Tribute to Barry Olivier

written for barry olivier’s memorial life celebration, 14 January 2024.

Barry Olivier shaking hands with bluegrass and old-time mountain music bandleader JE Mainer at the 1963 Berkeley Folk Music Festival.

In 2011, when I first contacted Barry Olivier about digitizing the Berkeley Folk Music Festival Collection, which had been his working archive for producing the festival between the late 1950s and 1970 before he sold it to Northwestern University’s Special Collections Library in 1973, he immediately supported the idea. “Oh,” he said, “it can be a continuation of what we were trying to do at the Festival!”

After a few conversations and, in 2011, an eventual visit by Barry to my class and the library at Northwestern, where I was teaching at the time, we settled on a concept for thinking about the project.  It should strive to become a “digital river of song.” The goal was to create a website about the Festival that digitized all of the 30,000 artifacts that sat in boxes on the shelves at Northwestern (and still do, available for research). Online, these could then become a vehicle for more people to carry the best energies of the original Festival forward.

The metaphor of a river of song really pleased Barry. As I learned more about the Festival’s history and Barry’s life, I began to see why. He was someone who liked to do the slow, steady work that sets things flowing. For Barry, putting on a massive folk festival was not about asserting some frozen sense of how things should be but making it possible for people to join, enjoy, participate, and go where they wanted to go on the powerful current of folk music tradition.

A Northern California native, Barry told me that he remembered attending the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939. It was one of a number of points of inspiration for the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, which grew out of Barry’s contributions to the Bay Area folk scene in the early 1950s, such as founding the Barrel, a music store, and hosting local singers on the Midnight Special, a radio show on KPFA-FM, the local Pacifica radio station. Having been a student in the theater program at Cal, Barry began to organize concert programs in 1957 and 58 for the Associated Students of the University of California. These featured performers such as Jean Ritchie, the Appalachian dulcimer singer; Cisco Houston, who had been running buddies with Woody Guthrie; and Sam Hinton, the San Diego-based oceanographer, harmonica virtuoso, and folk singer who would go on to serve as the Master of Ceremonies for every subsequent Berkeley Folk Music Festival, beginning in 1959.

Another influential figure at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival in the first year of the Festival was Pete Seeger, who along with his father Charles, a pioneering ethnomusicologist who had taught at Berkeley in the 1910s until he was kicked off the faculty for his radical politics, would be deeply influential on Barry’s ideal for a folk music festival. Barry, like the Seegers (Pete’s half-brother Mike and half-sister Peggy would also appear at the Festival), believed in folk music as something communal, popular, open to all. They were less concerned with strict rules of authenticity and purity, more interested in participatory inclusion.

Barry picked up on this. He sought to create a well-organized event filled with concerts, panels, workshops, campfires, coffee hours, formal and informal spaces. It was smart, even a bit nerdy, but also fun. The goal was to have serious fun, in all senses of the term: fun as a means to the serious ends of exploring what folk music was and could be. The goal for Barry at the Berkeley Folk Music Festival was to produce solid structures that allowed for casual conviviality; an event on a fancy university campus that asserted anyone was welcome to study and make and create folk music knowledge; a mixing of peoples and styles of music that both celebrated differences of background and origin but also encouraged festive togetherness and exchange.

For the tumultuous decade of the 1960s, the Berkeley Festival took over the Cal campus for a long weekend, usually once a year around the July 4th holiday or thereabouts. The first years of the Festival saw it develop into an established event. As the folk revival became a national phenomenon in the early and mid 1960s the Festival became a huge affair: its final Jubilee concerts could fill the Hearst Greek Amphitheater and they placed center stage at the most prestigious public university in the United States figures from the margins of mainstream American society: a sharecropper guitar player from rural Texas such as Mance Lipscomb, who was the son of enslaved peoples; a blind guitar player from the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina such as Arthel “Doc” Watson; an older balladeer from Arkansas such as Almeda Riddle; a songster from the Delta such as “Mississippi” John Hurt; later,  in 1970, a young norteño Mexican-American band such as Los Tigres del Norte.

