Saturday, August 22, 2009

August 9, 1969 7th and Market Streets, Oakland, CA: Synanon Street Fair with Country Joe and The Fish

On Saturday, August 9, 1969, one week prior to Woodstock, Country Joe and The Fish headlined a 14-hour free concert at a Street Fair in Oakland for as many as 75,000 people. There are many remarkable things about this event, not the least that it seems to have been totally forgotten in the history of the East Bay and East Bay music. Until I discovered it recently in the archives of the Oakland Tribune, I knew nothing about it, and that made it officially obscure. This post is a brief effort to show what I have learned from the Tribune archives, as well as showing how remarkable this event appears to be.

Throughout most of the 1960s, the city of Oakland took pains to separate itself from its neighbor Berkeley, frowning on Anti-War demonstrations, long hair, rock music and everything associated with it. Berkeley had been having all sorts of free rock concerts and events for years, but Oakland remained a staid, middle class city. The Oakland Tribune was owned by the Knowland family, one of California's most powerful families, and The Trib represented Oakland's political and economic power brokers at the time. When the Tribune started giving over substantial space to promoting the Synanon Street Fair, in July 1969, a month before the event, it is clear that this event was supported by the City of Oakland at the highest levels.

Synanon was a drug rehabilitation program that put addicts to work doing a variety of community activities, thus becoming a sort of self-funding entity. Synanon had good relations with the City of San Francisco, and they had put on very successful Street Fairs in San Francisco in 1967 and '68. The Fair itself, complete with rock bands, were free, but Synanon made money through concessions and sponsorship. These events appear to be the predecessors of such San Francisco events as The Haight Street Fair or The Folsom Street Fair.

Oakland seems to have felt that the city needed such a fair, but a number of things seem to make the Oakland event different from the San Francisco events. The event was held at 7th and Market Streets, not too far from Downtown, but also part of the more African American neighborhoods that had been bisected by new roads as part of urban re-development. The trace evidence of the performers and the photos suggest that the event was intentionally structured to engage both the Black and White communities, a common effort in Berkeley but not so common in Oakland. 7th and Market was approximately in the area that had seen the founding of The Black Panthers, Oakland's most infamous export, so a multi-racial City-sponsored Rock Festival was not at all insignificant.

There were two stages, with 14 hours of almost continuous performers. According to the August 7 Tribune, the scheduled performers were:

Rock Stage (10:00am-midnight, scheduled order)

VeeJays/Southern Comfort/Phananganang/Marvin Gardens/Country Weather/Transatlantic Railroad/Synanon/Frumious Bandersnatch/Joy of Cooking/Flamin’ Groovies/Everyday People/Country Joe and The Fish/Morning Glory/Womb/The Crabs

Concert Stage (10:00am-midnight, scheduled order);

Johnny Mars Blues/Ice/Murray Music Co/Martha Young/Eddie Henderson/Gentle Dance/Harley White Sextet/Afro-Jazz Quartet/Gospel Tonics/Sounds of Synanon/Esther Phillips/QueQeg/Sebastian Moon/Orion

In an article on the day of the concert, The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band were also listed as performers, probably on the Rock Stage.

Only Country Joe and The Fish were headline performers. Most of the names were popular club bands around the Bay Area. The division of acts suggests that the Rock Stage featured mostly white rock acts, and the Concert Stage featured mostly, but not exclusively, "black" acts. I doubt there was a Free Concert or similar event prior to this that tried to appeal to both Black and White audiences, and precious few afterwards.

Articles leading up to the event suggested that as many as 100,000 people were expected. The headline article on the Sunday afterwards (August 10, 1969, from which the above pictures are taken) says that 75,000 people attended. Given the Tribune's and Oakland's vested interest in a successful event, there is reason to think this may be an exaggeration. Nonetheless, as the top photo shows, there was certainly a substantial crowd, at least early in the day, so any exaggeration may be mild. The numerous photos in the Tribune pictured a broad spectrum of attendees: children, hippies, and young and old black and white people. Regardless of who may have actually attended, it is clear that a peaceful multi-racial social event was a primary goal of the effort.

After August 10, however, I could find nothing more about this event. This leaves numerous questions unanswered. Among them:

  • A huge free concert near downtown, directed at a multi-racial audience, is both radical and far-sighted, particularly for Oakland. Whose idea was it, and how did it get traction?
  • Free rock concerts, starting in Golden Gate Park (on October 6, 1966), and followed by The Human Be-In (January 14, 1967), were iconic events in the 60s rock world, remembered fondly and often incorrectly by aging white hippies. What did the African American community think of this event, held near "their" neighborhood, then, afterwards and now?
  • If this concert was the success the article makes it out to be, why wasn't it repeated? While I note the large crowd in the picture above, based on the schedule the picture was probably taken about 1:00 o'clock in the afternoon. How big a crowd was there at midnight, when The Crabs and Orion closed each stage?

