New oral history online: Warren Hellman talks about Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

A video of the late Cal alumnus Warren Hellman discussing his love of music and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival that he founded went up on the Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) website and YouTube today (Friday, Oct. 5), the first day of the HSB festival that takes place every year on the first weekend of October.

The video segment posted by the ROHO team at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library is an excerpt taken from 24 hours’ worth of interviews conducted by Lisa Rubens with Hellman in 2011 about his life as a venture capitalist, philanthropist, musician and one of the biggest Cal fans and boosters ever. In 2003, the California Alumni Association named Hellman (Class of 1955) Alumnus of the Year.

Warren Hellman and the Wronglers

Warren Hellman, performing with his band, the Wronglers. (UC Berkeley photo)

Hellman, who died last December at the age of 77, began the free and strictly noncommercial music event in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 2001, limiting it to bluegrass performers and calling it Strictly Bluegrass. But that changed in 2004, as organizers accepted the event’s evolving repertoire and renamed it the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. Its popularity has grown steadily, with crowds estimated at 750,000 last year and headliners over its history ranging from Emmylou Harris to Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, Steve Earle and others.

“The interview we posted today is fascinating and funny,” said Rubens. “Hellman had a low-key delivery style and peppered many of his answers or comments with jokes or lyrics that he recited or sang.”

She said that between interview sessions, Hellman toured the country with his “heirloom music” bluegrass band, The Wronglers.

Many of the ROHO interviews, Rubens said, began with Hellman recounting the trials and tribulations of performing at the South by Southwest country music festival or appearing on the radio show, “Prairie Home Companion.” She said Hellman talked a lot about “his real pride and joy,” the HSB festival.

But Hellman’s oral history also affords great insight into the workings of, for instance, the financial firm of Lehman Brothers, where Hellman served as president at the age of 37, before leaving to create his own company. In the interviews, Hellman also discusses creating, with Arthur Rock, the Con Man Hall of Infamy and talks repeatedly about the great swindlers in history.

Hellman was a generous benefactor for UC Berkeley over the years, setting up the Hellman Family Faculty Fund to support research for exceptional and promising assistant professors, contributing to bringing the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life to Bancroft, and giving to athletics and to innovative journalism programs. He also served on numerous campus advisory boards and co-chaired the landmark Campaign for the New Century that raised $1.44 billion between 1993 and 2000 for programs benefiting faculty and students.

A complete transcript of Hellman’s oral history will be available on the ROHO site in spring 2013. ROHO documents the history of California, the country and the global arena through audio/video-recorded and transcribed oral histories and related materials.