|Author: Evans, Bill
|I’ll Fly Away
We were playing and singing “I’ll Fly Away” at a Christmas gathering when the text came into my cell that Warren Hellman had passed away. As we finished the song, I told everyone that I had just received some terrible news and there was silence in the room after I passed along the news I had just learned. After a few brief moments, one of my banjo students gently said, as if he were reading my mind, “You know, Warren wouldn’t want you to stop playing.” And I quickly realized how appropriate that I should be living this moment in the company of good friends, playing music. It was indeed what Warren would have wanted us to do. I’m not sure what we played next, but it might have been “Soldier’s Joy,” which I knew to be one of Warren’s favorite tunes.
By the time I returned home, I had received a text from Laurie Lewis, indicating that a request had been made by the family to gather sixty banjo players together to be part of Warren’s memorial service, now scheduled for Wednesday afternoon at Congregation Emmanu-El, a synagogue founded by Warren’s grandparents. Would I be able to help? she had asked. Of course, I wrote back. But sixty banjo players? Why sixty? Other than that somehow signifying a “large number,” I still do not know the answer to this question.
Jody Stecher, who was one of several musicians who helped Warren learn to play clawhammer banjo, was also brought on board to assist, so there were now three of us given the responsibility of bringing together what I quickly surmised might be the largest gathering of banjo players in history in the Bay Area.
As our list got longer, and I spent more hours on the phone and at the computer, trying to reach everyone as quickly as I could, it seemed that every banjo player I talked to had some kind of personal connection with Warren – just like me. Whether it was at last winter’s CBA camp or the Father’s Day festival, or sitting next to him in the middle of the crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, introducing himself with one of his signature off color jokes, Warren had become our friend and all of us who played the banjo wanted to be there for him.
On Wednesday afternoon at the memorial service, we all were overwhelmed by just how many people from all walks of life Warren had befriended. Senator Diane Feinstein sat one row from Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who was sitting next to Warren’s band The Wronglers. Ron Thomason occupied a seat at the end of that row with Emmylou Harris directly in front of him. There were over 1,500 people gathered, with Warren’s family, including his four children and twelve grandchildren, occupying the front rows of the other half of the synagogue. The banjo players had been instructed to find seats in the balcony, and many of us got as close to the front as possible, above where Warren’s open back banjo with tuner attached to the headstock was on display, next to the black jacket adorned with Jewish stars he had so proudly worn at this year’s festival.
We heard of Warren’s commitment to family, his friends, and the city of San Francisco. We learned of his strong competitive streak, his love of music, horses, and athleticism and his fondness of women who were winners. Emmylou sang “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia” and “Long Journey” while his grandchildren sang “I’ll Fly Away.”
As he learned to play clawhammer banjo, Warren also started to write songs. He managed to finish one tune just days before his passing. The lyrics to “The Big ‘Twang’ Theory” were read by Senator Diane Feinstein and later performed by the Wronglers:
The Big “Twang” Theory by Warren Hellman and Colleen Browne
We were drifting in eternal darkness
Free from joy or pain
When someone plucked a banjo
And the universe began
The single note it amplified
Then sparked and formed our sun
From which burst forth the planets
One by one by one
Pickers, pluckers, plonkers born
To strum, perchance to croon
Drifting through the cosmos
Playing out of tune
The next to come, from space and dust, were
Old-time music bands
With fiddles, guitars, mandolins
Made from these cosmic sands
Then all the country music
The writers could compose
Was created in that instant
And sung through someone’s nose
Great constellations formed
From the Carter Family’s works
Over there are big black holes
Where old-time music lurks
Some found the sound appalling
An agony to hear
A true appreciation
Needs at least a case of beer
That single plunk of the banjo
Sparked the music universe
We thought it would get better
But it’s only getting worse
A humongous group of banjos
Strumming old-time tunes
Playing on the planets
Playing on the moon
One thing that’s for certain
It’s been a cosmic trip
Riding through the ether
On this old-time music ship
At the conclusion of the service, about thirty banjo players gathered outside and as the signal was given, we ripped into “Soldier’s Joy” at a fast pace, played more or less together and more or less in tune in both clawhammer and bluegrass style. What a sight we must have been and what a sound we must have created for those emerging from the synagogue into the December afternoon San Francisco sun.
We didn’t know how long to play “Soldier’s Joy,” but it seemed right to play it for a good long while in order to savor the moment – maybe play it forever. After a couple of times through, I looked up and saw two of Warren’s grandchildren standing at the sight before them – thirty banjo players making a holy noise of Warren’s favorite song. They were able to hold back their own emotions no longer, as they hugged each other and burst into tears.
That’s when I lost it too.
Thank you Warren, for everything. We’ll pick together again soon.
To learn more about Warren Hellman’s life and to view pictures of the memorial service, visit www.baycitizen.org.
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