I lack the resources to investigate this event, but it stands in stark contrast to almost every other rock festival and free concert in the Bay Area and elsewhere during the late 1960s, and it seems ripe for analysis and research.

Notes on the performers
Country Weather, pictured above, were a Contra Costa County band featuring guitarist Greg Douglass, who co-wrote the hit single "Jungle Love" for The Steve Miller Band.

Joy Of Cooking, a Berkeley band who released several fine albums on Capitol in the 1970s, had only formed a few months prior and was still mostly playing Berkeley clubs.

Frumious Bandersnatch were a band from Lafayette, popular locally but who never recorded. Members of the group were later in Journey and The Steve Miller Band.

For a current picture of the site, see here.


  1. As you know, I am very interested in the first two questions that you raise. I can speculate about the last one: the reason it may not have been held again is that after 1970, Synanon became mired in organizational - not to say criminal - problems. At that time they were trying to start some kind of utopian community on land they owned out in the Delta. The 'fundraising' aspect of this festival MAY have been supposedly going toward that. By 1970, this project was clearly going nowhere. Also, of course, Altamont happened in December, putting people off free concerts. The synanonian I contacted didn't remember anything about this festival. It would be interesting to find out more about how the community felt.

  2. Of course, another factor may have been that the land was slated for redevelopment in 1969, and thus empty. Subsequently, development may have begun and the site would not have been available. Of course, that still begs the question as to why they didn't hold a festival at another site, at which point your explanation takes on a new prominence.


  3. Was there too! Buddy and I worked as volunteers. We'd just moved in a month before into the Santa Monica facility. It was great fun! I remember being in awe the whole event. Such a mixture of people. We'd lived in segregated San Diego for the six years prior. Our attraction to Synanon was its integration of people, color, class, age, etc. We wanted our mixed children to grow up people first. Dope addiction/alcoholism seems to have no color or class. It hits anywhere. So Synanon attracted people from all walks of life, even squares like us. The city administrators liked Synanon then, having a solution to drug addiction, so throwing a street party that brought so many people together peacefully was thought to be quite wonderful. There is much one can criticize Synanon as years went on, many mistakes, but these pictures in this article show the energy and good will and good work that also was apart of its make up.

  4. In Oakland during this period, John Maher was the director of the "Square's Club" at Synanon and was involved in production of these types of events with his friend and fellow Synanon resident, Joe Sierra. So, I'd venture to guess those two guys headed the project. Maher left Synanon in 1970 and shortly after founded the Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco.

  5. In the mid 1970's, Delancey Street threw a huge FREE party with live music, political and Hollywood celebrities, free food and alcoholic beverages... It was an all day event held in a huge building in the Mission District of San Francisco. This was to honor a local Irish bartender, Paddy Nolan. We even had billboards designed by famed artist, Dugald Stermer. It went into the night and was a success, and it was never again repeated. Another clue that lends itself to the work of Maher & Sierra. (Joe Sierra left Synanon and he and I worked under John in Delancey's "Media Department" with mentor, Dugald Stermer.

    1. Raymond, thanks for the interesting insights. Synanon seems to have been influential in creating the "Street Fair" model of event, a far more viable format than the "Be-In" model of the 60s. There's a lot left to be found out.

  6. I am so thankful for this wonderful article. I played this concert as the bass player, age 16, with Synanon’s House Band - Sacred Cow. So many memories and wonderful times have been reintroduced in my mind from this concert...I was the youngest “resident” of Synanon, Ester Phillips was my “Tribe” mother for many years. I am so thankful for her guidance and will never forget her...many musicians passed through the doors and in my 2 1/2 years of residency, I feel so blessed to have shared playing and talking with them.
    How cool was it to have the opportunity to play bass behind John Lee Hooker, Ester Phillips, players from James Brown’s band, musicians involved with Vanilla Fudge...among many others who either were residents or special guests that Synanon brought in to entertain and bring public interest. The band, Sacred Cow, played every Saturday night for open house...a night that the public was allowed to visit and see how the house was run...and we used to play on a flat bed truck, with a generator, and drive through Oakland, Berkeley and surrounding cities publicizing Synanon’s participation in its way of life, rehab and way of life.
    I would love to hear from anyone with more experiences or memories of