Accessibility links

'Banker With Soul' Brings Music to City He Loves

  • Jan Sluizer

With 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 Sluizer reports.

Warren 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.

The 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 generous."

Back on stage for a fifth year, Lewis says she is always delighted to play at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival.

"It's 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

Besides 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.

"Of 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.'

So 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!"

Hellman wrote a song about it.

Wealthy Heir Spreads Family's Good Fortune

Warren 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.

Hellman 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.

"Money 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 smells bad."

He points out that he has the money to spread around.

"And 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?"

He 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!"

Hellman said he cried when he heard "Joy For Free" and promptly dubbed it the "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Anthem of the Republic of Speedway Meadow."

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.

Previous American Profiles