The Folk Roots of San Francisco Psychedelic Music


[published as "Folk Revival Roots Still Evident in 1990s Recordings of San Francisco Psychedelic Veterans" in the Journal of American Folklore, Fall 2001, Vol.114, No.454 : 478-88]

 Psychedelic music, as created and played in San Francisco in the 1960s, drew far more heavily from the folk revival that preceded it than has been previously acknowledged. The revival’s influence on San Francisco psychedelia can be seen in its ideology, repertoire, instrumental techniques, vocal harmonies, critique of politics and society, inclusion of female vocalists, penchant for play-acting, and its approach to learning music, rehearsing, and performing. A discussion of all these aspects can be found in [Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context and Evolution, Craig Morrison’s Ph.D thesis [click on title to go to to get a download copy for $4.94. A print copy is also available.].

 According to Ian MacKay and Neil Rosenberg, the folk revival was a social construct made out of a conservative, restorative cultural patriotism. Though expressed as a romanticized vision of the past, in seeking a more just and genuine society the revival rebelled against oppression, consumerism, and modernism. Between 1958 and 1965 approximately, young people participated in such numbers and with such fervor that the folk revival became an immense cultural and ideological force. The vision of a pastoral and romantic frontier past was carried into the hippie movement, where the inherent defiance, like folk music itself, was amplified.

 In 1965, the advent of folk rock, a mix of folk and British Invasion sounds, marked the waning of the folk revival. Two number one pop hits by the Byrds announced folk rock’s arrival : “Mr. Tambourine Man,” a Bob Dylan composition, and “Turn ! Turn ! Turn ! (To Everything There is a Season),” a biblical text adapted by Pete Seeger. Folk rock split the revival community into two camps : acoustic or electric. Some of those who remained dedicated to acoustic music moved towards a deeper involvement in specific music-cultures, such as bluegrass, old-time fiddling, blues, and later klezmer. Neil Rosenberg calls these “named-system revivals,” declaring them “aggregates of shared repertoire, instrumentation, and performance style generally perceived as being historically and culturally bounded by such factors as class, ethnicity, race, religion, region, commerce, and art.” [Rosenberg : 177] Some of the people who explored electric folk music were Greenwich Village figures who migrated to Los Angeles, others were the founders of psychedelia music in San Francisco.

 Folk rock took hold in San Francisco. The We Five, containing a brother of one of the Kingston Trio and sharing the same management, scored a top ten hit in 1965 with their version of “You Were On My Mind.” It was a composition by Sylvia Tyson, of the Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia, who were handled by Bob Dylan’s manager. Dylan’s shift to electric instrumentation was mimicked by some of his San Francisco followers. Country Joe McDonald said : "I saw Dylan at the Hollywood Bowl with Joan Baez. I wanted to be Bob Dylan." [Salomon : 5] Shortly afterward, McDonald moved from Los Angeles to Berkeley, sang folk songs and published a magazine of poetry and protest music influenced by the New York folk magazines Sing Out and Broadside. The instrumentation of the first version of Country Joe and the Fish was like a skiffle band : washboard, washtub bass, harmonica, and acoustic guitars. "Then Dylan went electric and the little skiffle band we had just went electric too." [Salomon : 5] In the protest tradition of their folk roots, Country Joe and the Fish were among the most political of all rock bands of the era.

 In trying to create an American counterculture in the Viet Nam era, psychedelic musicians were attracted to a mythical version of the country, expressed in songs that evoked the country’s fabled ancestors, archetypal roles, primal events, legendary places, and the struggles of the common people. Identification lead to mimicry, expressed at first by redoing old songs and by play-acting. In the folk revival, according to Robert Cantwell, one could act the part, of “the desperado, the tramp, the poet, peasant, earth mother, or May Queen... Play had become an instrument for shaping reality and hence a means of laying claim to the social and historical initiative.” [Cantwell 1993 : 54-55] Many of the San Francisco bands dressed in frontier and Gold Rush style clothes, wearing buckskins and posing with guns. This contributed to the creation of a new mode of dress-hippie fashions-and the writing of original songs with mythic elements.

 In 1966, folklorist Ellen Steckert identified four groups of people involved in the revival : traditional singers, utilizers, imitators (she later preferred the term emulators), and creators of a new aesthetic.[Steckert : 96-100] traditional singers learned their music orally in their early years. They inspired the emulators, such as the New Lost City Ramblers, who immersed themselves in folk’s musical and cultural milieus while aiming for a purity of intention and presentation referred to as authenticity. Utilizers, such as the Weavers and the Kingston Trio, made folk music commercial by freely changing tunes, texts, and styles to fit an existing urban aesthetic. The fourth group, which included Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and Peter, Paul, and Mary, belonged to the new aesthetic, which created new artistic traditions out “a merger of vocal and instrumental folk, classical, jazz, and pop styles.” [Steckert : 99] I maintain that the psychedelic music of San Francisco can be seen as one of these new traditions, and that many of its originators had participated in the folk revival as emulators and utilizers.

