The Musical Conscience of Bruce Barthol (1947-2023)

May 18, 2023

Barthol at the Freight and Salvage, Berkeley, CA, Nov. 2007. Photo Richard Bermack.

Bruce Barthol, a fixture at the ALBA/VALB reunions, was the unapologetic, rebellious, musical heart of the Tony award-winning, never silent, always revolutionary San Francisco Mime Troupe. With sardonic wit, cutting sarcasm, a vast knowledge of history, and a broad understanding of everything political, Bruce Barthol wrote lyrics that outraged, broke hearts, and inspired. A tribute.

Bruce Barthol was spirited, argumentative, brilliant, contrary and collaborative, cool and cranky, passionately pissed and hysterically funny, laid back, but always a twitch away from launching into an argument about anything and everything. He was the rock-bass-playing radical who became one of the most talented and prolific composer/lyricists in American musical theatre. He was stoned, he was sober, he was high, and he was low—but he was always there for the work of changing the world for the better.

I first saw Bruce when he took me to Golden Gate Park to see a play and there, in the middle of a meadow, was a small funky stage, a band, hundreds of audience members, and a wooden sign—“The San Francisco Mime Troupe.”

But there were no people in black tights who tried to get out of imaginary boxes, walked against imaginary wind, or pulled imaginary ropes! And it was absolutely not silent. Instead it was music, singing, comedy, and best of all…politics! “Factwino Meets The Moral Majority” was a wonderful combination of underground comix, zany cartoons, and passionate politics hilariously skewering the proto-fascistic religious fundamentalists/evangelical con men who preyed on the faithful, promoting prejudice for profit and power. And just when I thought these revolutionary truths and hijinks couldn’t get any better, a new character entered the stage: the two-headed villain behind every throne and presidential handshake, The Creature behind every curtain! Armageddonman—who strode onto stage with vicious glee and outrageous enjoyment, and then sang!

From “Armageddonman” (“Factwino Meets the Moral Majority”):

Can you guess just who we are?

One part business, one part war.

We own the weapons, banks and land—

Call us Armageddonman!


There is less, but want more, 

So we take it from the poor.

You can’t stop us no one can—

Because we’re Armageddonman!


Karl Marx predicted our demise,

But its on crisis that we thrive.

Find a new market, or a war will do

And we’ll see our historic mission through!

Even though our race is almost run,

When we are through you’ll all be done.

And what we don’t use up we’ll blow away—

On that Armageddon day!

Actually, it was two guys in a single costume, a couple of artists dedicated to overthrowing the military industrial complex by any means necessary, including farcically embodying it in a duel supervillain suit. Individually, they were Dan Chumley and the composer/lyricist of the Mime Troupe, Bruce Barthol. But together they were the two-headed supervillain: Armageddonman!

Some would say Bruce Barthol was already Rock & Roll Royalty by then. But if that were true, I think he would have immediately fomented a revolution against himself. Bruce was imbued from childhood with a hunger for justice and had developed a generous well of pissed-offed-ness he could draw on at any time. Though born in Berkeley, for a brief time he learned about fascism first-hand when his family experienced Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. He then returned to the U.S., where his parents pointed out the fascistic tendencies here at home, along with all our homegrown class warfare, hypocrisy, and violent racism.

So, of course, he ended up studying at the University of California at Berkeley. Bruce arrived at UCB just in time for the explosion of the Free Speech Movement. Sit-ins, strikes, occupying buildings—all in the name of educational freedom, of Civil Rights, of teaching real politics and history rather than just corporatist propaganda… You know, all the freedoms of educational thought Conservatives are still at war with.

And it was in that cauldron of revolution that a fellow musician invited Bruce to join him in a jam session with another musician, Joe Macdonald—who went by the nickname Country Joe.

In Country Joe and the Fish, 1967.

