By 1966, rock bands began playing in large public arenas, starting with Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco and then moving on to the Fillmore and Avalon Ballrooms and Winterland. Many believed that San Francisco Bay Area rock bands played “acid rock” as something entirely new; that it floated out from the psychedelic ether fully formed as a new genre. Most members of the rock bands, however, came to it with roots already buried deep in traditional forms. They immersed themselves in folk music, world music, blues, jug bands, bluegrass, rhythm and blues and jazz in the rich musical hotbed of the San Francisco Bay Area.
THE TRANSITION OF TRADITIONAL GENRES INTO ROCK MUSIC – AND SOMETIMES BACK, ACCORDING TO BOB WEIR
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead explained his views of the transition of traditional music into rock while we sat on the deck of his home one sunny afternoon.
“The technology had arrived at the point where it was time to start electrifying all that stuff. It was not not going to not happen. There was the traditionalist purist reaction to Dylan, for instance, when he first started to play. ‘What, is he not going to go there? Is this stuff too precious to fuck with?’ We were going to fuck with anything that we could. That was the name of the game. Improvisation.
“We had plenty of years to get back to our traditional roots if that was where we were going to eventually end up. Within a very few years of the Haight-Ashbury, Jerry Garcia had convened “Old and In the Way,” and they played traditional Bluegrass. It was not like we were up crumpling our traditional roots and tossing them, we were just playing them, just like Buddy Bolden did back in early New Orleans and the school of music that eventually landed in Louis Armstrong’s lap. They took a bunch of scales and rhythms that people had been playing on very, very funky instruments, if they had instruments at all, and started playing them on brass instruments with drums. That kind of stuff became Dixieland or New Orleans Jazz. It’s the exact same process that we did. New technology is applied to a tradition, and it landed you a new form. We were part of that process. It’s natural. It’s unavoidable.
“Chicago blues had done the same thing just a few years before we got around to it. And rock and roll for that matter. A lot of the stuff that rock and roll musicians were playing was boogie woogie or big band riffs with different instrumentation and a slightly different rhythm overlay. Johnny Johnson, Chuck Berry’s old piano player did that.
“Little Richard, most particularly, was one of a group of guys who actually came up with the whole concept—yeah, it was a concept—of rock and roll. They were playing straight against dotted time or straight against shuffle time. There was a hardness to it and there was a softness to it. There was a roll. Rock and roll. And it only lasted a few years and then it evolved into rock. There are very few bands that can play rock and roll. Ratdog [Weir’s current band] can play rock and roll. The Grateful Dead could play rock and roll. But not many bands even know what it is. They say rock and roll, but they don’t know what they’re talking about. I didn’t really know what I was talking about, I didn’t really know what rock and roll was until I spent a couple of years playing with Johnny Johnson. Then I knew what rock and roll was about.”
I asked Weir, “What do you mean when you say ‘rock and roll?’”
“It’s a shuffle against straight time, specifically. It’s a feel, a rhythmic feel with a harmonic overlay. There’s a certain kind of harmonic overlay that works best with that rhythmic feel. The old Chuck Berry tunes. Little Richard. That’s rock and roll. ‘Tutti Frutti’: that’s rock and roll. ‘Johnny B. Goode’: that’s rock and roll. Half the band is playing a shuffle and half the band is playing straight time.
I don’t think it was actually something people were consciously doing. Somebody just found that feel. Johnny Johnson I think was the guy. And I think Little Richard might have heard him doing that. Because Johnny Johnson was about ten years older than Little Richard, I think probably Little Richard picked it up from him. Or he might have not have directly picked it up; it might have made a Chitlin’ Circuit loop around to Little Richard. And that was rock and roll.
“Then there was rockabilly, which was a little different. They called it rock and roll, and that’s where the line got blurred: when they started calling rockabilly rock and roll. They figured, rock and roll is basically electric kid’s music, and they rounded the definition of rock and roll off to mean more stuff that it actually originally meant. When musicians were talking about rock and roll back in the late fifties they were talking about a specific thing.”
