Faces of ALBA: Bruce Barthol

September 9, 2014
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Bruce Barthol at ALBA’s Bay Area event in 2011. Photo Richard Bermack.

Bruce Barthol at ALBA’s Bay Area event in 2011. Photo Richard Bermack.

Bruce Barthol is the long time band leader of ALBA events.  He was the original bass player for the pioneering rock group Country Joe and the Fish and has performed with a long list of great musicians, from Dave Getz to Pete Seeger. He is currently touring with his band The Former Members.

How did you get interested in the Spanish Civil War and involved in ALBA? 

I lived in Spain in 1959 when I was a 11. My parents were anti- Franco. The first book on the Spanish Civil War I read was the autobiography of El Campesino [Valentín González, Life and Death in Soviet Russia], which I checked out from the library at the Torrejón U.S. Air Base outside of Madrid. I got the Folkways album of Spanish Civil War songs a few years later.

I played my first Lincoln Brigade veterans reunion in 1973. Later on, Peter Glazer and I put together many shows for the VALB.  I was resident musical director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe for over 30 years.  In 1986, I went to Nicaragua with the SFMT and brought back a list from the Ministry Health of needed replacement parts for the ambulances VALB had sent the year before. I went to Spain twice with [Brigade veteran] Milt Wolff for commemorations in Catalonia. I was fortunate to play twice with Pete Seeger at New York VALB events. It was like playing with Jesus Christ, although Jesus didn’t play the banjo. 

Was it a natural progression for you to go from the anti-war messages of the San Francisco music scene of the late 1960s–and especially of Country Joe and the Fish–to your work with ALBA? 

Yes, I think it was a natural progression.  The Lincoln Brigade was a model of resistance and moral courage.  Two members of Country Joe and the Fish had parents who had been in the Communist Party, but I’m not talking.

You wrote the beautiful song “Taste of Ashes.”  What inspired you to write it?  Did you write it for Laurie Lewis specifically?

I wrote it for a San Francisco Mime Troupe play called Spain ‘36 on the 50th anniversary of the war. The song was inspired by La Pasionaria’s speech to departing International Brigaders in Barcelona in 1938.  It was the finale of the show.

Could you share a memory of playing at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967?  

Nothing was for sale except tickets to the festival.  It wasn’t completely commodified as things became.   And the cops weren’t a problem.

ALBA Board member Aaron B. Retish is a professor of history at Wayne State University.

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