Best known as the original bass player for Country Joe and the Fish, Bruce has also played and/or recorded with The San Francisco Mime Troupe, Ronnie Gilbert, Barbara Dane, Pete Seeger, Rosalie Sorrells, Ralph McTell, the Greenbriar Boys, Roy Harper, Formerly Fat Harry, East Bay Sharks, Scoop Nisker, The Energy Crisis, Barrett Nelson, Nina Gerber, Laurie Lewis, Barbara Higby, Paul Dresher, Danny Kalb, Joe McDonald, Ozay Fecht, Dred Scott, Muziki Roberson, Dave Getz, The Original Country Joe Band, Phil Marsh, Will Scarlett, David Bennett Cohen, Greg Douglass, Roy Blumenfeld, The Former Members, Moonlight Rodeo and The Gary Salzman Experience.
Bruce was the resident songwriter for the Tony Award winning San Francisco Mime Troupe for over three decades. His songs have been recorded by Country Joe and the Fish, the SF Mime Troupe, The Human Condition, Ozay Fecht, the Edlos, the Funky Nixons and The Original Country Joe Band.
Bruce Barthol & Greg Douglass
Bruce has written for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, Borderlands Theatre (Tucson), the Working Theatre (NYC), the Curious Theatre (Denver), San Francisco State University, University of Colorado (Boulder), Stanford University, University of Denver, Make-A-Circus, ACT, Arts Council of West Berlin, Intersection of the Arts (SF), Madison Federation of Labor AFL-CIO( Wisconsin), the Dick and Dubya Show, ODC- San Francisco, Stagebridge, Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, as well as over 35 productions with the SF Mime Troupe. He was a Harburg Scholar at NYU/Tisch where he received an MFA.
He received two Best Original Score Awards from the SF Bay Drama Critics Circle, a Gold Record for "Woodstock", the Media Alliance Golden Gadfly Award and was co-composer of the score for the Oscar nominated documentary "Forever Activists".
Bruce's many recordings and collaborations are listed in the Discography section - click here
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Read on for a review of Bruce's work including
his latest solo album,
"The Decline and Fall of Everything"
Bruce Barthol, apart from being the bass player for Country Joe & The Fish during the era that produced the classic albums "Electric Music For The Mind And Body", "Feel Like I'm Fixin To Die" & "Together", is not just a bass player, but a fine singer and guitarist too. After leaving Country Joe & The Fish, Bruce became a founder member of the wonderful Formerly Fat Harry. He’s also played as a sideman with some of the best including Pete Seeger, Roy Harper, Ralph McTell, The East Bay Sharks and The Green Briar Boys and has appeared on many of Joe's solo albums over the years. However, his most enduring musical activity is as musical director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for around 35 years.
Always a prolific composer, Bruce has written over 300 songs and eventually the time seemed right to finally record a solo album. All but one of the songs were written for the theatre (plays and musicals) and he rightly felt these were songs that could live outside the shows they were written for, hence Bruce’s excellent solo album,
'The Decline & Fall of Everything'.
The album was recorded in New York late this past summer after an abortive attempt in San Francisco, with the likes of Will Scarlett and Tony Marcus. ‘I didn't like what we ended up with’, says Bruce, ‘and I realised that I shouldn't produce, play and sing all at once’. Bruce headed to the East Coast to hook up with producer, musician and friend, Dred Scott, who was in the San Francisco Mime Troupe for a few years and who Bruce always hires to play with him at New York gigs. Dred offered to produce and organize the sessions in Brooklyn. Why Bruce chose not to sing in Formerly Fat Harry is a mystery on this evidence of these recordings
The album opens with ‘Steeltown Blues’, a blues rocker written in 1983 for a San Francisco Mime Troupe show called ‘Steeltown’. "The industrial shut down was in full swing under Reagan and we wanted to look at how and why it was happening" Barthol recalls. "‘We did research at the steel mill in Pittsburgh, California and with the Steelworkers Union local".