Peter Albin, bass player in Big Brother and the Holding Company told me, “Rock and roll is not for the intellectuals. Folk music at one point was kind a thing for intellectuals. I think it’s because with the folk music scene that we came out of that it was a little more creative, a little more esoteric.
“During the folk days we played at radio station KPFA. I remember going up to ‘The Midnight Special’[a show featuring folk music that began at midnight]. with Ron McKernan [later Pigpen of the Grateful Dead] and some of his black friends in a funky car that had the windows all broken and the glass everywhere. It was crazy. Ron was drinking out of a brown paper bag.
“The Midnight Special is where I first met Janis. She was sitting beside me in this big, round robin kind of situation in the studio with the big microphone right in the middle. That wasn’t a time when Ron was there, but I figured that Ron had known her also from some of the coffee houses. She was up here in ’64, ’65. at the Cabale [a Berkeley folk music club].
“A lot of the folk music, particularly in Berkeley, was politically-oriented. Country Joe came from the political sort of thing and folk music. So did Barry Melton. They came from radical families. There was a difference between the San Francisco scene and rock and roll musicians and the musicians in Berkeley. You always got the impression that they were hipper than thou. They were always trying to do tricky things. So Jerry Garcia kind of got into it, although he would never admit to it, a competitive spirit with some of the Berkeley people who always seemed to be on top of things, on top of the trends of music — bringing out these songs that were so, ‘That was done in 1932 by Poppa John Creach on Okeh Records, number 52605.’ So Jerry Garcia started playing banjo, really difficult stuff. He knew those old-timey songs.”
John Cipollina said in San Francisco Nights that, because he was playing rock and roll electric guitar, “I was ostracized from the local folk scene, completely blackballed. Barbara Dane was the only folkie who would let me play with her. . . . Playing electric guitar was really just another way of saying fuck. It was an unwritten law; it’s okay to play rock & roll until you were eighteen; after that it was folk.”
Dan Hicks began his career in the folk music scene. He told me, “I had been playing drums since junior high, some dance drums, rock and roll and swing. I joined the union when I was seventeen. I got interested in guitar at San Francisco State, strumming and singing, learning chords and simple songs. I started going to hootenannies, open mic-type things, during the folk boom. I lived at one point walking distance to the Coffee Gallery in North Beach, and sang there. I also sang at Coffee and Confusion on Union St. I was bummed that Union Street places were charging forty cents for beer! I gradually started getting gigs. I have a scrapbook where I played in San Jose, which says, ‘fine blues singer.’ I’ve had a lot of labels through the years. I say I’m kind of a folk-jazz guy, folk-swing. I did appear at the San Francisco Folk Festival in ’66. I wasn’t one of the first people to play professionally on the folk scene. Marty Balin [of the Jefferson Airplane] already was there.”
Peter Albin told me, “I think the folk musicians were more open to all different kinds of music. They structured it into rock. The cover band guys were just out there to play high school dances or small clubs and weren’t really interested. The only other bands that I would say that were different were some that started being influenced by the English: The Beau Brummels, the Vejtables and the Mojo Men, and they started writing their own songs, particularly the Beau Brummels. To me they were like the American Beatles, they really had those close harmonies the Beatles had.”
I was introduced to jug bands during my late night conversations with KYA DJ Tommy Saunders. My first foray to the Fillmore was to hear the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.
Musicologist Revell Carr wrote, “The American jug band scene was similar to the British ‘skiffle’ scene that gave birth to the Beatles. The jug bands of the early Sixties, most notable of which was Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band, were inspired by a musical style that had come primarily out of Memphis, Tennessee in the 1920s and ‘30s. Jug bands of the Twenties were known for using household items like washboards, jugs, and teapots as musical instruments, playing a high-energy, bluesy, comic style that was very popular among black audiences in the Twenties and among white college students in the Fifties and Sixties. These folk revivalists of the post-Rock and Roll era were clearly attracted to the stripped-down rawness of the jug band sound, which stood in stark contrast to the refined folk sound of singers like Burl Ives or the Kingston Trio.”