A year later, Bruce had dropped out of Berkeley and was off touring with Country Joe and The Fish, one of the biggest political folk/rock bands of the ’60s. Suddenly, he was in the vanguard of artists speaking out against The Vietnam War. Their song “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” (“1, 2, 3, 4, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam!”) was an anthem of the anti-war movement. They performed at protests and in concerts across the United States and Europe, including the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. Bruce’s love of politics seemed to make him a perfect fit for the musical movement, but his inability to go-along-to-get-along also meant that he couldn’t agree with what he saw as fundamentally bad political decisions by the band. So, while it was predictable, it was still a big disappointment when he was voted out of the band for refusing to endorse a denouncement of Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies before the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. (Trust me, it’s a long, weird story.)

After a stint in Europe with a new band, Bruce returned to the Bay Area, where the drummer Barry Levitan introduced him to The San Francisco Mime Troupe. Founded in 1959 as a theater “Of, By, and For the Working Class,” the Troupe had been performing its particular brand of political musical comedy for almost two decades by the time Bruce became its lyricist.

I couldn’t possibly note all the work Bruce did during the Reagan years—just so many wrongs to ridicule and critique—but of particular note were his songs about the United States’ habit of supporting any dictator, however brutal, who promises to support Capitalism over Socialism:

From “The Three Dictators Song“ (“1985”):

Hey, we’re glad to see ya, American guy!

We’re the best friends that your money can buy.

We’re fighting for freedom, and getting paid—

We’re Marcos, Mubutu, and Pinochet!


The struggles of unionism:


“Standing With The Union,” written with Eduardo Robledo (“Steeltown”)—

Supervisor tell me 

“Rose, you better go on home,” 

I came three thousand miles, 

not they’re telling me to go!

Then Rudy from the union say 

there’s one he know,

“Rose is working here –

The rest of you can go!”

That’s why I’m standing with the Union

Yeah I’m standing with the Union,

‘Cause the union stood by me!


And his powerful and haunting musical documenting of a massacre of fighters for The Republic by fascist soldiers during the Spanish Civil War:


From “Badajoz“ (“Spain”):

We saw the dust clouds grow large in the distance,

We shut the strong gates, and we took to the walls.

But riffles can’t hold off a motorized column,

And rifles are useless when bombs start to fall…

With Pete Seeger, New York City, 2005.

Bruce wrote for the oppressed, creating wrenchingly personal songs and soaring, inspiring anthems, chronicling revolutions. And he always had a special affinity for those great souls who fought against Franco’s fascists during the Spanish Civil War. His admiration for their selflessness and dedication to freedom shone through, not only in his work on that play, but also in his years with the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA). Each year Bruce worked tirelessly to help organize their annual reunions, sharing with audiences the importance of music for resistance.

Bruce Barthol singing with Nate Thornton at Berkeley VALB Picnic, Sept. 2007. Photo Richard Bermack.

In 1989, Bruce wrote one of his most beautiful, hopeful songs, about the struggle for a two-state solution between Palestine and Israel:

From “This is the Year” (“Seeing Double”):

This is the year of the possibility

Take a chance, stop the downward slide

Drop the guns, and take the hand,

That’s reaching out from the other side.


You can hear the clock is ticking

You can see there’s not much time

There is no god in the Holy Land,

Just people screaming

I want mine…,

In conversation with Barbara Dane (2021).

A tragic farce, “Seeing Double” toured for years across the United States, plus runs off Broadway, at the Kennedy Center, and a short run in East and West Jerusalem. Bruce’s song was the climax of the show; it brought audiences to tears of hope and heartbreak whenever it was performed.

Bruce knew how to structure scenes to build emotionally and comedically to justify song moments, and how to find the outrageousness in heartbreaking situations in such a way that did not undermine the terrible truths of class warfare.

From “Steal, Murder, and Lie” (“Social Work”):

It’s not just that they’re ignorant

Or that they loot and rob,

But as rulers of the Earth

They’re doing a very bad job!

Their arrogance is monstrous

Their ignorance profound

But the world will not stand still for them,

The wheel will turn around—

They stand on a volcano,

And they do not even know,

Unless there is some justice soon,

The whole things gonna blow!

