By Willie G. Moseley
One of the most indelible images from “Woodstock,” the documentary of the legendary 1969 rock festival, is that of Country Joe & the Fish guitarist Barry Melton flashing a big grin – and a joint – at the camera just before he charges to the front of the stage with his Gibson SG Standard to launch into “Rock and Soul Music.” Of the original San Francisco-area psychedelic bands, Country Joe & the Fish was considered the most politically oriented. Most would be surprised to hear Melton doesn’t consider “psychedelic” music a genre. They might also be surprised at his chosen occupation.
Vintage Guitar: Since Country Joe & the Fish came out of Berkeley, was it obvious the band would be considered more sociopolitically oriented?
Barry Melton: Well, I guess. But I actually moved back and forth across [San Francisco] Bay a number of times during the years the band was in existence. Joe (McDonald) also lived in San Francisco for part of that period. And a lot of other people you’d think of as San Francisco bands were actually living in Marin [County]. I’m not sure who lived in the city full-time.
Talk about your background in folk music, a genre that also had its share of “commentary” songs.
I started playing guitar when I was five years old; I was born in New York. My dad was a merchant seaman, and he actually shipped out with (folk singers) Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston at some point. My parents were sort of loosely associated with what was then the musical/political scene in New York. My mom gave Ramblin’ Jack Elliott one of his first jobs. My parents wanted me to be a guitarist/writer/union organizer (laughs).
My family moved to California in 1955, and I went to school in North Hollywood. As I approached my teens, I began hanging out at a folk music club called the Ash Grove. Taj Mahal, Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder were all there; a lot of fine young players from the Los Angeles area. The place didn’t hold more than 50 or 60 people, but I saw Mother Maybelle Carter, Johnny Cash, Doc Watson, Reverend Gary Davis, and Mance Lipscomb there.
McCabe’s Guitar Shop was part of the Ash Grove when it was on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. There were also people making forays into the South and discovering blues players; at least those who were still alive.
And the forays could have tied into the original civil rights movement, to some extent.
Yes, it did. Driving down South looking for old black folks might not have been the safest thing to do.
I have a dear friend, Ed Denson, who ended up managing Country Joe & the Fish, but he also co-founded Takoma Records with John Fahey, and he founded Kicking Mule Records. When I met Ed in Southern California, he had just gone to the South and pulled out Mississippi John Hurt, Mance Lipscomb, and Bukka White. And Sam Charters was one of the early producers of blues music, and he ended up producing Country Joe & the Fish, so there was more of a connection to the blue musicologist idiom than people may realize.
What brought you to the Bay Area?
Being admitted to San Francisco State University. First thing that happened was I got hired by (soon-to-be Big Brother & the Holding Company bassist) Peter Albin to play at the San Francisco State folk music festival. I lasted about 10 weeks at San Francisco State (chuckles); I dropped out to become a full-time guitar player. In the next three or four years, I moved back and forth between Berkeley and San Francisco about ten times.
I moved into a place in Berkeley that was being rented by a guy I went to high school with, (future Fish bassist) Bruce Barthol. He was living with Paul Armstrong, who was a street guitarist who’d actually worked in Paris for a couple of years. That became the nucleus of what later on became Country Joe & the Fish, although I had other bands as well.
At one point, you and McDonald played as a duo, using the Country Joe & the Fish moniker. A lot of people might have thought “Fish” was plural, but it was just you.
Joe and I recorded a little EP in anticipation of the first teach-ins at the University of California at Berkeley concerning the Vietnam war, in the summer of ’65. There were two songs on there; it was basically a talking edition of Joe’s folk magazine called Rag Baby. There was what became known as the “Vietnam Rag,” with me and Joe and some other players from a jug band we’d been in, and the other cut was me and Joe as a duo on a song called “Superbird,” which was about LBJ.
When we put out the record, we were offered a tour of Northwest colleges by the Students for a Democratic Society. So we toured as a duo, then picked up a bass player named Richard Sanders, and ultimately, we scrapped the whole jug band thing and formed a rock band.
Was there a defining moment when you decided to go electric?
No, but I remember getting really loaded and going to see the Paul Butterfield Blues Band in Berkeley. For white guys, that was the hottest electric band in the land, without a doubt. Part of the reason they were so hot was that they were playing within an established genre, but they were playing an excellent version of what it was. The lineup was pretty terrific – (Michael) Bloomfield and Elvin Bishop on guitar, although Elvin clearly was just a rhythm guitar player back then. Sammy Lay was the drummer; Mark Naftalin on keys – he stayed in the Bay Area, and still records there.
So they were phenomenal, as was the size and the spectacle. Folk clubs were all small, and the folk music scene was real small. But it didn’t have to be large, because most folk players performed solo or as a duo, and you could still be successful.
Once you went electric, what instrument did you gravitate to?