The Los Angeles blues/rock band, Canned Heat, began as a jug band. The Lovin’ Spoonful called their style ‘jug-rock.’ John Sebastian had been a member of the Even Dozen Jug Band. The name, “Lovin’ Spoonful” comes from a line in a Mississippi John Hurt song, “Coffee Blues.”
Geoff Muldaur of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band told me dryly, “John Sebastian tried out for the jug band, but he had to form the Lovin’ Spoonful and collect royalties.”
Muldaur said, “People are realizing the cultural effects of the jug band—Fritz [Richmond, of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band] was the key figure of what was hip. We were the acoustic precursor of the Grateful Dead. We didn’t have much effect on the San Francisco scene in terms of drugs—they were perfectly capable of doing that on their own. But in terms of musical stylings and stage approach we did. We were anti-show biz, and it had an effect.
“The jug band was a very pure thing. It was incorruptible. It was okay to be impromptu and natural and not have a schtick. When we first went to Los Angeles a man came backstage after hearing us and said, ‘You guys are terrific! I really like the no schtick schtick.’ Everybody had schticks—all the folkies had schticks.”
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead told me, “I sort of took jug band music for granted. I had just turned sixteen, I was already playing with Jerry Garcia, and his parents had a collection of old Bluebird recordings, what they called “race records,” old jazz, old blues and jug band records: the old, original stuff. We already had our jug band going. The big jug bands were fairly scholarly about what they were doing. I just stumbled into this stuff that would have taken them weeks or years to pry out of the Library of Congress or whatever; I just tripped over this shit. I brought it back to Jerry’s house and we listened to it. Eureka! We had our own repertoire. And it was the real stuff. We didn’t analyze it. We just played the music just naturally, the way those guys did.
“As the years go by and you go back and listen to the stuff, a pattern emerges and your realize that this is where funk came from. Jug band music is where funk comes from. The jug bands came from the riverboats. They were the minstrel bands. But it was the same rhythms and the same scales that they’re playing now, that Bootsy Collins was playing back in the Seventies and Eighties, and George Clinton was doing. It’s the same scales, the same rhythms; it’s just electrified. Listen to the bass on the funk records, then go back to the jug band records and listen to the bass instrument there, which is a jug. They’re doing the same thing. They’re floating and nailing the groove on the back half or whatever. It’s a different approach, but they’re the same grooves.”
The Grateful Dead would go on to include old jug band songs in their repertoire, notably “Minglewood Blues,” by Noah Lewis of Gus Cannon’s Uptown Jug Champions. They played it 400 times in concert over the span of their existence.
Dennis McNally told me, “Going back at least to the turn of the century, one way you can tell the source of American culture, starting with Mark Twain, is watching white American artists make the discovery that the richest, most fertile place in America is African-American culture; learning from it and translating their own lives through that lens.”
Most of the San Francisco rock musicians were greatly influenced by blues. Some entered the arena calling themselves blues bands. Santana started out as the Santana Blues Band, and Steve Miller debuted as the Steve Miller Blues Band.
Peter Albin said, “A lot of these people who were involved in the Berkeley Folk Music Festival: Mance Lipscomb, Lightning Hopkins, and some of the more acoustic types. There were some great people are around. Lowell Fulson lived in Oakland. Charles Brown also lived in Oakland. I mean like, treasures.”
I was first exposed to blues through acoustic “country blues” musicians at the Berkeley Folk Festivals. Mane Lipscomb played when I was a child, I heard Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee and Mississippi John Hurt at the 1964 festival when I was thirteen, and Mississippi Fred McDowell at the 1965 festival when I was fourteen. I was stunned and inspired by their music, as were dozens of budding musicians.
