Fred Hellerman

Caught in the Act

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Most performers do not make their solo recording debuts well past the age of 70, but Fred Hellerman, best known as a founding member of the Weavers, has been busy since that popular folk group split up in 1964, compiling a behind-the-scenes career in the music business that has included songwriting for other artists and for the Broadway stage; producing such records as Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant; and film scoring. In the annotations to Caught in the Act, he says that he had frequent offers to make his own records over the years, but they always expected him to be a solo folk artist, "sort of a one-man Weavers," and he wasn't interested. Instead, he has finally taken the plunge at the behest of his Connecticut neighbor, musical theater historian Max Wilk, who encouraged him to make recordings of some of the obscure Tin Pan Alley and novelty songs of the 1910s and '20s, for historical purposes, if nothing else. One finds 18 examples here, and they range from songs associated with Al Jolson, such as the comic "Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?" to Irving Berlin's heartbroken lament for his first wife (who died after contracting malaria on their honeymoon), "When I Lost You." Hellerman has made no attempt to re-create the authentic sound these songs had nearly a century earlier. In fact, he has constructed arrangements using fairly simple synthesizer sounds, which gives them an odd, anachronistic sort of feel. Despite his age, Hellerman retains an expressive, conversational baritone voice that he uses straightforwardly for the most part, though he lets a little Jolson or Ted Lewis creep in here and there. As he acknowledges in the notes, the songs reveal the racial and ethnic stereotypes of their time, usually with regard to Jewish and Irish immigrants (while "China, We Owe a Lot to You" sounds like it could be a satiric companion to Randy Newman's "Yellow Man," that is, if, like Newman's song, it was intended to be satiric). Hellerman has succeeded in the mission Wilk gave him -- he has preserved these ancient pop songs and created an amusing history lesson. And fans of vintage music may enjoy the results, although anyone expecting a folk-oriented record from this legendary folk artist will be confused. (Dave Marsh provides annotations on the songs. He should have known that Three Little Words was a 1950 film, not a 1920 show.)

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