 Nearly all of the major bands of the San Francisco psychedelic music scene had one or more members whose musical apprenticeship was served in the folk revival. While books covering San Francisco musicians mention their folk activities (Hoskyns, Sculatti and Seay, Selvin), books on the folk revival (Cantwell, Marcus, Rosenberg) mention neither psychedelic music nor any of its practitioners. Naming only those musicians in the forefront of San Francisco’s rock scene who had extensive previous experience in folk music, the list is still rather long : Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, Joe McDonald and David Cohen of Country Joe and the Fish), and David Frieberg and Dino Valenti of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

 Like many other young whites in the 1950s in America and the United Kingdom, these musicians had become interested in early rural styles like bluegrass, hillbilly, jug band, and blues. For example, before David Cohen moved to Berkeley and joined Country Joe and the Fish, he had spent years as part of New York’s folk scene.

"I fell in love with folk music. I thought it was the best stuff. That summer, 1956, I started going to Washington Square Park. I had heard folk music was being played there from two to six [o’clock].... Mayor Wagner only gave a license [for those hours and] for stringed instruments, you couldn’t have drums, couldn’t have horns, only stringed instruments, and obviously no electronic instruments-there weren’t any then anyway, none that you could take with you. The cops were very strict with us.... After six we’d go to someone’s apartment or loft, we’d meet, exchange ideas, business, go to a concert at the American Youth Hostel on 8th Street. That was our day, I’d take the subway home.... I was young, but I had no choice, I was driven. I had started high school, and I’d get home from school around 3:30, and go up to my room and play guitar for six hours. I’d do 15 minutes of homework and go to sleep. For three years." [David Cohen, interview by the author, Forest Hills, New York, 21 February, 1998]

 Later, San Francisco bands, including the one Cohen was in, had a similar level of dedication to playing music, and many rehearsed intensely on a daily basis.

 Pete Seeger played a role in Cohen’s early musical experiences :

"I started playing piano when I was seven. I studied for seven years and I hated it. I was sort of forced to do it. When I was ten or eleven I started playing guitar and I loved it. Then when I was 13 I went to a camp called Lincoln Farm Work Camp, which was very progressive, very radical, run by some communists, or at least inhabited by them. My background was that my grandparents were anarchists. So I wasn’t really a "red-diaper baby" but I was close. That’s a term for people like Arlo Guthrie and Country Joe whose parents were communists. This camp woke me up to a lot of things. It’s where I first saw Pete Seeger, who came and did a concert." [David Cohen, interview by the author, Forest Hills, New York, 21 February, 1998]


 Seeger was a member of the Weavers, who had major success on the pop charts in the early 1950s with numbers by Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie, and “On Top of Old Smokey” and other folk songs. Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane declared :

"The Weavers were my prime teachers. I sit at the feet of the Weavers, still. They were all very different people. Probably all together they make up one perfect human being, sort of like Jefferson Airplane or Jefferson Starship. Pete Seeger particularly. What got me into music was Pete Seeger’s How To Play the 5-String Banjo book. [A self-published book first appearing as a mimeographed edition in 1948. A more widely distributed 3rd edition appeared in 1962, self-published by Pete Seeger but distributed by Oak Publications. A companion record with examples from the book was published by Folkways (LP F18303).] I was a banjo player for about 5 years. I played in college ; still play banjo, love banjo. Ronnie Gilbert [of the Weavers] was the reason I wanted to work with a woman singer, just because she so obviously added a great unknown quantity. I really wish I had seen the Weavers perform because they were so invigorating to my songwriting approach, to life, and to what you’re supposed to do as a band, whether you are a rock and roll band, a folk band as they were, or whatever : good, bad, indifferent, drunken party boys to severe ascetic, almost Amish kind of Pete Seeger dedication to the cause." [Paul Kantner, interview by the author, Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, 8 August, 1999]


The only song on Paul Kantner’s double-CD set of oral history is about dedication to the cause of freedom : “Which Side Are You On ?” concerning student uprisings in Nicaragua and China. A Guide Through the Chaos (A Road to the Passion) : Spoken Word History of the Jefferson Airplane & Beyond (Monstersounds MSE-1017, 1996), approaches the feel of after-dinner autobiographical storytelling. Over more than two hours, Kantner is candid, informative, opinionated, and entertaining. The shift from folk music to psychedelia is one of many topics described from an eyewitness perspective. After discussing the Monterey Jazz Festival (at which the Jefferson Airplane performed before the Monterey Pop Festival), Kantner added : “The idea that San Francisco was heralding was a bit of freedom from oppression.”

That theme still resounds in Jefferson Starships’ music, as recent performances I attended in 1999 and 2000 attest. On their 1995 album, Deep Space/Virgin Sky (Intersound 9151, 1995), it can be heard in the lyrics to “Dark Ages.” Along with Kantner, two other founding members, Jack Casady and Marty Balin, were in the band at this point, and Grace Slick made a guest appearance. While most of the album was a mix of mature rock and versions of their classic songs, Kantner’s 12-string guitar was a link to the band’s coffee house origins. One song was even in folk revival style. In “Papa John,” using the rollicking rhythm of Jesse Fuller’s “San Francisco Bay Blues,” Balin eulogized Papa John Creach, the aged black jazz violinist who joined the Jefferson Airplane in 1970.