Starting in 1967, Chicago-style blues musicians playing electric instruments began to appear in San Francisco. This was largely thanks to the band that initially turned on the San Francisco area to Chicago blues: the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. It was a mixed-race group of stellar musicians featuring Paul Butterfield on vocals and harmonica, Michael Bloomfield on lead guitar and Elvin Bishop on second guitar, Mark Naftalin on keyboards and seasoned Chicago musician Sam Lay on drums. The younger members where white. As teenagers they were inspired by the great Chicago black musicians, and obsessively hung out in South Side clubs to hear and learn from them.
The Paul Butterfield Blues Band had one eponymous album out before they came to San Francisco. It was high on the radar of young musicians. I had been turned on to it by DJ Tommy Saunders during our conversations on the request line. I couldn’t wait to see them play live. They came to San Francisco at a time when the rock musicians had recently switched from acoustic instruments to electric ones. But Michael Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop had already been playing electric guitars for years. They became mentors to the San Francisco music scene, and also turned on many to the great, older Chicago musicians.
Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead was quoted in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues, “I became a big fan of Mike Bloomfield when that first Butterfield Blues Band record came out. Not only did he up the musicianship in the San Francisco scene, he was a heavy influence on that, but he was also sort of a teacher because we’d all go and watch him, and learn how he was doing some of the things that he was doing, making some of those wonderful sounds. Within about six months everybody copped all his licks and stuff like that, so he was certainly a big influence on the San Francisco scene.”
Jorma Kaukonen, who had been exposed to acoustic blues artists Mississippi John Hurt and Reverend Gary Davis while in New York, commented, “They were the first young virtuousos to come and play here that I’d actually seen. I’d seen the great ones like BB King, but this was the first I’d seen of gurus who were more or less in my age bracket that were world-class players, and it was really inspirational. When Michael [Bloomfield] first came to San Francisco, for some reason, he befriended me. I had just started to play with the Jefferson Airplane, and I’d never played electric guitar before, really. He showed me how to bend notes, and to feedback and sustain things, and I was really thrilled.”
When the Paul Butterfield Blues Band began to play at Bill Graham’s venues, they convinced him to hire bluesmen such as B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Howlin’ Wolf, James Cotton, Junior Wells and other greats on the blues scene.
Bill Graham is quoted in Michael Bloomfield: If You Love These Blues as saying, “He [Mike Bloomfield] and just a couple of other people were really my teachers, as far as who influenced their music and who they thought I should bring into the Bay Area, to expose to the predominantly white audience that came to rock & roll shows.”
Graham hired Big Mama Willie Mae Thornton, who was living in Oakland. The original singer of “Hound Dog” before Elvis Presley made it a hit, she was playing in small clubs, and had a hard time getting an audience even there. I found a tiny classified ad in a 1966 edition of the San Francisco Oracle that said, “FREE 2 for 1 admission COUPON for Both/And Mama Thornton concert; see this newspaper.” Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company would go on to make her song, “Ball and Chain,” a national sensation. Thornton wrote down the lyrics for Janis and James Gurley after they heard her sing it at the Both/And, but later felt resentful when the band’s version catapulted Janis to fame.
Pigpen, the stage name of Ron McKernan, was a blues fan who gave the early Grateful a heavy blues and rhythm and blues slant. He came by it honestly; his father had been a rhythm and blues dj in the 1950s. It was always a high point for me when the Grateful Dead performed and Pigpen would come up to the front of the stage and sing “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,” a blues standard first recorded by John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson in 1937. The song would be featured on the Grateful Dead’s first album.
Peter Albin told me, “Ron [McKernan, Pigpen] had this fantastic collection of music to draw from. He’d come around and play some of these songs, not on a record player, but he’d play them. He’d learn them. Incredible. And he was fifteen years old and I was maybe seventeen and he was a wealth of knowledge. A real nice guy too.