It was as if the Berkeley Festival asserted that these figures from the margins had as much knowledge and expertise and wisdom to offer the world as any of the most prestigious faculty at the University of California itself. By the later half of the 1960s, Barry opened up the festival to new influences: singer songwriters, rock bands, less well-known forms of regional vernacular music in California such as Cajun sounds from Louisiana; even avant-garde experimental musicians performed: the Texas art band Red Crayola hung melting ice above the stage in front of a microphone as they clanged away loudly on electric instruments, stretching the definition of folk music to what many thought was the breaking point.

At the event, Barry fostered folk music interactions in many of the same campus spaces where dramatic political events such as the Free Speech Movement and Vietnam War protests took place, but Barry’s goal was not to put his body “upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus” to “make it stop,” as New Left student political activist Mario Savio dramatically insisted at Cal in 1964. Rather, Barry wanted to transform campus spaces, using a broad understanding of folk music to create moments for interaction among a more inclusive and diverse populace: marginalized working class black, white, and brown musicians; people of all generations; audiences whose interests might range from very traditional understandings of balladry, such as the esteemed Berkeley English Department faculty member Bertrand Bronson, a world expert on the British Child Ballads, to Kaleidoscope, the Los Angeles experimental folk band who transformed the old ballad “O Death” into a dramatic meditation on the expanding American military intervention in Vietnam during the 1960s.

In some sense, the Festival is a less recognized origin point for the so-called San Francisco Renaissance of the late 1960s—the Summer of Love and all that flowering of music, utopian longing for peace, and investigations of whether there could be different ways to live more freely in modern America and the world. Most histories focus on the Beats, the Acid Tests, the Trips Festival, the Haight Ashbury neighborhood, and the Monterey Pop Festival, but a peek in the Berkeley Festival archive reveals that almost all the famous figures of the era were folkies, or that Barry was at these and other events taking in and processing what was happening. We find a photograph of a young Janis Joplin performing at the Monterey Folk Festival in 1963; Barry’s amazing photos of Bob Dylan at his infamous 1965 press conference, organized by music critic and friend Ralph Gleason; photographs of a young, short-haired, watch-wearing Jerry Garcia singing along with Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers and hanging out with Ralph Rinzler, Jean Ritchie, and others at the 1962 Winter Berkeley Folk Music Festival; Barry’s amazing photos from Monterey Pop; his reportage and photographs (for Gleason) from the ill-fated Altamont Festival in 1969; and of course all the correspondence, business records, posters, fliers, programs, notes, a bit of audio, and over 10,000 photographs of the Berkeley Folk Music Festival itself.

All this material reminds us of Barry’s Herculean task in keeping the Festival going (money was always an issue, but Barry was always clever at, as he put it to me once, “shucking for bucks,” and he found ways to put together his own funds with some support from the university to keep the festival going, often at a loss); it also provides ample evidence of the Berkeley Festival’s significance. It contributed in vital ways to shaping the West Coast cultural and musical milieu of the 1960s, helping to encourage a more open, abundant, diverse, inclusive sense of encounter and experimentation than back East, where the folk revival got stuck on issues of Dylan going electric at Newport in 1965 and other matters of authenticity and purity. Out at Berkeley, when the former folkies in the Jefferson Airplane performed at the Festival in 1966, they were welcomed for the intriguing ways they were taking folk music in new directions. And who was in tow backstage? A now shaggy, long-haired, Beatle boot-wearing Jerry Garcia. There was a throughline from Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers to the Jefferson Airplane (named, after all, in part for Blind Lemon Jefferson, the blues guitarist) and Garcia’s Grateful Dead, a throughline that runs right through the Berkeley Folk Music Festival.

