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Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Berkeley String Quartet


                 The Berkeley String Quartet

           In the summer of 1965 I decided to drop out of Los Angeles State College and move to San Francisco to become a folk singer. I had joined the folk music club at LA State and started a magazine called ET TU which was to become RAG BABY MAGAZINE when I got to Berkeley. I recorded an LP with Blair Hardman titled GOODBYE BLUES after a song I wrote about leaving with the same title. We had ten copies made. I kept five and Blair kept five. We had played quite a bit together before that and were both members of the folk song club. Our playing  included a trip to Pershing Square in downtown LA where we played for the homeless people hanging around there and ate at the Salvation Army. I remember they had salmon. I liked it. I imagined I was back on the road again like my father and Woody Guthrie. 

      I was married to Kathe Ann Werum and we traveled together up to San Francisco. It was too big so we stayed with her uncle and aunt Larry and Virginia Horrowitz in Lafayette just outside of Berkeley. Larry Horrowitz told me I should go onto Get Chiaritto's Midnight Special radio show in Berkeley on KPFA radio. I did and fell in love with Berkeley. We moved there. I continued my magazine in Berkeley and renamed it Rag Baby Magazine. Then one day Ed Denson and Mike Beardslee and I did not have copy for the magazine so we recorded a talking issue on a seven inch vinyl and called it RAG BABY RECORDS.  This was the first "I-Feel-Like I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" recording and we called the skiffle band that played Country Joe and The Fish.

       Kathy and I got an upstairs flat on old Grove Street near the Black and White Liquor store at Ashby and Grove. The downstairs neighbor was Carl Shrager and Toby Lighthauser. They sang together. Carl played guitar and wrote songs. I started going to the Jabberwolk coffee house , and met Ed Denson, Bill Steele, and Bob Cooper. Ed Denson and I along with Michael Berdslee started Rag Baby magazine. Ed would later manage Country Joe and The Fish. Bill Steele made an album and wrote a song called "Garbage" that was sung by lots of people including Pete Seeger. Bill played washtub bass. Bob Cooper played 12-string guitar.

      The four of us formed the group the Berkeley String Quartet. We played the Drinking Gourd, the Coffee Gallery, and other venues in San Francisco. The photo was taken on Sproul Steps on the University of California, Berkeley campus. I don't remember who took the photo. At the left you can see my guitar case with collage all over it. Part of the collage is a headline saying "Kennedy Slain." That gives you a time frame. Also a centerfold from Playboy magazine. I am playing an F-hole Epiphone guitar that I bought from Jon Lundberg of Lundberg�s guitars in Berkeley on Dwight Way where I worked and learned to repair guitars.
       A few years ago someone sent me CDs of these performances that he said were recorded in his living room back then. I do not remember his name nor do I remember recording it. But I am very thankful to him for the memories and bringing to life that old group sound. I post it here for you to enjoy. There was also years ago a live recording from the Drinking Gourd but I lost it somewhere down the line.



Fact Sheet
It started out to be a "jug band," but it isn't.
The four young men in the group were interested in traditional American music, but what they played together didn't emerge as a purely "traditional" sound; they had too much formal musical training, too much city background.
On the other hand, they didn't end up forming another "slick" commercial folk group.
Instead, they produced something unclassifiable which they called the Berkeley String Quartet: four men playing guitars, banjos, an autoharp, a washtub bass, harmonicas, kazoos and odds and ends like washboards, stovepipes and salad spoons.
Their repertoire ranges from traditional American songs and tunes through popular songs of the twenties and thirties to contemporary folk and topical songs.
Their approaches to songs range from irreverence -- as in the performance of "Grandfather's Clock" to the tick-tock of a wooden spoon held across Joe McDonald's teeth -- to simplicity and sincerity -- as in the flowing rendition of Bob Dylan's "If Today Were Not an Endless Highway."
Audiences in San Francisco Bay Area coffeehouses have learned that the group follows no pattern except unpredicability, but there are at Ieast two rules underlying the group's arrangements:
One -- based on the fact that two members of the quartet have made extensive study of folklore and traditional music -- is that traditional material should be treated with respect.
The other -- a sort of echo ot Spike Jones -- is that music should be fun, both for the performers and the audience.
Why the Berkeley String Quartet? Because something about that famous city drew together four young men with widely divergent backgrounds.
Bob Cooper, whose suggestion to form a jug band gave birth to the group, came west from New York City where he had been immersed in folk music since the age of 14. He attended Hofstra University in Long Island and St. John's College in Anapolis, Md. In between, he went to sea, working his way around the east coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Northern Europe. A devotee of old-time country music as played by performers like Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family, he performs on guitar, 12 string guitar and five-string banjo.
Joe McDonald came to Berkeley from Los Angeles with the stated intention of becoming a professional folk singer. He had studied classical trombone for nine years, played in a Dixieland jazz combo, and in high school led a rock 'n roll group. He carried his guitar through three years in the Navy, learning songs along the way, and occasionally writing his own.
Carl Shrager was formerly a classical pianist, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 15. He attended Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he discovered folk music. The discovery led him from Oberlin to Berkeley, and then to some 50,000 miles of travel through every state and nearly every city in America. He performs on guitar, autoharp and assorted home made rhythm instruments, and has composed original ballads and love songs.
Bill Steele, who provides the musical foundation for the group on washtub bass, came to the Bay Area five years ago from upstate New York, where he had encountered folk music and learned to play guitar and banjo in the Cornell University Folk Song Club. He was at one time editor of a small newspaper and currently pursues a career as a freelance writer, specializing in science articles for young people's magazines.




  1. Joe im so glad you have a blog i can post a comment at. Joe we met once at arizona charlies casino in las vegas nev, i gave you the poster of the great northern folk rock festival and you autographed some cd's for me, you said your son collected the old posters from the old days, i hope he enjoyed receiving it, as we know that one is pretty rare, after the 2nd set we said goodby and i palmed you some weed in the handshake, maybe you remember me, i just want to say thanx for a real good time, both sets were great, Joe can you give me the date of country joe and the fish live at the golden bear, when you sang sweet martha lorraine from inside a trunk, cant remember and lost my stub, i need a boot of that show, maybe i can find a miracle. also i have a music blog of my own, come visit, maybe you will leave a comment there, maybe you would grant a short interview for the blog, ill give you my e-mail and blog address. solarmusicfreak@yahoo.com http://solarmusicfreakacym.blogspot.com/ thanx Joe, hope you go to the blog and leave a comment on your feelings about what you see at the blog i would love your input. joe if there is anything you are looking for let me know, i love to share, God bless and enjoy, Roger@solarmusic.

  2. A friend researching the Free Speech Movement ran across the photo of the BSQ on the Sproull Hall steps (What were we doing there, anyway?) which led me here. The description above is probably the best review we ever got. Great fun reliving those days, although Bill Belmont's history seems to have renamed me Richard Saunders.

    If you ever come east get in touch., We have a professor at Cornell who is a Woody Guthrie nut, and between that and the Cornell Folk Song Society we might be able to set something up. ws21@cornell.edu

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