“You know, a lot of people were turned off by him because he looked so, I don’t want to say dirty. My parents thought so, but he looked threatening to some people because he had this jacket with medals and stuff and that funny cap. He looked like a biker dude. Sometimes Ron would come over to my house and my parents would go, ‘Oooo, he’s creepy. Shit. I mean, he looks like crap.’ But he’d sit down at our piano and start playing. Sometimes there’d be pianos at parties and he’d play Jimmy Reed songs and Chicago blues.”
Pigpen and Janis Joplin were great friends, spreading their love of blues to their bands and others.
Blues critic Craig Ruskey told me, “Lots of blues people were pissed off at the rock musicians who recorded their songs. I won’t say that all of them felt that way because guys like Muddy Waters would offer gratitude to the rockers putting blues artists in front of kids who might not otherwise know of them.
“Statesboro Blues” by Blind Willie McTell, was first recorded in1928. The Youngbloods and Taj Mahal covered it in 1967 and The Allman Brothers made it into rock classic. The Grateful Dead picked up, and Cream recorded “Sitting on Top of the World,” first put on record by the Mississippi Sheiks in the 1920s. “Chauffeur Blues” by Memphis Minnie is on the Jefferson Airplane’s debut album.
Moby Grape put out a single of “Mr. Blues” in 1967. And the list goes on.
ROOTS OF IMPROVISATION: INDIAN MUSIC
Indian music appealed to rock musicians, with its irregular times, its improvisational character, its mood-altering abilities and its basis as a spiritual practice for musicians and listeners alike. The exploratory, improvisational character of jazz could be expanded to new levels by incorporating Indian timings, instruments and chords. The aesthetic of Indian music, with its expansive quality and its unfamiliar melodies were psychedelic in the sense of breaking boundaries and opening up new frontiers. The sensuality of the music fit psychedelic sensibilities.
Mickey Hart, drummer for the Grateful Dead, transformed his musical style when he learned from an Indian tabla player to overlay different times.
Sam Andrew of Big Brother and the Holding Company told me, “The band combined Northern and Southern Indian music with jazz, folk, North African Arab music and flamenco into rock music.”
Jorma Kaukonen said to music journalist Ralph J. Gleason, “I think what’s influenced me more than almost anything else is . . .the vina player in the Nonesuch Music of South India records, ‘cause he had the tonalities out of the instruments, that kind of a sound that you can get out of an electric guitar. . . .The weird twangy sounds and lots of funny picking times and stuff like that and so that really influenced me a lot.”
Even blues musicians were seduced by Indian melodies. The Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s Mike Bloomfield and Mark Nafatalin composed “East-West,” melding of blues and Indian sensibilities, while under the influence of LSD. The band played the long piece improvisationally in concerts, and it gained especially widespread attention when they performed it at the Fillmore Auditorium. Eventually the band would record one version for the ages on their second album, East-West.
Indian music got a major boost in the Bay Area when the revered sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan, opened the “Ali Akbar College of Music” in Berkeley in 1967. People could take formal classes in a variety of Indian instruments. I sat in on a tabla class when the school first opened. It was held in a borrowed classroom. The Indian tabla player was thrown a little off-base by a particularly spaced-out hippie in the class. I can recite the rhythm cycle the instructor taught to this day. The school eventually moved to a permanent home in Marin County.
FREEDOM: ANYONE CAN PLAY!
It was the whole energy that was being transmitted, not necessarily that they were great musicians.
— Chris Johnson
Songs and lyrics soared high and free, cut loose from the three-minute limit of Top Forty airplay and 45 RPM singles. Lyrics could be poetic word-play, resonances and dissonances knitted together by the most ethereal webs of marijuana smoke or the dreamtime anti-logic of psychedelia. What was once a short instrumental bridge could be stretched out into a twenty-minute improvisatory jam session. Heck, it could go on for an hour if the vibration was right. What was time anyway? It was merely a boundary imposed by an uptight world enslaved by the nine-to-five, wristwatch chain gang. These were lyrics and notes guided by inner experience.