As anti-Vietnam War and other radical politics intensified at Cal during the late 1960s, Barry was able to keep the Festival going. Partly, it was because he was trusted by all sides. Campus administrators knew him. Some were friends of the family in Berkeley. Younger activists and musicians knew him too. Barry navigated protests on Telegraph Avenue at the 1968 Festival by having Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach lead the audience at the opening concert on Sproul Plaza in an ecstatic chant and dance, shifting conflict into serious fun. He worked carefully with his ushers and police to kept he event safe, but with flexibility and a sense that it was welcome to all. He was neither out for overly controlled order, nor for anarchic chaos, but for safe, joyous, open engagement with folk sounds and folk revival ideas. In this sense, Barry offers a different kind of figure to the split then—and now—between so-called conservatives and liberals, between, say, the reactionary politics of then California governor Ronald Reagan and the outlandish recklessness of some of the hippies in the Haight or the increasingly militant radicalism of political activists in Berkeley by the late 1960s. Barry offered a different path. The Berkeley Folk Music Festival sought to be more like a beautiful trail alongside the river of song as it burbled along between the redwood and Eucalyptus trees on the Cal campus.

As Barry argued to me, he was not exceptionally political other than being, as he put it, generally a liberal Californian; yet in its way the Festival had a cultural politics: Barry was interested in encouraging a sense of temporary but powerful public community and basic human dignity for a pluralist, multicultural America. He treated performers not as high and mighty superstars but rather as special participants in a communal event; he treated audiences as equals, worth of just as decent treatment as any of the stars on the program. He invited scholars to share ideas about folklore, and created egalitarian moments of exchange that honored expertise but did not emphasize hierarchies of privilege or separateness.

Barry also attended and organized other festivals. Most fascinatingly, newly financially flush rock band managers and promoters hired him to direct the Wild West Festival in Golden Gate Park, a massive rock music and arts gathering that was supposed to be bigger than Woodstock during the summer of 1969 (for the full story see the chapter in my book The Republic of Rock: Music and Citizenship in the Sixties Counterculture). Barry, however, wisely called the Wild West Festival off when it seemed like violence might take place at the event. It was a difficult, but smart decision as a few months later, violence erupted at the poorly organized Altamont rock festival on the outskirts of the Bay Area. Even when music festivals were becoming big business by the end of the 1960s, Barry always put decency, safety, and shared humanity above profit and success.

It is a good example of how Barry was interested most of all in helping the river of song flow. He was not intent on being a high and mighty king in a palace on the cliffs, or building a dam by the waterfalls of musical heritage, or becoming a hermit in a cottage tucked in an isolated cove around the river’s bend. He was interested in helping people move forward on the music—propelled by past traditions, open to new discoveries, enjoying the journey along the way. With the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, Barry wanted to create a vessel for edifying musical enjoyment that was also constructed to support expressions of individual creativity, social enjoyment, and collective togetherness. He did the heavy lifting, the careful planning, the necessary implementation to made festivity seem effervescently festive and fun.

In doing so, he contributed to a distinctly West Coast vision of the folk revival and of music and culture as a whole. It would strive to be more open, less competitive, less divided between superstars and passive audiences, more curious about exploring, in concert, what exactly this thing called folk music was and could be. Thousands upon thousands of people were able to feel moved by folk music thanks to his efforts. Barry put in the time and effort—countless hours upon hours of organizing—to make the Berkeley Folk Music Festival and other musical events seem to float with ease.

Now, digitally, you can take in the river of song Barry helped to keep flowing. The Berkeley Folk Music Festival website features an introductory multimedia exhibit and from there you can delve into digital versions of the over 30,000 artifacts that Barry used to put together the Festival each year he produced it. We are still working on improving the project and developing new iterations of it. The website stands as a testament, I hope, to his vision, his labor, and most of all his ethos that if one does the work to create safe, dignified, participatory spaces of festivity and serious fun, the channels for human creativity and togetherness can open up. May the river of song that Barry tended to with such dedication and love keep rolling on.

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