Arts & Events

An Evening With Bruce Barthol and a Work in Progress:
The story of his life in the songs he’s written

Conn Hallinan
Thursday February 25, 2016 - 03:40:00 PM

It could have been a night of nostalgia. The Art House Gallery & Culture Center on Shattuck is covered with ‘60s kitsch, photos of demonstrators facing down cops, and rock posters from Avalon and the Fillmore. Bruce Barthol kicked off the evening of the sold out event with “Country Joe & the Fish’s” anti-war classic “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” but Barthol does not do memory lane, he does politics, the more current the better. 

Barthol, the original bass player for “The Fish,” and long-time music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, takes the audience on an odyssey both political and physical. As the child of academics his family bounced around from Berkeley to Pennsylvania, Los Angeles, Spain, and finally landing him in Berkeley on the eve of the Free Speech Movement (FSM) in 1964. 

As he jumped from place to place he gathered ideas and experiences that eventually translated into songs. It was encountering Christian fundamentalists in Pennsylvania in 1953 that would ultimately give birth to “We are the Army of the Righteous,” from the Mime Troupe’s 1981“Fact Wino Meets the Moral Majority.” The play, a hilarious but searing indictment of the religious right, won the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Circle’s Award for best production and music. 

The “evening” merges song and place. Hence a version of “The Old Chisholm Trail” is part of the family’s move back East across the physical and cultural desert of Utah (“There wasn’t much on the radio back then, so we sang all the way”). The move to Spain during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco is illustrated by is own Spanish civil war songs. 

Barthol moves through his early life rather quickly to bring the story to 1964 and his arrival at the University of California at Berkeley in time for the FSM upheaval. Barthol clearly doesn’t forget things. He used his five decade-old experiences and memories with the FSM to create songs for a Joan Holden play written for the 50th anniversary of the FSM. Indeed, one of the evening’s best tunes is one that captures the fear and courage of the students waiting to be arrested in UC’s Sproul Hall.  

He weaves biography throughout the performance, including his battles with the draft, and his years in England that gave him some relief from the madness at home, a journey, he says, that took him “from the land of the psychotic to the land of the neurotic.”  

He gives brief historical sketches about each movement he traverses: free speech, the farm workers’ fight for union representation, the hostage crisis in Iran (including a lovely song on the Shah), and the arrival of Ronald Reagan—“Mordor was awakening and Hell was coming.” There are stories and songs about Central America, the military industrial complex, the de-industrialization of the U.S., the energy crisis, Israelis and Palestinians, and migrant workers, the latter accompanied by a catchy tune, “Star Ferry.” 

Each of these moments in history has its story and its song, and Barthol is careful to not get bogged down in too much detail or too many verses. He is also a funny guy, so when he talks about the troubles in Northern Ireland, there is an Irish joke. When he talks about his time in Europe banging around with different bands, there is a German joke.  

The underlying message, however, is straight out of Bertolt Brecht: the purpose of art is to make revolution. Which doesn’t mean you can’t be funny. Indeed, humor is one of the most powerful tools in politics, and Barthol knows exactly how to wield it. He is—as one suspects Brecht was—driven to do what he does. “I write songs,” he told the audience, “because I have to write them.” And then underlines the point with a catchy “Taking a cakewalk to Baghdad” summarizing the litany of U.S. foreign policy disasters over the past decade. 

Barthol covers a lot of ground, in large part because there is so much to write about, and so many lessons one can learn from looking back. The idea, however, is to mine the passions and experiences of the past and retool them for moment. Early in the “story,” Barthol sings the “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” that a substantial portion of the audience knew by heart. But after a few verses, the song shifted from Vietnam to Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places that mothers can have their “boys come home in a box.” 

The “story” is headed for Ireland next, but Barthol will almost certainly bring it back to the U.S. and the Bay Area. When he does, buy a ticket and get ready for an evening of memory and politics, and why you can’t do the latter will without the former. 

Conn Hallinan