 The folk revival hit the mainstream in 1958 with the million-selling “Tom Dooley,” whose genesis in a 90-year old hanging and life as a folk song, with the John and Alan Lomax named among the cowriters at a later date, is documented in Robert Cantwell’s When We Were Good. The hit version was by the Kingston Trio, who were based in San Francisco and set the tone for other male singing groups across the country, including the Beach Boys. The Kingston Trio, though called folk, never set out to be and considered themselves as live entertainers and not folk singers. Their name was chosen for its Calypso implication, for it was derived from Kingston, Jamaica (a country which they to this day have never visited). From their first album they were eclectic, including sea chanteys, blues, Broadway, novelty songs, foreign language songs (sung phonetically), and country, which they were first called when “Tom Dooley” became a hit in 1958. That occurance marks the start of the folk revival under discussion.
The Kingston Trio is still touring in 2000, about 30 weeks a year. Their current lineup consists of founding member Bob Shane on guitar, banjoist George Grove who joined in 1976, and guitarist Bob Haworth, who joined in 1985 for three years and returned in 1999. [Bob Shane, interview by the author, Burlington, Vermont, 28 October, 2000 - see it here] By Special Request (no label or number, 2000) is a studio recording of their performance repertoire, minus the comedy patter. Sold at shows and online, this is a quality effort in both delivery and recording, which works as a souvenir of the Trio’s enthusiastic presentation or as a primer of the act itself. The CD’s song selection reprises some of the Trio’s hits-they are not looking for new ones -and ones from other folk figures : Woody Guthrie (“Hard Ain’t It Hard”), Pete Seeger (“Where Have All the Flowers Gone ?”), the Almanac Singers, which included Guthrie and Seeger (“Reuben James”), Gordon Lightfoot (“Early Morning Rain”), Hedy West (“Five Hundred Miles”), as well as John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), and Bob Gibson. That this finds an audience today-the show I attended in Vermont was in a theatre filled with 1100 people-attests to the impact and appeal of this act, and a nostalgia for the music and entertaining presentation of the folk revival period.

 At the time, not everyone liked their jovial and collegiate approach. David Cohen said : "The Kingston Trio came in and I hated it. It was so unauthentic. At that point I backed away from folk music." [David Cohen, interview by the author, Forest Hills, New York, 21 February, 1998] He developed an interest in boogie woogie however, and his ability to play it on the piano got him into Country Joe and the Fish. His Farfisa organ playing was an early trademark of the band, and the band’s creative mix of blues and folk was one of psychedelic’s earliest expressions.

As David Bennett Cohen, his 1999 solo album, the all-instrumental In the Pocket (no label, no date), shows him to be a formidable blues and boogie woogie pianist who is steeped in its traditions. The set list is similar to what Cohen played at recent live solo shows, but on the recording he is accompanied by the delightfully sympathetic and appropriate drumming of Terry Wetmore and bass playing of Everett Boyd (who sometimes doubles Cohen’s left hand). The album’s title, an expression used by musicians to indicate a successful groove achieved by tight and rhythmic interplay, is apt, for that is what they set out, and succeed, to do. Within the formal choices suggested by the material-song-like progressions with turnarounds and left-hand figures—Cohen’s playing is strong, clear, and musical on a good-sounding piano. On two tracks he has overdubbed his acoustic guitar playing to fine effect. Ten original compositions, many with a New Orleans R&B feel, explore a variety of colors and moods, presented with quiet assurance, almost meditatively. The set concludes with two covers : Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pnuemonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” (1957) and Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia on My Mind” (1930). The review copy was in temporary packing. I hope the final presentation will attract the audience for rhythm and blues piano that the playing and the recording’s rich sonority merits.

 Cohen’s early identification with the blues was far from isolated ; the blues aspect of the revival deeply affected rock music in general. Just as the revival got underway, the first books on the subject appeared-The Country Blues (1959) by Sam Charters, and Blues Fell This Morning (1960) by Paul Oliver-inspiring interest in black traditions. Further momentum came from the seemingly miraculous appearance on festival stages of veteran musicians, for example white banjo player Dock Boggs, and bluesmen Son House, Skip James, and Mississippi John Hurt. Prewar blues still figures in the repertoire of San Francisco guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Mike Wilhelm.

Jorma Kaukonen, formerly of Jefferson Airplane and still (on occasion) of Hot Tuna, has since taking up the guitar in college been a keen exponent of folk revival styles, especially the blues. In Too Many More Years (Relix RRCD2094, 1998), the downhome blues that mesmerized him still provides a foundation of his repertoire. The lingering influence of Reverend Gary Davis is acknowledged in the inclusion of “Say No to the Devil.” Songs by Fred McDowell and “Funny Paper” Smith also come from the blues. Another source is country music, from its folk and blues side, with songs by Johnny Cash and Ronnie Self, and “Nine Pound Hammer,” associated with Merle Travis. Kauknonen’s compositions, whether in similar style or in the more introspective singer-songwriter tradition, are presented with the same touch as the roots material.