Because they steal, Murder, and Lie!

Or in our show about the impoverishment brought by Free Trade designed to enrich the wealthiest 20 percent while further impoverishing the already poor 80 percent:

From “80/20”  (“Offshore”):

20 percent live on dry land,

While 80 percent drift out to sea!

20 percent have more then they need,

While 80 percent have next to nothing!


On a good day you will assemble chips,

On a bad day you’ll wash windows and beg for tips!

Or go out to the dump, and pick through the trash,

And scheme and dream of anyway to get some cash!


Anthems were Bruce’s specialty. For instance, his song from our play about environmental degradation and food poverty in the name of profit.


From “Rule of the Bottom Line” (“Eating It”):

I think we all must be from mars,

Or from some planet circling a distant star.

That’s why we can take the risks we take,

And why we can make the choices that we make.

We’re just visiting, not staying around,

So we can poison the water, the air and ground.

After all why should we care?

We know we’ll be returning to our home out there!


With Peter Carroll and Peter Glazer. Photo Jeannette Ferrary.

In 2000, when longtime Resident Playwright Joan Holden retired from The Troupe, Bruce stayed on, fighting the good fight to overthrow capitalism one musical comedy at a time, chronicling the lament of a homeless vet in our play about an America perpetually at war.


From “A Shot And A Bottle Of Beer” (“Veronique of the Mounties”):

I came back sick from the first Gulf War

The V.A. said I was fine.

I punched my commanding office

When he told me not to whine!


Then the Army they cashiered me

After serving nineteen years

So come on, Dot, gimme a shot

A shot and a bottle of beer,


I’m an invisible man who sleeps in his van

I don’t know how I got this way,

But I’m heading down the tubes

Along with the U S of A.


Or in the case of our play about the fight for Reason against impending American theocracy.


From “There Are The Times That Try Men’s Souls” (“GodFellas”):

This very life you lead, even you’re right to be,

Comes with intrinsic responsibilities

You must engage, and to not ignore

The threat to freedom standing at the door!

We can see the armies of the night,

Who’s superstitions kill the light,

Of reason and of liberty –

Is that the world we want to see?

Survival is a form of resistance!

If we die or give up, then they win.

I don’t have a plan or a roadmap, but

Let’s begin, let’s begin, let’s begin!


One of his last Troupe songs was, in many ways, a perfect Bruce Barthol call to arms: rebellious, truthful, angrily anti-Capitalist, inspiring, and hopeful.


“Armageddon” (“2012, the Musical!”):

Armageddon— just a distraction

To help the forces of reaction! 

Apocalyptic visions of annihilation

Breeds more fear, and alienation


In the US of amnesia,

Where it where so many seek anesthesia,

Crucial to controlling us is that we be afraid

So we don’t see how we’re being played…


Played by the bankers who made the economy fail,

Who kept what they stole and stayed out of jail.

Played by the media moguls who constantly lie,

Who distract and distort while democracy dies


Life— just a series of business transactions

With ever increasing resource extraction!

The world, sustained, can meet all of our needs

But not when run for corporate greed!

But not when run for corporate greed!


When the people are no longer afraid

Is when they’ll take to the barricades!

So stride on through the lies and spin

You just can’t let the bastards win!

We just can’t let….. the bastards win!

Bruce never stopped being an artist, a history nerd, a Defiant Defender of the Left, and the smartest hippie in the room.

And wherever there is a gritty revolutionary trying to rhyme “oligarchical capitalist swine” in such a way that is both important and hilarious, or a band is blaring out a worker’s anthem designed to uplift, infuriate, inform, and inspire, I gotta think Bruce will be in the corner, his fist in the air, a sly smile on his face, and his gravelly voice whispering “Right on, brother!”

Michael Gene Sullivan is an actor, writer, director, and teacher whose plays have been performed around the world. His directing credits include work with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and The African American Shakespeare Festival.