The Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park is one of the greatest events I’ve ever experienced. (Here’s what I wrote about my visit in 2006.) It’s remarkable for so many reasons, chiefly in that it was and remains free to the public, a gift to the city of San Francisco and the nation by financier and philanthropist Warren Hellman, who died Sunday at age 77.
All I ever heard about Hellman was that he was an unusual guy and a mensch to folk and bluegrass musicians. The artists and sidemen I know who’ve played HSB often say it’s their favorite festival of the year, because of the lineup, the setting and the respect Hellman paid the musicians at all levels. There was just something about Warren Hellman, beyond his being staggeringly rich, but I didn’t know what that was until I read this marvelous obituary and appreciation in The Bay Citizen. The takeaway:
"A rugged iconoclast whose views on life rarely failed to surprise, Hellman was a lifelong Republican who supported labor unions, an investment banker whose greatest joy was playing songs of the working class in a bluegrass band, and a billionaire who wanted to pay more taxes and preferred the company of crooners and horsemen who shared his love of music and cross-country 'ride and tie' racing."
Hellman’s life was just amazing. You should read the details. But what blows my mind, is that in these times of 1%ism and cultural strife, it takes an “eccentric” billionaire from San Francisco to highlight a puzzling and unfortunate thing: American wealth (about which I’m basically ambivalent) isn’t trickling down to American roots music and the whole Americana scene. This estrangement doesn’t speak well of Hellman’s class, because I think there’s a case to be made that whither goeth a nation’s music, there goeth the nation. And while some view Americana as just another musical format/genre/category, the more appropriate way to see it is good cells in our cultural bloodstream. Bluegrass and folk music was a great 20th century profusion of humanity and freedom that could keep us sane and connected in the chaotic 21st, if we can stay connected with it. American roots music’s fine art pinnacle is jazz, which has issues and struggles of its own, and American roots music has many branches. But let’s call what Hellman cherished and supported bluegrass, hardly strictly speaking, and let’s agree that bluegrass is NOT flush with resources from our country’s patrons of arts and culture.