 Kaukonen is joined on all tracks by two cronies. The drumless trio sounds like a quartet because of Pete Sears’ left hand keyboard bass (using an acoustic bass patch). Sears’ keyboards are strong throughout, from the ubiquitous and almost subliminal organ washes to the vigourous piano solos, and multitracking allows for a bigger ensemble sound in the places where bass, piano, and organ are all present at once. Sharing lead vocal and songwriting roles is Michael Falzarano, who also provides acoustic rhythm guitar and some mandolin. His songs, playing, and vocals are reliable but exhibit less character than Kaukonen’s. The album closes with Falzarano singing “Friend of the Devil,” one of the Grateful Dead’s most often covered songs, which the band presents in a servicable but ultimately bland version. That description applies to other parts of the album, but at its best, about half the time, Kaukonen and his mates’ approach to earthy music is distinguished and endearing. In concert with the addition of a drummer inspiring a fiercer attack and Kaukonen in rock guitar mode, the material to my ears lifted off far more than in the studio-as-parlour session captured on the CD.

“Friend of the Devil” shows up again, this time with Jorma Kaukonen singing it, on Phil Lesh and Friends’ Highlights Volume One (Grateful Dead GDCD 4401, 1999), a two-CD set of live recordings from a 1998 tour. The lineup includes keyboardist Pete Sears, formerly of Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna, and guitarist Steve Kimock of Zero, a San Francisco band with connections to 1960s psychedelia. Lesh seldom sang lead with the Grateful Dead, but here he does on several songs-originals and covers-from their catalogue, including bluesman Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man.” Kaukonen’s vocals include two gospel songs : “I Am the Light of This World” by Reverend Gary Davis, and “Good Shepherd,” a song from the Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 album Volunteers, which Kaukonen arranged from the 1936 folk recording of “Blood-Strained Banders” by banjoist Jimmie Strothers, a blind veteran of medicine shows. At the time he was recorded by John Lomax and Harold Spivacke, the songster was in prison in Virginia for murder. The original can be heard on a A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings (Rounder CD 1500, 1997). Phil Lesh and Friends carry on the psychedelic jamming tendencies, and of the 14 tracks, nine of them are over eight minutes long, and two are over 20 minutes.

Yet another version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend of the Devil,” this time as a boogie woogie piano solo, appears on Tom Constanten’s Nightfall of Diamonds (Relix RRCDD2046, 1992). Constanten was in the Grateful Dead form 1967 to 1970, and the album’s title comes from the lyrics of “Dark Star,” a piece thought to perfectly embody the Dead’s most psychedelic tendencies-Constanten played on the celebrated version on the Live/ Dead album.
Morning Dew (Relix RRCD2063, 1993) is the name of a folk song that was on the Dead’s first album. On his own albums, Constanten arranges an eclectic collection of rock, blues, ragtime, pop, and classical pieces into his solo piano style. Though his background was in academic music and composition studies, thus several modernistic original pieces and ones by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Greig, Scalatti, Couperin, and Enrique Granados. Beyond his formal training, which gives him the technique to pull off these fascinating solo recordings, Constanten has an affinity for other traditions. He covers old boogie woogie by Albert Ammons, ragtime by Artie Matthews, the old “Hesitation Blues” (credited to Reverend Gary Davis) and the archaic “John Barleycorn Must Die,” a riddling British pro-whiskey song collected by Cecil Sharp around 1910, made famous in rock circles by Traffic, whose album cover states that it dates back to 1465. From the folk revivalists, Constanten plays songs by Bob Dylan and Donovan, and Constanten has created intriguing solo arrangements of pieces from his old band of the Grateful Dead, including the traditional “I Know You Rider,” “And We Bid You Goodnight,” Blue Ridge banjoist Obray Ramsey’s “Cold Rain and Snow,” and Bonnie Dobson’s “Morning Dew” (where Constanten’s usual precision is absent and sloppy rhythms and mushy phrases distract from the arrangement). Constanten mines rock traditions as well for songs by the Jefferson Airplane, the Who, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Procol Harum. The clear recording and intelligent playing make these albums a festival of eclectic sources, and well worth seeking out.

Another Jefferson Airplane-Grateful Dead combination that features Jorma Kaukonen, this time sharing the billing with Tom Constanten who played keyboards with the Dead in their Woodstock days, is Embryonic Journey (Relix RRCD2067, 1995). This album is an indulgent offering with a moderate didactic purpose. It is comprised of eleven versions of the title piece, originally an influential solo guitar number on the Jefferson Airplane’s famous 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow (containing their two biggest hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”). By track number ten, the two musicians arrive at, as announced in the take names, “THE PERFECT EMBRYONIC JOURNEY” rendition. While the best of the lot and quite good, it doesn’t quite live up to its billing and perversely, even this includes a false start. Before then, the listener is treated, burdened actually, by eight attempts. In its intent to show how musicians work together to form an arrangement this album succeeds-their discussions are included-but for anyone who plays an instrument themselves and who has experienced rehearsals, the aural documentary is only mildly intriguing as Constanten finds his way and the two experiment with subtle changes in tempo, filigrees, and voicings as they make their way from coordination towards inspiration. Framing this exercise is Kaukonen’s opening solo rendition and Constanten’s closing Midi orchestration. These two, plus the best take of the duo’s travails are enough for a listener to behold the composition’s inherent vitality, a force recognized perhaps by Kaukonen when he named it. This willingness to allow musical gropings to be heard in public is a characteristic of San Francisco psychedelic music, and many of its most transcendent creations, and some of its most tedious, are a product of this mentality. That this community of musicians rejected the idea of limiting performances to rehearsed set pieces is admirable, with quite often thrilling results, but the hesitation to edit shown here by the Relix label is a lapse of judgement and the product is likely to interest only indiscriminate fans or those who use it for conversation-covered mealtime mood music.

