stringed-instrument store outside of
Boston, they found a White Laydie. So they bought it, shipped it out. I opened
it up, and guess what? My White Laydie'd come back!"
wrote a song about it.
Wealthy Heir Spreads Family's Good Fortune
Hellman was a well-known and respected investment banker on Wall Street before
he was 40, continuing in his family's financial footsteps. His
great-grandfather, Isaias Hellman, came to the United States from Bavaria as a
penniless 16-year-old. By the time he died in 1920, he had amassed a fortune as
the leading financier of the Pacific Coast.
Hellman says philanthropy has always been a hallmark of his family. His
philosophy is "think locally; act locally." Financial support for
education at all levels has always been a Hellman priority. But the Hardly
Strictly Bluegrass Festival is his personal project.
has been called mad for paying so much of his own money to present it each
year. He laughs at that and says that after all this country has given his
family, there is no question one has to give back.
is like manure," he says, repeating an often-heard quote. "If you
spread it around, good things grow. If you pile it up in one place, it just
points out that he has the money to spread around.
to indulge this fantasy in this way and to keep it completely not commercial is
just such a pleasure," he says. "To see hundreds of thousands of
people just enjoying themselves, loving being – as I do – in that atmosphere.
What could be more rewarding?"
says it's the best investment he's ever made.
Annual Event Strikes Joyous Chord with Participants
Singer-songwriter Kathy Goll-Derstine first came to the festival
a few years ago and was so touched by what she saw that she wrote a song about
it called "Joy For Free." After performing it at this year's
festival, she looked over the crowd and said, "It's happy, peaceful
congregants, enjoying a beautiful day of music with wonderful, incredible
talent in one of the most amazing music festivals in the world … and it's free!"
said he cried when he heard "Joy For Free" and promptly dubbed it the
"Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Anthem of the Republic of Speedway
Hellman's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival has become
legendary, with a growing list of artists asking to play it and growing crowds
coming to enjoy it. Just before this year's festival, he announced that after
talking it over with his children and his heirs, the festival will be endowed
with enough money to continue at least 15 years after his death.
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