Following in a similar musical vein, ‘Nothing to Lose’ was written for ‘Mall*Mart: the Musical’ (about WallMart) which was produced in 2007 in Denver at the Curious Theatre (book by Joan Holden) and also at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
The Eastern European-flavoured ‘80-20’ comes from a play called ‘OffShore’ (S.F.M.T. and Joan Holden), about globalization. "I've been to Manila, Mexico City and Rio and that was where I got my inspiration for the lyrics" Bruce says, "Musically it has its roots in Kurt Weil - one of my faves - and probably owes something to Brecht. I also changed some lyrics and some of the music when I recorded it. The show did play Hong Kong, where some of the action took place".
‘Star Ferry’, a surprisingly romantic ballad in amongst the more political/social commentary, was a song he was asked to write for a S.F.M.T. related project in Asia called ‘Big Wind’. "They wanted an American style love song about an immigrant worker who's made it to Hong Kong and is riding on the Star Ferry. I did some research and got some descriptions from people who'd been there and wrote the song. I faxed it to Everest Postal, Kathmamdu, Nepal. They put it in the show but the actors who were mostly south Asian couldn't sing in 3/4 time so they changed it to 4/4. I went to Hong Kong with the OffShore show in '93 and met up with the ‘Big Wind’ show. That cast sang me their version as we went from Hong Kong to Kowloon on Star Ferry. (I stayed on the boat to make sure you could ride back and forth without paying again). New lyrics were added for the recording".
‘Caught In The Middle.. "A song from an as yet to be produced show called ‘1741’ about a rebellion in New York City in that year. The song really should be sung by a woman (and is in the play). It's sung by a 14 year old girl who works in a tavern frequented by poor whites and African slaves. It's a thieves den and she is caught between the police and her former friends who think she's betrayed them. I felt her situation had some universal applications".
‘Goodbye to White Deer’ is a country ballad, first heard live on K.P.I.G. Radio out of Santa Cruz, a bitter sweet lament on urban progress and the death of small communities. "I wrote this for my thesis project at New York University/Tisch School of the Arts where I got an M.F.A. in '93, the book writer was from Texas where it was set. Rural dislocation has been ongoing for the last 50 years. A line in the first verse was 'You can't live on oil when the prices keep going down' which was true at the time. I changed the line to 'You can't live on oil when there's no oil left in the ground' which is now true. I like country music".
Anyone who’s caught The Country Joe Band live will instantly recognise ‘Cakewalk To Baghdad’ a satirical ode written specifically about the stupidity of the Iraq war, one he wrote after he heard some idiot talk about "it's going to be a cakewalk."
Equally potent and funny is the honky-tonkin’ ‘The ‘Fighting Side of Jesus’. "I've written a number of songs about the fundamentalists. In the UK you have to look hard to find such nut ball insanity. I was first exposed to it when I lived in Pennsylvania in the 50's. This is an anthem for the Christian Dominionists. I believe it's a fair statement of their beliefs. Irony is a tricky thing in the USA since it requires a certain amount of knowledge. About half the population doesn't accept the theory of evolution".
In contrast, the sad, grim but ultimately uplifting ‘Badajoz’ is a description of the battle and massacre, which occurred in the town of Badajoz in Spain in 1936. It unified control of western Spain by the Nationalists who then began their drive to Madrid. It was written for ‘Spain '36’, another San Francisco Mime Troupe show that was produced at the Los Angeles Theatre Centre in 1986, the 50th anniversary of the start of the Spanish Civil War.
The album ends with ‘Empty Chair’ from a play called ‘Cages’ by Robin Karfo. It was produced at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco. "I was thinking about Polly Class, a girl who was kidnapped and murdered near here at the time. Also, my father had told me the story of the death of a cousin in the '30's and how it affected the family. I rarely perform it"
As would befit anyone who came out of that whole early 60s civil rights era, Bruce’s material oozes with razor sharp insight, social concern, deadpan humour and a cool anger, qualities absent from just about any other album you’re likely to hear. It’s heart warming to see your old heroes still doing good work – and this delivers, and still has that great militant Berkeley vibe.
Don’t forget to buy the album from Bruce at The Former Members gigs - damn, he’ll even sign it for ya!
(by Nigel Cross for Terrascope Online.)