 Guitarist Mike Wilhelm is a former member of the Charlatans, considered San Francisco’s (and the world’s) first psychedelic band. Their name and Wild West image connected them to a mythic America. The Charlatans chose their style, which they developed at their first gig, a summer residence at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada, for its quintessential American-ness, as a reaction against the British Invasion. George Hunter, the band’s founder, said : “We wanted the identity of an American band, rather than emulating the British sound, that’s why we started drifting towards Americana and rootsier music as well, things that would not be identified with anything else.” [Alex Palao : liner notes to The Charlatans (Big Beat CD 1996) : 11.]

Live in Tokyo (PSF Records PSFD-85, 1997) documents a solo performance by Mike Wilhelm singing and playing acoustic 12-string guitar. His repertoire (and sartorial style) is in keeping with the Charlatans’ image as Wild West dandies, as he sings about cowboys, outlaws, trains, Nevada and Texas. The song list draws heavily from the blues with songs by Mance Lipscomb and Blind Willie McTell, and four songs by Robert Johnson. Wilhelm is a strong and fluent fingerstyle guitarist, though on the more delicate passages he struggles a little with the borrowed guitar. Four of his evocative original instrumental pieces are featured. To the delight of the Japanese fans of the the Grateful Dead-the performance took place at a club called Dead Heads Land Yukotopia-Wilhelm included from their repertoire “Friend of the Devil” and “Me And My Uncle,” the latter written by John Phillips.

Another early and important San Francisco band was the Great Society. The band broke up when Grace Slick left it for Jefferson Airplane, bringing with her two songs that became the Airplane’s biggest hits : “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.” Darby Slick, composer of “Somebody to Love,” left the rock scene after the Great Society folded and spent 12 years studying sarode with Ali Akbar Khan. Slick returns, playing fretless and fretted guitars, on a CD entitled Sandoland (Taxim TX 2022-2 TA, 1995), which includes a reprise of the song and several new compositions. He is joined by a drummer and his son Jor Slick, who plays guitar, and bass (sometimes fretless), and also composes. They compose separately and take turns singing lead : Darby’s vocal style is more engaged, Jor’s more detatched and floating ; both are appealing. Brief sections where a woman (Ricardo Parasol) speaks her thoughts add a layer of poignancy. The fretless guitar solos, with a distorted, treble-ly tone and much sustain, add an exotic flavor to their vigorous rock approach. Coupled with reflective lyrics, all sung in the first person, they create a dreamy soundscape fit to evoke Sandoland, an imaginary or idealized place (it seems from the lyrics of “In Another Dream”), where desert meets ocean. An intriguing album.

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s Shady Grove (Acoustic Disc ACD-21, 1996) is a superb and enchanting collection of recordings the two made in Grisman’s studio from 1990 until just before Garcia’s death in 1995. The repertoire is songs from their early 1960s folk revival days. Utilizing only acoustic instruments, they are primarily a guitar and mandolin duo (though they both play 5-string banjo on “The Sweet Sunny South,” a Civil War song recorded first on a 1927 hillbilly 78). At times they are accompanied by bass, autoharp, harmonica, fiddle, flute, or percussion. Tenderly performed, well-recorded, and beautifully packaged, Shady Grove contains traditional folk songs, including the Child Ballad No. 73 “Lord Thomas and Fair Annet” (as “Fair Ellender”), and “Jackaroo,” which Tom Paley had harmonized from words found in Cecil Sharp’s collection. Recorded sources include field recordings, Mississippi John Hurt, the Memphis Jug Band, Ewan MacColl, and A.L. Lloyd. The influence of the New Lost City Ramblers is clearly strong, making appropriate the choice of John Cohen of that band as the writer of the detailed liner notes.

