Warren Hellman’s last song

At Warren Hellman’s memorial service, Heidi Clare, the fiddler for his band the Wronglers, told the crowd about the first time they played “The Big Twang Theory” just a few days earlier in Warren’s hospital room.

“The doctors gave him some hard news,” Clare said. “He was sitting in a chair, banjo in hand. He listened patiently, and waited for them to stop talking. Then he said, ‘And now I have something for you.’ And we played this song.”

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

That 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 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 plonk 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

Warren Hellman, you will be missed

Warren Hellman was one of the smartest, coolest people on the planet.

Extensive obituaries for the Bay Area investment banker and musician are all over the internet (locally at SFGate and the Bay Citizen which he helped found) with headlines like “The Billionaire Who Loved Bluegrass” and “Renaissance Man in a Cowboy shirt.” Posts and articles detail his many contributions to the Bay Area go on and on and are still incomplete. They include contributions like helping to reform the city’s pension, funding the San Francisco Free Clinic, heading the board of Mills college and trying to take it co-ed  (being met with signs that read: “Warren, go to hell man) creating an underground lot in Golden Gate Park, setting up an endowment for aquatic sports at UC Berkeley (he played water polo), and creating the Hellman Fellows Program to support tenure track faculty at UC campuses.

Most of all, Warren Hellman is now known for founding and completely funding the wildly successful, fun and free (for all of us) annual Hardly Strictly Bluegrass music festival in Golden Gate Park.

Why was Warren Hellman so generous? It made him happy. He wasn’t interested in collecting art or buying fancy cars. He enjoyed spending his time, money, and brain cells creating projects, solving problems, and helping communities thrive. He often said Hardly Strictly Bluegrass was his definition of heaven on earth. When asked about the festival by Forbes Magazine in 2006, he said: “How could you have more fun than that? What the hell is money for if it isn’t for something like that?”

His band is called the Wronglers. He spent much of the last year of his life recording and touring with legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore. You can get their CD “Heirloom Music” here.

One of my favorite memories of Warren is being in his office, listening to a song and laughing and laughing. The song is called “The Ballad of Sarah Palin and it’s by Cup O’ Joes. I am posting the lyrics below and the song on youtube. You can listen to it here.

Good-bye Warren. THANK YOU. I miss you.

Ballad of Sarah Palin (Just be an Alaskan)

Sarah, Sarah, oh my Sarah Palin,

You’re a mother, a leader, and Alaska’s fair maiden,

I know you hear people calling your name,

But you abandoned Alaska,

I think that’s a shame.

Sarah Palin,

You were the Governor of Alaska,

Rove knew you were up there,

And told McCain he should tap ya,

So you burst on the scene with your stunning good looks,

But red lights started flashing when you tried to take away our books,

If you’d opened one and read it,

Well, then you could seeee,

That Africa’s a continent and not a countryyy.

They mocked you and called you Caribou Barbie,

Now you’re the lovely new face of the Republican Party,

With your suits, your shoes, your Tina Fey glasses,

Your folksy ‘You Betchas’ sure play to the masses.

Right from the start, you had people attack you,

Said you didn’t know nothing about the questions they asked you,

They said in Alaska, you didn’t play by the rules,

That your daughter was pregnant and still in high school,

Some hinted you didn’t know Bagdhad from Zurich,

And you were mishandled by both Gibson and Couric,


Sarah, Sarah, oh my Sarah Palin,

You’re a mother, a leader, and Alaska’s fair maiden,

I know you hear people calling your name,

But you abandoned Alaska,

I think that’s a shame.

Supporters were nervous for your first debate,

Afraid you’d think NAFTA meant New York and LA,

Then you lost the election,

We thought you were done,

Secretly hoped you’d turn tail and run,

And you did, you went home, back to Alaska

We breathed a sigh of relief, thought we’d seen the last of ya,

I know it must’ve made you irate,

When it was alleged that Todd ran your state,

Now Levi’s in Playgirl and all over the place,

Sarah, forgive him, set out a Thanksgiving plate

You quit on Alaska and wrote a new book,

Going Rogue sold millions, got you a new look

There you were talking and talking on my box,

With the help of that clever old Fox,

You told the people that we’re in big trouble,

And some of them begged, “Lead us out of the rubble,”

But with you at the helm, our trouble will double,

So please, go back to Wasilia and live in your bubble!


Sarah, we’ll  miss you but not very much,

Please do us a favor and don’t stay in touch,

Commune with the grizzlies, gun clubs and such,

Go back to Wasilia and live in your Hutch.

So sit back, relax, enjoy your fame

Sarah, Sarah, please don’t come again,

Sarah, Sarah, don’t come back again

Oh please, Sarah Palin,

Just be an Alaskan,

Just be an Alaskan.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to the San Francisco Free Clinic, the Bay Citizen and the San Francisco School Alliance. The family also requests a donation of blood or platelets to a local blood bank.