A Gibson SG, which I play to this very day. I had a Fender amplifier, which I sort of play today, but the first Mesa-Boogie amplifier was made for me. The company began by making special-order amps for me. Prune Music was a music shop in Berkeley, and I was looking for power in a small cabinet, and they made very powerful amps in a (Fender) Princeton-size case, with four 6L6GC tubes, in sort of a Fender Twin package. They called ’em “Prune Boogies.” They started in Berkeley, then the music store moved to Mill Valley, and began making dozens of those Prune Boogies. Eventually they opened up Mesa-Boogie and began making production amplifiers.
Another band that came out of Berkeley around that time was the Steve Miller Band.
When Steve moved out west, he played harmonica with us for about a month, but I think we were too spaced out for him. We were playing music that was sort of zoned-out folk (chuckles), and the blues style had a much harder backbeat. We have a record called Live at the Fillmore West. I think it’s the last gig that (drummer) Chicken (Hirsch) and (keyboard player/guitarist) David (Cohen) did with us. Bruce had already left, so we had Jack Casady on bass, and Steve Miller, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jerry Garcia are all on that record.
Country Joe & the Fish signed with Vanguard, which was stereotyped by some as a political or “pinko” label; in the ’50s they’d signed blacklisted artists like the Weavers and Paul Robeson. Right or wrong, that would added to the band’s political image.
Yeah, but on the political rap, I guess that’s partly true; if one song in ten was political, that’s stretching it. Most of our stuff was “in the zone.” The Vanguard connection really wasn’t political, although they had political credentials. They were a legitimate and serious folk label for Joan Baez, Doc Watson, and Richard and Mimi Farina, among others. The connection was totally personal, and a legitimate choice for us. Sam Charters, our first producer, was a blues scholar, and had been recording artists for Vanguard.
So far, you’ve refrained from using the term “psychedelic” music.
Well, it was certainly a part of the era, but I guess to me it’s not really a genre. I’ve talked to folks about this in the past, and I think the “San Francisco sound” is really a folk-rock sound, in all fairness, and if drugs had an influence on the sound, it was to push it over into the improvisational side of things, very much in the manner of jazz or blues. But it took those kind of jazz or blues liberties and sensibilities to push folk music into the improvisational zone. You’ve got to understand that different people chose different idioms during the folk music movement of the early ’60s, and for me, it was the blues.
“Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” wasn’t a Top 40 hit, but it got a lot of airplay on what was termed underground radio back then. Were you aware of the emergence of such alternative radio formats?
Yeah; in those days there was an explosion of small FM stations, because it was still possible for people of modest means to put together a radio station. FM was not commercial; it was very un-commercial, and not only did a lot of college radio stations start out then but so did a lot of small alternative stations.
Almost all of the San Francisco bands – especially the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and us – became “album bands,” rather than bands whose careers were tied to top-selling singles. Electric Music for the Mind and Body, which “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine” was on, stayed on the Billboard charts for the better part of two years, at a time when was only one real Billboard chart.
It’s interesting – I heard some musicologist on TV when George Harrison died, and he was talking about how when the Beatles were big, there was one Billboard chart, but nowadays, all music is niche-marketed and there seem to be twenty different kinds of charts. That’s what made the Beatles so powerful. I come from that era of the music business where if you sold a lot, it was looked at as sort of an across-the-board sweep; it wasn’t niche-marketed.
That song is in the boxed set of live tracks from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, but an instrumental, “Section 43”, is what Country Joe & the Fish performed in the D.A. Pennebaker film Monterey Pop. One writer claimed “Section 43” was influenced by “Hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt suite.
(pauses) Big Brother played “Hall of the Mountain King” as an instrumental in concert, but I don’t think “Section 43” had anything to do with Peer Gynt. It did draw from John Fahey’s music; sort of in distinct movements. We were looking for sort of a certain spatiality to the music, and a sort of airiness that would appeal to someone who was trying to expand their consciousness with chemical substances (chuckles).
As the band grew in popularity and you began playing bigger venues, how did you upgrade your equipment?
Well, this was “the era of the bad P.A.” (laughs). A P.A. was really measured by the number of McIntosh amplifiers you had, and the amount of Voice of the Theatre speakers; it was not a very refined exercise. The sound you projected was onstage with you. I went from a 100-watt Twin to two amplifiers, to four, and at one time my stack had eight Twins, because the only thing the P.A. did was project the voices, which was totally opposite of what’s going on today. Woodstock was the first gig I saw where the sound was mixed to speakers way out in the crowd, and it was slightly delayed.
By the time of Woodstock, you and McDonald were the only original members of the classic lineup remaining in the band.
Chicken and Dave left around the end of 1968. Peter Albin and Dave Getz, the rhythm section from Big Brother went out on tour with us for about six months, and we picked up a new keyboard player named Mark Kapner. The transitional album is Here We Go Again. Bruce is not on that album at all; some parts of it have David and Chicken with Jack Casady, then another part has Peter Albin, Dave Getz and Mark Kapner. After that, there was another change that led to the band that played at Woodstock.
What kind of amps did you have onstage there?