 Another person affected by the New Lost City Ramblers was Peter Albin of Big Brother and the Holding Company. He said :

"I played a little bit of rock and roll in high school but not much ; I played mostly folk music. My brother and I had a band together. We started getting into folk music because of the Kingston Trio : pop folk music. It was fun and easy to do and we learned all the songs. Then we started getting into old-timey music like the New Lost City Ramblers. They were very influential, not only to us but to David Nelson, Jerry Garcia, everybody else that was around at the time. A lot of the early Berkeley groups were into that old-timey music. We also got into bluegrass music. But my brother and I stuck with old-timey music rather than go the real strict bluegrass route that Garcia and David Nelson got into : they were listening to tapes and everything, and trying to find and play with Bill Monroe." [Peter Albin, interview by the author, Lake Harmony, Pennsylvania, 10 August 1996]

Big Brother and the Holding Company’s surviving members reunited in 1987. While James Gurley has since left, Peter Albin, Sam Andrew, and Dave Getz remain from the original lineup. Joining the band are two estimable additions, guitarist Tom Finch and vocalist Lisa Battle, who shines on her own without trying to mimic Janis Joplin. The band’s Do What You Love (no label or number, 1998) is an accomplished and energetic disc representative of their performance repertoire. From their old songlist the band remakes “I Need A Man to Love” and “Women Is Losers.” These and the new songs, written by the band, show them in top form vocally and instrumentally, covering reggae, funk, and the band’s usual quirky bluesy rock style. Just for contrast, “The OK Chorale” is a brief acoustic contrapuntal interlude.

Peter Albin and Dave Getz show up on the Barry “The Fish” Melton Band’s The Saloon Years (The Saloon Recordings, SR1994CD, 1997). Also featured is John Cipollina of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Spencer Dryden of Jefferson Airplane. The CD comes from live recordings made between 1989 and 1994 at a nightclub in the bohemian North Beach area of San Francisco. Some quality bar band blues results, while the highlights include Melton’s remake of “Mojo Navigator” from his old band Country Joe and the Fish, guitarist Bobby Flurie’s take on “Harlem Nocturne,” and a 19-minute rendition of Bo Diddley’s “Mona” that meanders into some odd territory. That members of four prominent bands from the 1960s should join forces in the 1980s and 1990s underlines the community links that played such a strong role in the formation of the scene.

Country Joe McDonald’s Carry On (Shanachie 8019, 1996), is an enjoyable acoustic, primarily solo, folk album. It begins with “What Wondrous Love is This,” a traditional shape-note song with new words by William Wolff. The rest of the program is comprised of McDonald originals, and he sings of intergalactic warfare, going home, battlefield nurses, and the need to work together and to carry on. He sings a couple of blues in Delta style, and in “Trilogy” plays a solo acoustic psychedelic instrumental. Over nine minutes long, on guitar (and sometimes harmonica) McDonald incorporates “Section 43” and “Bass Strings,” two psychedelic instrumentals that were among the first pieces recorded by Country Joe and the Fish in 1965. Jerry Garcia contributes acoustic lead guitar on one track.

James Gurley, formerly of Big Brother and the Holding Company, has a new album under the name Saint James : Pipe Dreams (Big City Records, 1999). An enigmatic, quietly charismatic figure, his astonishingly intense and free guitar style helped define psychedelic music. For some reason Gurley reveals his identity on this album only in the small print, as the songwriter and vocalist, and gives the Saint James name both to himself and to his band. Whether or not he plays guitar here is unclear. Among the accompanists is his son Hongo on drums. The album has a skewered feel, partly because of the droll humour in Gurley’s lyrics, his understated vocals, and his occasional yodels. Also contributing is the unearthly choir that provides washes of sound in the background of most songs, the use of the now quaint and toy-like Casio keyboard for strings, steel guitar, and accordion sounds, and the coyote howls that run through “Cowboy Song.” In “Smoky Joe’s Cafe Pt.II” Gurley revisits the Coasters’ 1955 R&B classic, written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Social observation masquerades as left-field oddness in “Grrls in Big Shoes” (“ugly’s in, and pretty’s out, total urban combat, what’s it all about”). Reggae mysticism is at the core of “Selah !” and the world-as-playground vision of life as perceived by his son Django is expressed in “It’s a Beautiful World.” “Message From John (The Beatles are in Paris)” was inspired by a dream, and “For Nancy (Elegy)” is a touching reqium for his late wife, whose tragic death by drug overdose in 1969 was an unfortunate sign of the times. On this song, in both sentiment and style, Gurley reminds me of John Lennon.

 The lyrics Robert Hunter wrote for the Grateful Dead took them into the realm of mythic frontier Americana figures. The lyrics he penned for ex-Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s Mystery Box (Rykodisc RCD 10338, 1996) look (with the “eye of the witness” as said in “Only the Strange Remain”) at the power of love, memory, and awe, with some looking backwards and forwards. The music was composed by Hart, usually with cowriters that include Vince Welnick (the Grateful Dead’s last keyboardist) and various members of the performing ensemble such as the members of the Mint Juleps, a six-member black female vocal group from London who are featured throughout. Hart plays a variety of percussion instruments, and takes the microphone to rap the lyrics of two. One of them, “Down the Road,” a kind of eulogy for Joe Hill, Jack Kennedy, John Lennon, and Jerry Garcia, is the most musically conventional in a set that, according to the liner notes, “started out as a probe into an uncharted world of music. On the journey these songs mutated into their current forms.” The participants have created a dense, rich and fecund realm, the ambient sound of humans at music.

