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 March 2007

March 2007

 

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Being There

They're Playing Our Tune

The Life and Times of the Oakland Song

—By Matt Dibble

There are songs about Chicago, Paris, 
    London and  St. Paul,
Buffalo, Miami, not to mention
    Beaver Falls.
But Tin Pan Alley did us wrong,
Because they never wrote a song,
About the greatest city of them all!

   
    Any self-respecting city needs a song. Especially if you are Oakland and your sister across the Bay is a crooner’s heartthrob. In 1963, this challenge was taken up by three recent UC Berkeley grads. Armed with instruments better suited for a 19th-century laundry, the Goodtime Washboard Three—Wayne Pope on washboard, Bruce Bratton on washtub bass and Dick Fagerstrom on banjo—were notorious for playing raucous sets at college hangouts. “I don’t think we got paid for these shows; we did it for beer and peanuts,” recalls Pope, 74. Enthusiasts of eccentric American roots music, the group had never written a song before. Oakland had found her troubadours.
    Opinions differ slightly as to where the inspiration came from, but once bitten, the Three did not waste time. “I think we wrote the song that night,” says Pope. “We just made a list. Let’s see, Oakland’s got this, this and this.” Appropriately enough for Oakland, what emerged was more scrappy college fight song than stately anthem.

Now don’t go ’way,
We hope you’ll stay,
And hear this song we wrote the  other day.
Oakland’s got the Tribune Tower,
Oakland’s got Lake Merritt too.


    Around the same time, Bratton was involved with fighting a proposed nuclear power plant in Bodega Bay. The band wrote an ironic protest song called “Don’t Blame PG&E, Pal.” “It was filled with positive lyrics about PG&E, but it ended with the sound of an atomic explosion!” says Pope. “We were at Fantasy Records [in Berkeley] recording that song as a 45, and the producers asked what we wanted to put on the other side. Well, we only had one other original song and that was ‘Oakland’.”
    The record started making the rounds of the local Top 40 stations. “PG&E” faded, but “Oakland” struck a resounding chord. It was so popular that five or six morning DJs from competing stations collaborated to play the song at exactly the same time every day. Drivers lost their way to San Jose and forgot about their hearts in San Francisco as they spun their radio dials and could find nothing but:

Now where did all the people go
    when Frisco burned?
They all went to Oakland and
    never returned.


    Oakland was having its day at last, and city leaders were soon hopping aboard the Goodtime bandwagon. Oakland Tribune publisher William Knowland staged a dramatic debut for the band atop the marquee of the Tribune Tower that drew thousands (pictured above). “Mayor Houlihan of Oakland invited us to perform at a city council meeting,” recalls Pope. “He even proclaimed it the Official Song of Oakland. Shortly after that, he was indicted and sent to jail. I don’t think there was any connection!”
    The band’s notoriety opened doors, including those of the ultra-exclusive, all-male Bohemian Club. The Three became a regular fixture at the yearly Bohemian Grove enclave in Sonoma County. “We got to meet Nixon and Kissinger and all those people,” says Bratton. “I even held a meeting of all the Democrats who were members of the club in the telephone booth up there!” They found themselves collaborating with the likes of Milton Berle and Bing Crosby on the lavish performances that marked the end of the retreat. Crosby liked the band so much that he invited them on a TV show he hosted called Hollywood Palace. Pope remembers: “There we were with Louis Armstrong, Red Buttons and Nanette Fabray. We did a song called ‘Oh By Jingo.’ Bing was very complimentary—he even performed with us—but when the show was over, he asked, “Why didn’t you play that Oakland song?”

Right outside the city limits,
Scoots a freeway called the Nimitz.
Of all the pretty cities she’s a leader,
And don’t forget the tube to Alameda.


    When 12,000 copies of the “Oakland” single sold, the band thought it was on its way. Members bought matching striped shirts. “We thought we were going to be the next Kingston Trio,” says Pope. The band recorded more for Fantasy, but two albums the group made for Capitol were never released. Perhaps the striped shirts turned out to be no match for the Beatle boot-clad British Invaders. By 1970, Bratton had left the band to live in Santa Cruz. Pope and another longtime member, Peter Arnott, have kept various incarnations of the Goodtime Washboard Three kicking for three decades. In 1986 the band was even asked by fellow Bohemian George Shultz to perform at a White House State Dinner honoring then-newly elected Corazon Aquino of the Philippines.

She has pride! She has hope!
    Oh what a view!
Oakland we’re for you! Oakland
    we’re for you!


    What’s that? Can’t hum the tune of your Official Song? The Oakland Library has posted a sound file of the 1974 version at: www.oaklandlibrary.org/AboutOakland/songs.htm.
    And you can visit “Local Sounds” at www.oaklandmagazine.com to hear it, too. Better yet, head down to The Alley (3325 Grand Ave., 510-444-8505) where “Oakland” is performed nearly every night.
E-mail Matt Dibble at beingthere@oaklandmagazine.com.