Where Have All the Warren Hellmans Gone?

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 5 years old.
The Devil Makes Three at the 13th annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. (Anthony Pidgeon/via Hardly Strictly)

Allow me a proclamation: Of all the months, October sees San Francisco at her most San Franciscan. When the rest of the country is transitioning into sweater weather, ODing on pumpkin spice lattes, and pretending to enjoy the nip in the air, San Francisco is (literally) just getting warmed up.

There’s Halloween, of course, which -- despite the absence of our beloved Castro street party, RIP -- San Francisco still does better than any other city in the world. There’s Litquake, which marries alcohol and literature with a gusto that would have made Kerouac proud. There’s Fleet Week, if you’re into our government spending over a million dollars on a gaudy and wholly unnecessary display of military porn shiny airplanes.

And then there’s the Queen Mother of them all, the October fest that sets the tone for the rest of the season -- and the best event, in my humble opinion, of the whole damn year. We might not have traditional season markers in San Francisco; the leaves don’t change color much here. Instead, we have Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

This year’s fest, which takes place Oct. 6–8, comes less than a week after a mass shooting at a music festival. This is a revolting fear for attendees to have to carry, and the fact that the SFPD has planned to ramp up its presence at Hardly Strictly might seem, to some, like proof that it's warranted. But I’d also humbly offer this: if there’s any festival built strong enough to squash that fear, it’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.

The crowd at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass 2012. (Wikia / Lizray1016)

Hardly Strictly has always been good to me. In 2010, the weekend I moved home from New York, one moment I was hungover on an airplane and the next I was stumbling through shrubbery just in time to catch Patti Smith -- for free. In 2013, the weekend my household adopted two tiny brother kittens, I went straight from Billy Bragg singing “There Is Power In a Union” to a pair of spazzy, adorable furballs scampering around my apartment. In 2014, the Giants played the longest postseason game in Major League Baseball history, and I had the joy of listening to innings 13 through 15 on KNBR via my friend’s iPhone on full blast as we biked home in the darkness on a weirdly warm night. By the time we got to the Mission, we found ourselves in a cluster of other people on bikes, in formation around us, all listening intently. (Bonus: the Giants won in the 18th.)

Everyone has their own versions of stories like this. And every year, as thousands of people pack picnics and layers (always layers) for Hardly Strictly, I find myself thinking on the semisweet irony of it all: that one of San Francisco’s most staunch capitalists -- a billionaire investment banker before he got into venture capital, and one who supported Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor, at that -- is the person who gifted the city with something so sweet, anti-capitalist, and lasting. It’s one of the only music events that remotely resembles the free-love-laced vision the Summer of Love participants had in mind when they flocked here 50 years ago.


The festival's origin story is, of course, a legend at this point: how in 2001, after a lifetime of casually loving bluegrass and banjo, a then-67-year-old Hellman decided to throw a free, one-day bluegrass concert in the park; Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris served as the housewarming committee for the meadow that now bears Hellman’s name.

Lately, though, I find myself looking toward the future as much as the past. San Francisco has more moneyed young people in it than at any other time in history. If tech is the new finance, there is potential here. I think about how nearly every band I know has played a well-paying corporate gig at Apple or Google or Salesforce or Twitter, as part of those companies’ Lunchtime Concert Series or their Friday Beer Bash or their regular Tuesday Tequila-and-Table-Tennis Disruption, Innovation and Brainstorming Sesh. And it strikes me that while this sort of patronage technically counts as the tech world supporting artists financially, it’s also vastly different from throwing the entire city a free, family-friendly, and undeniably culturally enriching party.

All of which is to say: Whither the next Warren Hellman?

A sign honoring Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman at Outside Lands, Aug. 9, 2015. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)
A sign honoring Hardly Strictly Bluegrass founder Warren Hellman at Outside Lands, Aug. 9, 2015. (Photo: Gabe Meline/KQED)

It’s standard practice now for tech titans to offset their accumulation of wealth with philanthropy (hi, Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center). This is a good thing, and far be it from me to pass judgment on which cause a person deems worthy of their millions. But while we plebes are told that the tech world’s persistent “disruption” is good for all of us, it’s my impression that concrete support for accessible art in this city -- that is, music and theater and performance that’s open to all and asks nothing in return -- remains elusive, or convoluted at best.

Warren Hellman left finance — "the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine," in his words — to start the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival.
Warren Hellman left finance — "the nastiest, most competitive business that you could imagine," in his words — to start the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival. (Ron Baker)

Take Airbnb, whose rapid growth and accompanying role in evictions have earned the ire of affordable housing advocates. As reported here earlier this year, since launching its new “experiences” platform, the company has partnered with live music promoters to sell “secret concerts” in studios and living rooms, many of which were pre-existing and functioning just fine without a corporate giant as ticketing agent. Would-be attendees -- already a self-selecting group, i.e., tech-savvy people who use Airbnb -- pay $30 for a live music experience whose main selling point is exclusivity. Is that Airbnb supporting the arts? Or the local arts scene lending cultural capital to Airbnb? Who else is benefiting, exactly, and how?

Many people would tell you that Hellman wasn’t Gandhi, of course: like most extremely wealthy people in America, he spent most of his life benefiting from tax loopholes that allowed him to pay a staggeringly low percentage of his earnings back toward basic services in the city where he lived -- then subsidized something large he could write off come tax time. (This buzzkill comment on an SFist post from last year sums it up nicely.)

But from where I’m sitting -- which is, if you were curious, usually on a blanket about halfway back from either the Rooster stage or the Towers of Gold -- the end result remains the same. You show me a tech billionaire who wants to fund my ability to see Mavis Staples, Social Distortion, Lucinda Williams and Chris Isaak in a nudie suit doing “Wicked Game” while the sun sets and the scent of weed mingles with the eucalyptus trees and couples dance and babies get hoisted on shoulders with nary a corporate logo in sight, and I’ll show you someone worth naming a meadow after.

Until then, this city has some pretty big shoes to fill.


Emma Silvers lives in San Francisco. Find her on Twitter here.