Essentials: The Top 10 songs of the San Francisco Sound roots

Americana music is like the Mississippi, a mighty current constantly shifted by influences great and small.  One of the musical streams that altered the flow of americana is the tumbling turbulence that bubbled up from the tectonic shift of cultural plates that occurred in San Francisco in the 1960s. The root elements of americana; jazz, country, rock, blues, folk, jug band, etc. get mixed up with tejano, Indian classical music, indigenous music and myriad other styles along with certain psychoactive substances to come up with new combinations. Like any cultural phenomena it’s impossible to pinpoint a starting point. One might have been June 1965 when The Charlatans played their legendary six-week residency at the Red Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nevada. That gig allegedly produced the first psychedelic rock concert poster ‘The Seed’. They also took LSD before the first performance, and so they reputed to be the first acid rock band.

That was five months before the first ‘Acid Test’, which was attended by member of the Warlocks, a band soon to become the Grateful Dead,  the house band for subsequent Acid Tests. It is at one of the Tests that Big Brother and the Holding Company formed. Regardless of how it all started it was the blossoming of a music scene that became the soundtrack for flower power and continues to influence the sounds of americana.

It was challenge to pick 10 groups much less just 10 songs, so I limited the time period to 1966 thru 1970, mostly choosing lesser-known groups that represent the different streams that contributed to the sound.  One thing that sticks out are the incredible women who not only fronted bands, but organized and led them.  I used clips of live performances when I could find them, as they give a better sense of time and place.

Number 10: When I Go Sailin’ By’ by The Charlatans 
The Charlatans [not those Charlatans], one of the bands that started it all. The song has a definite old-time sound with boogie-woogie piano and clarinet,  but the lyrics firmly place in its time and place; “when I go sailin’ by you know I must be feelin’ high”.  The Charlatans combined blues, folk, and country and bit of wackiness to nudge the traditions in new directions, helping to create a whole scene. This song represents just one of the styles with which they experimented.

Number 9: Fresh Air’ by Quicksilver Messenger Service 
Quicksilver were one of the Bay Area’s more influential bands, this song was their biggest hit and exhibits some of guitarist John Cipollina’s best work. There are also hints of the Hispanic sounds that influenced Quicksilver and Santana.  David Freiberg had previously played with David Crosby and Paul Kantner. Skip Spence played with Quicksilver before going to the Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape.

Number 8:‘White Bird’ by It’s a Beautiful Day
This song reflects violinist David LaFlamme’s classical and jazz roots. It’s A Beautiful Days’ song ‘Bombay Calling’ was later used by Deep Purple as the intro to ‘Child in Time’.  LaFlamme had earlier played with Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks.

Number 7: ‘How Can I Miss If You Won’t Go Away?’ by Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks
A great example of the influence of pre-rock music on the San Francisco sound and Hicks’s sense of humour. He was influenced by swing, cowboy, folk and gypsy music. Hicks had been a member of the Charlatans before forming his own band.

Number 6: ‘Mercedes Benz’ by Janis Joplin
The last song recorded by Joplin. The first line is from a Michael McClure poem. She wrote it in a bar with Bob Neuwirth and Patti Smith three days before her death. Joplin was in the centre of the San Francisco music world, and give it a new, energetic version of the blues.

Number 5: ‘Down So Low’ by Mother Earth
Mother Earth featured country/blues singer Tracy Nelson and a included a great horn section which gave their sound a bit of Motown. Boz Skaggs and Michael Bloomfield recorded with them and Nelson had a great ear for new songwriters, being an early supporter of John Hiatt, Steve Young and Eric Kaz. Both their albums, ‘Make a Joyful Noise’ and ‘Living With The Animals’ are exceptional and, unfortunately, somewhat forgotten.

Number 4: ‘Today’ by Jefferson Airplane
A great ballad from the Airplane’s ground breaking album ‘Surrealistic Pillow’. The Jefferson Airplane is one of the foundational bands of the psychedelic sound. Grace Slick was backed by some of the Bay Area’s best musicians including Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Cassidy (later of Hot Tuna), Marty Balin, Paul Kanter and Spencer Dryden (later with the New Riders of the Purple Sage).

Number 3: ‘Omaha’ by Moby Grape
As described by Jeff Tamarkin, “The Grape’s saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco”.  Everybody sang and wrote and they had three great guitarists. Omaha is really 2.3 minutes of them battling it out, giving no quarter. This clip is a rare live performance.

Number 2:Too Late But Not Forgotten’ by The Joy of Cooking
JOC was pianist Toni Brown and guitarist Terry Garthwaite’s band and they shared the vocals.  Described as an ‘ensemble’ they were one of the archetypical  ‘hippie’ bands.  They blended folk, jazz, blues and rock in recipe all their own.

Number 1: ‘Who Am I’ by Country Joe and the Fish
Country Joe is best known for the anti- Vietnam war song, ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag’.  ‘Who Am I’ is simpler in sound but more thoughtful.  It reflects the impact of ‘beat’ poetry, the folk revival and  the questioning and exploration that underlies the era.

About Michael Macy 46 Articles
Grew up in the American Midwest and bounced around a bit until settling in London. Wherever I've been, whatever I have done, has been to sound of Americana. It is a real privilege to be part of this site, discover new music and write about it.
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Nigel Michaelson

Some very interesting choices here but the glaring absence of anything from the Grateful Dead – perhaps you ruled out ‘Workingman’s…’ and ‘…Beauty’ because of the time frame although ‘Fresh air’ is from the same year.

Quicksilver’s ‘Fresh air’ is an excellent choice but, as has so often been the case, John Cipollina gets all the guitar credit when in fact Gary Duncan was also great. He takes the first solo here and Cipollina follows the organ break. It was of course their interplay that was the QMS trademark.

Martin Johnson

I do wish the original line-up of the Charlatans had recorded an official album, though The Amazing Charlatans compilation of early recordings, demos etc was interesting, but at least Dan Hicks made the cut. Great to see Tracy Nelson in there, as you say too often ignored today.