Thanking Fred Hellerman

Pete Seeger's wife Toshi passed away a little while ago (as I write this) and I got to go to her memorial. And what a memorial it was! Over a thousand people in attendance. Singer after singer going on stage, saying a few words about Toshi or Pete and Toshi, then singing a song. Several relatives, too. Not just Toshi's relatives, but people like the grandson of Huddie Ledbetter!

Then Fred Hellerman was introduced. One of the original Weavers (along with Pete Seeger). I gasped "Oh my god!" in a whisper so loud that people two rows ahead of me turned around. None of them seemed to be frowning, they just were curious, I think (I hope); some were smiling. I gasped for several reasons. 1. Two of the four original Weavers were on stage together. 2. I really wasn't sure if Fred Hellerman was still alive. 3. I would get to do something I'd wanted to do for nearly 40 years.

As soon as everything was over, I ran to the stairs of the stage and waited for him to come off stage, so I could finally thank Fred Hellerman for "Come Away, Melinda." I absolutely adore that song!

The first time I heard the song, on Uriah Heep's first album, I fell in love with it. Most '70s heavy metal bands would include one ballad or slow song and "Come Away, Melinda" was it on Uriah Heep's first album. With acoustic guitar. Later, Mercy Van Vlack would perform it in concert many times, changing it slightly for a female vocalist. It would be one of the songs where she really got to show off her voice.

Fred seemed genuinely pleased by my thankfulness, telling me a few background details. Fran Minkoff, Fred's co-writer on the song, had suggested doing an anti-war anthem and Fred said, "No. Let's do a song about what war means to one person." He said he regretted that the song is so hard to sing and I said that made it more satisfying.

I had a conversation with the guy who played guitar for Fred when he was on stage and told him how happy I was that I got to thank Fred for "Come Away, Melinda" after 40 years. He just started playing it the way it was originally written. He then said he thought the song was outdated, being about nuclear war. That surprised me so I replied, "I sometimes think of Dresden when I hear the song." He looked all thoughtful as he nodded. Unfortunately, the song is not outdated at all.

Then Fred came back and said to his guitarist, while gesturing at me, "And this nice man didn't even wait for me to get off stage before he told me how much he liked "Come Away, Melinda." I probably did come on a bit strong, waiting for 40 years and all, and I'm glad he didn't mind, just the opposite.

A year or so ago I remember searching through youtube for the original "Come Away, Melinda." I never found it, but I found many covers, some not long after 1962, when it was first recorded. I learned that the original was much faster and bouncier than the way Uriah Heep did it. Ironically enough, a heavy metal band slowed down a folk song!

I remember an old folksinger (Peter Yarrow?) saying recently that he would put happy music to the saddest lyrics otherwise the song would be so depressing no one would want to hear it. I can understand that, but I don't usually agree. Joe Cocker's singing on "The Letter" is more appropriate to me than the upbeat way The Boxtops did it. And Uriah Heep's heavy emotional vocals on "Come Away, Melinda" absolutely do justice to the amazing and beautiful lyrics.

The character of Melinda in the song is a child, so her bouncy lyrics are also appropriate, but I prefer the more emotional version. In listening to various covers, Harry Belefonte does a bouncy version. The earliest slower version I found, though not as slow as Uriah Heep's, was by Mama Cass, who certainly did it justice. She, too, changed the lyrics for a female vocalist and interestingly enough, her changes are remarkably similar to Mercy's.

When I got home that night, feeling terrific about being able to thank Fred Hellerman for "Come Away, Melinda," I immediately listened to many versions of that song, including two different ones by Uriah Heep. Bobbie Gentry does a nice version. UFO, a German hard rock band, does it in a style similar to Uriah Heep, but the vocals aren't nearly as strong. I also found one from the '60s by a British guy competing in a British TV song contest. The show's commentary was also there and the host remarked on how good the song was and asked where he "dug it up"?

Like I said, I adore that song. I only wish that more people knew of it.

Here are some links to hear versions.

Thank you.

Ken Gale, NYC, December, 2013 (written before Pete himself passed away)

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