Robert Hunter wrote lyrics for three of the seven songs on the David Nelson Band’s Limited Edition (no label, DBB95001, 1995). One of them is a new story from the life of the legendary badman John Hardy : the tale of his wedding. Nelson, a folk and bluegrass veteran, associate of the Grateful Dead, and former member of of the New Riders of the Purple Sage, has formed an excellent quintet that plays psychedelic country rock. Almost as if to illustrate the mix, their nine-minute piece “The Wizard’s Son” is followed by the Delmore Brothers’ “Freight Train Boogie,” featuring Barry Sless’s pedal steel guitar. The rustic quality of Nelson’s voice is supported by well-crafted arrangements and masterful musicianship. They are a strong live act, and four tracks on the CD were recorded in performance at the Fillmore in San Francisco and Wetlands Preserve in New York City.



In Moby Grape’s unusual three guitar lineup, Peter Lewis was the boyish, clear-voiced finger-picking one. On his first solo album, Peter Lewis (Taxim TX 2008-2 TA, 1995), these qualities, which greatly contributed in the 1960s to my immense affection for Moby Grape, are well to the fore. The sonority on this album is warm, rich, and expansive, the product of high quality work in a digital studio in the town that Lewis resides in, to the north of Santa Barbara. The care taken in recording is matched by the lovingly crafted and performed original songs. The songs all work as compositions, as Lewis expresses moments of awareness and the pangs that come with lived experience. A sense of timelessness, from an empathic spirituality, mixes with acknowledgements of time passing, the theme of several songs, such as “Changing,” which refers to Moby Grape (“Me and some friends of mine met up in San Francsico way/ Went out to sound the call in every house and hall where they let our music play”), and “Pictures of the Past,” illustrated in the booklet by a photograph of a teenage Lewis in the surf band the Cornells. Several of Lewis’s evocative paintings are reproduced in the booklet alongside appropriate song lyrics.

 Full of vocal harmonies, this is rock orchestrated by rock veterans, ones that know the worth of a song and how to bring it out. The album has a cohesive feel, while calling in sections of folk blues guitar, darting flutes, flamenco guitar, old-timey banjo, celtic fiddle, the Byrds, and hot rock and roll sax. Lewis, while playing a rhythm and finger-style guitar, is accompanied by a gang that includes bassist Stu Cook from Creedence Clearwater Revival and two ex-Doobie Brothers, Cornelius Bumpus (sax and flute), and John McFee (guitars, violin, harmonica, mandolin, pedal steel), who has also recorded with Van Morrison and Elvis Costello. “Sitting By the Window,” the only remake on the CD, is conceived afresh, and stands alongside the stunning version on the first Moby Grape album, considered by Rolling Stone magazine and diehard fans to be one of the era’s most nearly perfect. In the large box of Moby Grape artifacts from then to now, Peter Lewis is the other jewel. It’s that good.

Another guitarist from Moby Grape is Jerry Miller, whose confident blues rock lead guitar lines can be heard on Live at Cole’s (Owl Wood Records OWRDC001, 1998), an edition limited to 1000 signed copies. The CD records one night (January 16, 1997) at Cole’s Tavern in Ruston, Washington, near Tacoma, where Jerry Miller is joined by three different lineups of musicians for a “musical romp through time.” The first session features his father, Jerry Miller, Sr., playing standards on piano-“Deep Purple” (1939), “St. Louis Blues” (1914), and “Bye Bye Blues” (1930)-and an original boogie woogie number. To his father’s rugged playing, Miller adds a few jazzy lines and comping chords, indicating from where he gets his jazz influence. Moving from the ambience of home music making, the next set of players (Miller’s usual band), shifts gears into blues territory with lots of room for Miller to stretch out on the solos accompanied by organ, bass, and drums. Miller’s gruff lead singing is featured on one piece, and the other three are instrumentals. One is Bill Doggett’s influential “Honky Tonk,” which hit #2 on the pop charts in 1956, and which Miller recorded also in 1978 on the Live Grape album. Live at Cole’s most noteworthy tune is Horace Silver’s “Greasy Piece,” a modal jazz number that involves a tempo shift. Here Miller handily shows his fluid style, incorporating octave licks. The final combination of musicians involves a larger contigent. Most interesting are the two tunes sung by guitarist “Billy Blue” Graham : “Junko Partner,” the New Orleans second-line shuffle, and Graham’s own “Hiway 410 Blues,” a spooky and effective minor-key item. In all, Live at Cole’s, aside from the excellent Horace Silver tune, is as an interesting but nonessential document of music making within a community.

Horace Silver in particular and modal jazz in general show up on three recent CDs by Gary Duncan, formerly of Quicksilver Messenger Service. That band’s other guitarist, the late John Cippolina, has received more acclaim, but Duncan is also a fine player with an individual style. Duncan, of the surviving members of the band, is apparently the only one still active as a recording or performing artist. Operating under the name Quicksilver, Duncan has released Shape Shifter (Pymander P-007, 1996), a double CD studio set that includes Silver’s “Nica’s Dream” as one of its few non-Duncan compositions, and two live albums. Both Live at Field Stone (Captain Trip Records CTCD-071, 1997) “Live” at Sweetwater (Pymander 009, 1999). include Horace Silver’s “Señor Blues” and Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Among Gary Duncan’s longtime collaborators are keyboardist Michael Lewis, bassist Bobby Vega of the still-active San Francisco band Zero (that once included John Cipollina), and drummer Greg Errico, formerly of Sly and the Family Stone. All three albums include “Close Enuf for Jazz” which could sum up the band’s attitude to that side of their repertoire : these are tunes for improvising upon, which they do in lenghty versions, thus keeping alive one of the major components of San Francisco psychedelia. Besides the jazz influence, they get into the blues (“Hoochie Coochie Man” on Shape Shifter), and funk, but most prominent is Duncan’s sardonic humour and free-range approach to music style. Quicksilver sounds very little like Quicksilver Messenger Service, but listeners who can accept a new version and vision will appreciate the idiosyncratic world of Gary Duncan and his cronies.

