From the opening shout of “San Francisco Bay BLUES!” I was a Jesse Fuller fan. I didn’t learn many of his songs, because I couldn’t do with them what he did with them, but my favorites were always his pop and ragtime numbers, and I picked up a few over the years, starting with this one, which became my showpiece, complete with harmonica and kazoo breaks. I didn’t play either instrument like him, but came up with perky solos that always got a good reception — I did it at a talent show in high school, along with “The Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me,” and also at the talent show that finished off a long day of conferencing at an international Trotskyist youth conference in London — I had briefly joined the Workers League, the US affiliate of the British Workers Revolutionary Party, which had split from the Socialist Workers Party in a schism led, in part and not coincidentally, by Dave and Terri Van Ronk. That was one of the largest crowds I’ve ever played for, and “San Francisco Bay” brought down the house and made me think I could maybe actually do this for a living.
I stopped playing kazoo after a while, and don’t even play much harmonica anymore, but whenever I listen to Jesse Fuller I’m tempted to go the one man band route again, because he always sounds like he’s having so much fun.
As for “San Francisco Bay Blues,” it became a folk revival standard largely due to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who learned it from Fuller during a swing through the Bay Area and played it regularly — I’m pretty sure I learned the chords from the Young Folk Song Book, which even had tablature to Elliott’s strummed guitar intro. Like “Sweet Home Chicago” on the blues scene, it was popular in part because its title city had romantic associations for a lot of people — thanks in part to Kerouac and the beats, San Francisco was a fabled haunt of Bohemia, and became the main West Coast branch of the folk-blues revival. If anyone I knew, from my leftist uncle to my favorite musicians, went out to the West Coast, it was pretty much taken for granted that they’d go to Berkeley or San Francisco, so the song had an added romantic appeal beyond its cheery melody and the neat way Fuller’s words fit together.