I think I had four Twins and four Fender Princetons that had been modified by the Mesa-Boogie folks. Eight-hundred watts. If you stood in a certain place, you’d blow your eardrums out.
“Rock and Soul Music” is in A, and there’s a “Frisco lick” in it, where you bend the high E up to a squealing double-octave E, a la (Quicksilver Messenger Service guitarist) John Cippolina...
Which is easy to do on an SG!
More than one person, including you, has credited Big Brother’s James Gurley with being the father of psychedelic electric guitar.
I said in Guitar Player that James Gurley is the “Yuri Gagarin of rock and roll; the first man in space.” Gurley did not play chords all that well, in terms of conventional music. They needed a guy like Sam (Andrew) to tie things down. Gurley was into the sonic qualities of the instruments. I think we all came out of it with individual sounds, and that actually had something to do with folk music as well, because everybody wanted to sound unique. We worked very hard not to sound like others, and that’s still important to me.
At this point, I’ve played with virtually all of my then-contemporaries, and with some of them, like Peter Albin, for an extended period. Cippolina and I played together for the better part of 10 years in the Dinosaurs, but I don’t sound like John Cippolina.
You and McDonald folded the band not long after Woodstock and embarked on solo careers; your first album was Bright Sun.
That was actually done while I was still in the band. My first solo project after the band was on Columbia Records; an album called Melton, Levy, and the Dey Brothers.
That album was produced by Mike Bloomfield.
Bloomfield was a wonderful guy and a dear friend; probably the smartest guy I ever knew. He could play almost anything; what he liked to play was blues. On the Melton, Levy and the Dey Brothers album, we did a duo where he played in a sort of Django Reinhardt guitar style, and it’s really unique. I never knew he could do that, and when I told him so, he said, “Yeah, but it’s not really my kind of music” (chuckles). He was one of those guys who could read three or four books a week, and was an incredible storehouse of knowledge. And he died so young.
What other post-Fish material have you done that you think is notable?
We’re just putting together a re-release of a Dinosaurs project that’s gonna include a lot of previously unreleased material.
What about the Country Joe & the Fish reunion album in the mid ’70s?
Well, it seemed like something to do that might be interesting, but it never really got off the ground; it wasn’t a very good record. The reunion seemed forced. And at this point in my life, I want to do what I want I to do. Money’s interesting, but it isn’t what drives me.
That comment could justify a segue into an explanation of your legal career, which you began in 1982, first as a private attorney, and now as a Public Defender in Yolo County, California.
I felt like I’d been screwed by every record company under the sun, and I wanted to get back at ’em (laughs). That was my initial motivation!
But on another level, I’d seen a movie in the late ’70s about Duke Ellington towards the end of his career. He still had a big band, but he was playing clubs, so he was obviously not making any money, and he was riding shotgun in his sax player’s car. He had those big bags under his eyes, and at every gig, they showed him lying in the dressing room on some couch or bench, with a towel over his eyes, trying to get some sleep.
I remember thinking to myself: “shit, man; that’s Duke Ellington, an icon! That’s what happens to old musicians?” I told myself there had to be something better, so I started studying law on the road, passed the bar, and became a lawyer. But that was around the same time I started the Dinosaurs.
The perception of the Dinosaurs for some was that it had a rotating lineup of veterans; kind of an easy-going enterprise, but you took the music seriously.
No, we didn’t (laughs)! The music I enjoy playing the most is music that has only the most “general” structure, and leaves lots of room to play in. If my next meal depended on what chords I was playing, I might not have that attitude, though.
Your most recent project has consisted of a band that includes Peter Albin, Banana from the Youngbloods, and Roy Blumenfeld from the Blues Project.
Peter and I have been working with each other since about ’77. He’s my oldest musical associate. I’ve done two European tours the last two years, and I’m doing a third this year. When I went to Russia in 2002, I picked up a Russian band; when I went to the U.K., I picked up an English band. When I go back to the U.K. this year, some of the band members will be those I worked with last time.
I use an SG, and one of my modified Mesa-Boogies in a Princeton box. I don’t use pedals, but sometimes if I use somebody else’s amp over there, like I did in Russia, I’ll use a (Ibanez) Tube Screamer.
Why did you make the transition from private practice as an attorney to public defender?
Because I was defending everybody for free, anyway (chuckles). So I had to find a way of getting paid. Millions and millions of dollars have gone through me, but they’ve never stayed there! It’s a lot easier if you’re a public defender, because you’re not charging any of your clients, and the state is paying your salary.
You’re not a public defender because of a sociopolitical conscience?
If somebody needs a lawyer, I can’t turn ’em down. Making sure that people who don’t have money get legal representation fits in with who I am. Being a public defender is sort of the best of both worlds: you work for the government, and your job is fighting the government. I fight with every other agency in the county – the D.A.’s office, the sheriff’s department, the Department of Social Services, because it’s my job (laughs)!
But I think it’s a great tribute to American democracy that there is such a job as public defender. And it’s a great place for an old hippie like me.