Rock bands, particularly in the Bay Area, took to performing highly improvisational sets and spontaneous jam sessions, sometimes stringing a series of extension cords from houses across the street from Golden Gate Park’s Panhandle to plug in their electric guitars and amplifiers for stealth concerts on the spur of the moment. Two flatbed trucks parked end-to-end comprised a spontaneous stage.
In the beginning, no one knew which of the bands would later become famous. San Francisco Bay area people felt familial with them. They were our people. Musicians could stroll through the audiences and receive little attention other than being handed a joint by a friendly stoner or casually chatting with people. For a time, everything was wide open for anyone who wanted to play.
Country Joe McDonald told me, “Music has been a big part of my life since I was young. My music had a political element to it and was verbally expressive of the times. No one was making any money—money wasn’t a part of the mix. We were unknown, playing for free in ’66, ’67. Even the radio airplay was on stations that nobody listened to. Almost no one listened to the stations. It was a very small scene here in the Bay Area. The shows—there was plenty of room to dance around at the shows—they were never sold out, even at Fillmore and Winterland. Shows started selling out in 1968. You could lie on the floor and watch the whole show, there was that much room. Very relaxed. You were part of a small group. The scene wasn’t happening for the mainstream people—it was an underground, which seems incomprehensible now. We played in venues in Berkeley at the Jabberwocky coffeehouse for thirty-five people.”
Sam Andrew told me, “At first, everyone could be a musician. First, everybody was feeling that in the room, then some people stood up and played. You had the feeling that anyone could stand up and play as well as anyone else. The musicians were created out of the mass. The Charlatans were the first psychedelic band and they couldn’t play, except for Dan Hicks. They couldn’t really play music. It was a freeing feeling that anyone could play.”
“I don’t think anyone realizes how amateurish we all were when we started in San Francisco bands. I was the only one who played professionally before Big Brother. We played “Summertime” because it was easy. “In the Midnight Hour” had two chords. A simple song like “Summertime” can carry anything.”
David Freiberg, bass player for the Quicksilver Messenger Service told me, “I never played bass before.”
Peter Albin told me, “How I got into bass is that I basically did a lot of bass runs on guitar. And I played electric guitar every once in a while. Sometimes I did some stuff with Ron McKernan, some blues. When we started having jam sessions is when I got myself an electric bass. It was a crummy Japanese bass. And I don’t even know what kind of amplifier we had. It was terrible, like most of the stuff was then. It was cheap, sounded poorly. But I became a bass players simply because these groups would come in and they didn’t have a bass player. So I just started learning how to do it, just remembering the bass runs that I had learning in bluegrass and old timey music. So I was kind of faking it.
“George Hunter [of the Charlatans] couldn’t play an instrument if you paid him. He tried playing the autoharp and sometimes was on beat with a tambourine but he was more into trying to get that pop scene happening at San Francisco State College and San Francisco.
“Jerry Garcia had his own clique in the beginning. He was really a perfectionist. He spent most of his time tuning. People in the audience would be saying, ‘Hey, come on. Tune that thing!’ and he’d say, ‘Hey! This is for you.’ They’d yell, ’You’ve gone on for like five minutes tuning!’
Ron Barnett, who managed the Loading Zone told me, we didn’t know how to get a singer. So we ran an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle: “We want a chick singer who is out of sight.” We got one other response from an older woman who called and asked, “By out of sight do you mean that I have to sing from behind a curtain?”
As with most innovations and innovators, later the whole music scene would have structure. The musicians became more skilled, and those who weren’t really serious musicians would float away into something else. A handful of musicians would start making money, some would gain international fame. But at the beginning, playing in the parks, at house parties, smaller clubs and venues and even in the bigger leagues at the Fillmore, Avalon and Winterland it was a glorious free-for-all for anyone who wanted to play music.