On Sept. 23, Barry Olivier, a stalwart of the Bay Area folk music community for nearly 70 years, passed away at the age of 87. His journey was a musical narrative that enriched the cultural tapestry of Berkeley and beyond.
Born in 1935, Barry grew up in Brentwood and Berkeley, graduated from Berkeley High, and attended the University of California — in an era that he later captured beautifully in his song “I Remember Berkeley in the Forties.” His love for folk music began when he was 6. It was fed by youthful encounters with the writings and concerts of Carl Sandburg, Burl Ives and Sam Hinton, among others, leading him to take up the guitar. After he moved to Berkeley he began to play and perform more broadly, both individually and with his high school girlfriend Helen Varney, who later became his first wife.
In 1956, at the age of 21, Barry began to host “The Midnight Special,” a pioneering folk music show on KPFA radio that featured live performances by local folk musicians, including Helen and Barry. He also founded The Barrel Folk Music Center, a musical instrument shop in Berkeley that became a haven for the blossoming folk music community, and began a series of community folk music concerts featuring artists like Cisco Houston and Jean Ritchie.
In 1958, Barry and Helen envisioned and began the Berkeley Folk Music Festival, an annual celebration of folk tunes and tradition, which Barry directed and produced until 1970. Each year, over a weekend, the festival presented dozens of individual and group concerts, workshops, lectures, and dances across the UC Berkeley campus at venues ranging from Eucalyptus Grove to the Greek Theatre.
Over its lifetime, the festival featured many nationally known folk musicians of the era, including Doc Watson, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Mississippi John Hurt and Alice Stuart. It also presented local artists, including the cowboy singer Slim Critchlow, the bluesman Jesse Fuller, and the very young Joe McDonald, later famous as the leader of Country Joe and the Fish. Initially, the festival stuck mostly to singers who specialized in traditional American and English folk tunes, often including workshops and lectures featuring Berkeley scholars of those traditions. Later, recognizing the diversity of folk traditions, political currents, the emergence of the singer-songwriter, and the breaking down of barriers with other musical genres, Barry expanded the festival list to include a broader range of artists. Participants in later years ranged from American roots traditionalists such as the Cajun artists Doug Kershaw and the Hackberry Ramblers to Janice Ian and Richie Havens, to the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and The Youngbloods, to the great rabbi-musician Shlomo Carlebach, whose tunes mobilized hundreds of hora dancers across Sproul Plaza. Barry’s meticulous production of Joan Baez’s Northern California concerts from 1962 to 1973 amplified the festival’s resonance. His efforts culminated in a rich archive of folk festival materials, which was acquired by Northwestern University in 1973 and digitally published in 2021.
Beyond the festival, Barry was a masterful guitar teacher, nurturing the musical aspirations of literally thousands of students, including notable names like John Fogerty and Kate Wolf. During the 1970s, his teachings echoed through the halls of the UC Berkeley “Y” House, where he conducted group lessons. Two nights a week, four classes a night, with 25 eager learners in each class, Barry was the go-to guitar guru for 200 students a quarter during the ’70s and early ’80s. Guest artist special workshops featured Pete Seeger, Doc Watson, Mimi Fariña, and U. Utah Phillips.
In the 1980s, his love for teaching shifted towards private lessons, conducted for 30 years from a cozy studio on Regent Street. Filled with old guitars, artist pictures and concert posters, Barry’s studio was a music lover’s dream. In later years, Barry taught from his own home, until he retired from teaching in 2019.
As a teacher, Barry was unfailingly kind, supportive and playful, with a well-defined teaching method and an encyclopedic knowledge of folk and popular music. Over the years Barry created some 2,100 colorful song sheets, each with a carefully crafted arrangement, covering the history of American, English and Scottish folk music, with ventures into blues, country, cowboy music, folk rock, the Beatles and Stones, Tin Pan Alley and novelty tunes of all eras. If a tune was good and could be accompanied on an acoustic guitar, Barry taught it!
Barry’s far-flung students continue to treasure the memory of hours with him at the studio, as well as hidden gems that he introduced them to, from beautiful love songs like Seven Daffodils to the mock ballad “The Trusty Lariat,” an unexpectedly hilarious number about a train wreck on the “old SP.” Many of Barry’s students studied with him for decades, and several became close friends.
Known for his calm, caring demeanor and a boisterous laugh that could brighten any room, Barry also carved a niche, along with his second wife, Alice Olivier, as popular performers at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley, enthralling audiences from the 1980s through the early 2000s with traditional folk offerings, as well as songs written by Barry, Alice, and their children.
In later years, in recognition of his many contributions to the Berkeley folk scene, Barry was awarded the Key to the Freight, becoming only the second person to receive this honor, following the great bluegrass musician Ralph Stanley.
Barry’s personal life was as rich and harmonious as his professional journey. He shared 28 cherished years with Helen, welcoming five children: Howard, Frank, Kenneth, Michael and Nancy. He also had 40 cherished years with Alice, who brought four step-children into the family: Matthew, Colleen, Michael and Mitchell Mullany. In later years, the family blossomed to include sons- and daughters-in-law, 11 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. Many of Barry’s family pursued their own musical and performance endeavors, from comedy-juggling to bagpipes, all with Barry’s warm encouragement.
A brief account like this cannot capture the full range of Barry’s artistic creativity (for example, he was also a gifted visual and graphic artist), his personal charm and decency, or his larger impact. Barry’s students have honored his enduring impact by forming a public Facebook group, Friends of Barry Olivier, in June 2020.
As we commemorate Barry’s remarkable journey, we invite all whose lives were touched by his music, teachings, and friendship to share their memories and tributes in the Facebook group or on Legacy.com. Both platforms can be accessed at folkfest.us, along with a link to an email announcement list where the family will soon announce the details for a Life Celebration event.
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