Warren Hellman was a bit of a hillbilly. He played the banjo in a group with his friends, his fingers dancing over the strings like they’d each thrown down a quick fire whiskey. He loved that bluegrass music; the twang of the banjo and the zip and zaw of the fiddle.
Warren loved a party, and every year he gave a party for his friends. He knew a thing or two about parties, so he knew the best place was San Francisco. In the Golden Gate Park where the grassy fields and the eucalypts and the pine trees give the room to breathe and spin. Where people could come and lay on the grass in the autumn sunshine and drink and smoke and jig to the tunes.
Because Warren was a billionaire, it would be a big party and everyone would be invited. He was a generous billionaire too, not one of those greedy ones, so he couldn’t ask the people to pay anything. The word went out and the people would come. The hobos of the city would come and sell beer from eskies and the hippies would come and sell homemade hash cookies and the families would drive from the corners of the country to spread picnic rugs and eat crackers with dip and smile at each other and at other people too.
He called his party the Strictly Bluegrass Festival because that’s what he loved the most, but he knew that other people liked other things too and he was generous, so he changed it to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and let them all come.
I found myself in the city of San Francisco early October so I took Warren up on his invitation and made my way to Golden Gate Park. Off the bus at Haight-Ashbury and along the winding path to the heart of the park. It was going to be a big party, because Warren had some famous friends coming. There was Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle, M Ward and Connor Oberst, and a long list of fiddle-bending, harmonica-blowing, guitar-twirling maestros howling in from across the land.
On each of the three days there were almost as many people at the festival, as in the entire city – around a quarter of a million so they say. Because it was Warren’s party and we had been specially invited to come, everyone was well behaved and happy. We said Thank You Warren and we looked after each other, making sure there was room for everyone to sit and food and drinks all round.
After an earlier hiking accident I was getting around on crutches and people smiled encouragement and said “You’re rockin’ it brother” or “Dedicated to the bluegrass, that’s dedicated.” A security guard saw me weaving through the crowd and said “Whyn’t you go sit yo’self in the disabled area up the front theya?”
On a sunny afternoon I found myself metres from the stage as Gillian Welch wandered out with David Rawlings and said “Gee whilly-oh, it’s hot”, and I turned around to see if the thousands of people in the field behind me were as happy as I was. For an hour I heard those two voices created to sing together and two guitars playing side by side as one. I won’t forget it.
The people danced and cheered, they laughed and ate and drank, they slept on picnic blankets and climbed trees. Around sundown the festival halted and they walked out into the San Francisco evening together. For three days it continued like this – the park breathed the people in by day and breathed them out again at night.
That was the last time Warren would be able to come to his own party, because he died last year. He was seventy seven. But he’d planned for something like that happening and the party will go on every autumn without him. The people will still say Thank You Warren.
|View from the back of the crowd (not my photo, borrowed from google)|
|The crutches got me this view. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.|