 Decades after the fading of the heyday of the Haight-Ashbury hippie and the psychedelic ballroom circuit, veteran musicians from the scene are still performing in and out of the psychedelic style. They have an audience, partly united by magazines such as Relix, a myriad of websites, annual music festivals such as the Gathering on the Mountain in the Poconos region of Pennsylvania, and venues such as the re-opened Fillmore in San Francisco and the Wetlands Preserve in New York City. Recognition by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a wave of new books, especially since the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995 and the subsequent disbanding of the Grateful Dead at a time when they had become the top grossing touring act on the planet, have also fanned the flames, resulting in a flurry of musical activity. All signs point to its continuation, and further expressions of the music’s folk revival roots.


 Label or band contacts are given where known. Those without contact information can usually be obtained from online distributors ; try an Internet search for the recording or artist to locate them.

Big Brother and the Holding Company.

David Bennet Cohen.

Tom Constanten. Relix Records, PO Box 92, Brooklyn, NY 11229

Jerry Garcia and David Grisman. Acosutic Disc, Box 4143, San Rafael, CA 94913.

James Gurley. Big City Records, PO Box 2351, Palm Desert, CA 92261 ;

Mickey Hart. Rykodisc.

Jefferson Starship. Intersound, PO Box 1724, Roswell, Georgia 30077

Paul Kantner. Monster Sounds Records. no address listed

Jorma Kaukonen. see listing under Tom Constanten

Kingston Trio. 4747 E. Elliot Road #29-463, Phoenix, Arizona 85044 ;

Phil Lesh and Friends. Grateful Dead Records.

Peter Lewis. Taxim Records (Germany) is distributed in the US by the Mercer Group, PO Box 2458, Toluca Lake, CA 91609.

Country Joe McDonald. Shanachie Entertainment Corp. no address listed

Barry Melton. Saloon Recordings, 1232 Grant Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94133

Jerry Miller. Owl Wood Records. www.geocities/SunsetStrip/

David Nelson Band. PO Box 422 Felton, CA 95018.

Quicksilver. Pymander Records.

Darby Slick/ Sandoland. see listiing under Peter Lewis

Mike Wilhelm. PSF Records, 03-3322-4461 Terada Bldg. 2F, 2-45-11 Matsubara, Setagaya-Ku, Tokyo, Japan


 Cantwell, Robert. “When We Were Good.” Ed. Neil V. Rosenberg. Transforming Tradition : Folk Music Revivals Examined. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1993 : 35-60.

 - - - . When We Were Good : The Folk Revival. Cambridge, Massachusetts : Harvard University Press, 1996.

 Hoskyns, Barney. Beneath the Diamond Sky : Haight-Ashbury 1965-1970. London : Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997.

 MacKay, Ian. The Quest of the Folk : Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia. Montreal : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1994.” Helen Creighton and the Rise of Folklore" : 43-151.

 Marcus, Greil. Invisible Republic : Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes. New York : Owl Books (Henry Holt and Company), 1997.

 Morrison, Craig. “Psychedelic Music in San Francisco : Style, Context, and Evolution." Montreal, Canada : Concordia University Ph.D. (Humanities) thesis, 2000.

 Palao, Alex. liner notes to The Charlatans (Big Beat CD 1996) : 11.

 Rosenberg, Neil V. “Named System Revivals.” Ed. Neil V. Rosenberg. Transforming Tradition : Folk Music Revivals Examined. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1993 : 178-182.

 Sculatti, Gene and Davin Seay. San Francisco Nights : The Psychedelic Music Trip, 1965-1968. London : Sidgwick & Jackson, 1985.

 Selvin, Joel. Summer of Love : The Inside Story of LSD, Rock and Roll, Free Love and High Times in the Wild West. New York : Plume, 1995.

 Wenner, Jann. “Eric Clapton.” The Rolling Stone Interviews, compiled by the Editors of Rolling Stone. New York : Paperback Library, 1972.


"I have just stumbled across your excellent "The Folk Roots of SF Psychedelic Music", whilst looking for info on James Gurley’s "Pipe Dreams" album, and thought that I had to make contact to say just how much I enjoyed reading it. It was certainly very informative and has pushed me into pursuing a few CDs that I had no idea existed." - GW, United Kingdom

is an ethnomusicologist, teacher, author, and musician
based in Montreal, Quebec, Canada
7 Nights Music Communications, 2006