The Oganookie Story: 

More than Just a Band

 

Peter Troxell, Jack Bowers and George Stavis

 

    Oganookie was more than just a band.  It was a way of life to the musicians in it, their family and friends, and to the Santa Cruz people who listened and danced to their music.  Oganookie remains in the memories of many who mark significant moments in their lives by remembering what happened to them “the night we went to see Oganookie.”  During the spring of 1971, Oganookie’s appearances at UCSC and clubs, and the band’s growing reputation, attracted an audience of people who looked around at themselves and discovered they were a community.  And the community was a reflection of the band, five individuals for whom the importance of community was equal to their music.

 

    George Stavis, Jack Bowers, Tim Ackerman and Bob Stern met each other in the late 60s when they were students at Haverford College near Philadelphia.  George and Jack got there first and lived across the hall from one another and soon were picking bluegrass songs together – George on the banjo and Jack then playing guitar.  Tim was the school’s one and only rock and roll drummer and George traded the banjo for an electric guitar to play in a band with him.  When Bob, a serious violinist with credits at Julliard, came to Haverford he roomed with George’s younger brother.  George taught Bob that a violin could also be a “fiddle” and introduced him to the fine art of folk fiddling.  Bob also played bass in a group called Federal Duck.  A friend of George’s in New York needed a band to record and George rounded up Federal Duck as well as Tim and Jack.  The record has disappeared into near oblivion but at least the four friends (all philosophy and/or religion majors in school) got a chance to play together officially for the first time.

 

    After graduation, George went to Purdue in Indiana for grad work and student protests and Jack went home to Wisconsin to drive a cab, play the piano and write songs.  George had an idea for an unusually eclectic instrumental record and went East to record an album with Tim on Vanguard Records.  The album was called “Labyrinths, Occult Improvisational Compositions for 5-String Banjo and Percussion.”  The reviews were great but sales slim.  When Tim finished at Haverford he went to New York to play in a rock group and Bob went to Brandeis in Boston for graduate study.  After a year at Purdue, George received a fellowship in Philosophy to study at UC San Diego.  The money was more than one person needed to live on so he contacted Tim, Jack and Bob to ask if they wanted to join him in California and form a band.  Everyone said yes.

 

    In San Diego George, Bob and Tim played together at clubs as the George Stavis Trio, taking advantage of the fact that George had his name on a record.  At home they jammed together with Jack, now on piano, and with a singer and guitarist they had met while performing.  The singer, Bruce Frye, had been studying and teaching pottery at La Jolla Museum by day and playing folk clubs at night.  He had won top prize as a blues guitarist at the San Diego Folk Festival.  He started coming over to the house and sitting in with what was soon to become Oganookie.  (The name has ancient roots and is shrouded in obscurity.)

 

    After a year in San Diego, Tim decided to return to college and received a scholarship for the History of Consciousness program at UC Santa Cruz.  George, too, signed up for school there.  The group, which now included Bruce, took a vote and decided to move north with Tim.  They sent an ad to the Sentinel newspaper: “Four Ph.D. candidates seek study retreat in mountains.”  They were offered a hillside farm beyond their wildest back-to-nature dreams (and financial resources).  Unable to live solely on Tim and George’s study grants, the high rent literally forced them to get it together and play music for pay.  Soon to join them was Peter Troxell, a former managing director of the Stanford Repertory Theater and recipient of Ford and Rockefeller grants.  His extraordinary vision and organizational abilities were just what the musicians needed to free their time for writing songs and rehearsing.

 

    As a band, Oganookie brought diverse musical experiences to the group.  Bruce Frye’s music was strongly rooted in the acoustic blues tradition of Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt and Muddy Waters; he was also a songwriter with a strong melodic sense and intelligent lyric sensibility.  Tim Ackerman had grown up playing and listening to music in the New York area.  As a teenager he heard jazz greats on 52nd Street, and played gigs on Long Island with Little Eva.  Bob Stern was a classically trained violinist, and performed for a while as part of the Julliard Youth Orchestra.  In college he took up electric bass and applied the same highly disciplined practice ethic to that instrument as he had used on the violin.  On electric violin, he was able to meld his formidable classical technique with bluegrass fiddle repertoire.  George Stavis continued to evolve a unique style on the banjo by electrifying his instrument, somehow accommodating the styles of Eric Clapton, Ravi Shankar and Earl Scruggs at once. Keyboardist Jack Bowers primary influence in the band was as principal songwriter; his songs drew on the entire American songbag, from Appalachian music to Fats Waller to Broadway show music.

 

    Upon arriving in Brookdale in 1970, the musicians of Oganookie dedicated themselves to developing a sufficient repertoire to fulfill the four set, four-hour gig expected of working bands at that time.  The repertoire evolved in several different directions.  

 

    First, the Appalachian music tradition provided many of the songs that were to become performance staples.  Chief among these were tunes from the Bluegrass songbook such as “Orange Blossom Special,” “Uncle Pen,” and “Little Maggie.”   These songs, and other Oganookie tunes from the American folk repertoire, took a psychedelic left turn from their roots, electrified, framed in rock and jazz rhythms with extended solos.  Bob would introduce “Orange Blossom Special” by saying “Get ready for 10 minutes of sweat and boogie.” “Orange Blossom Special” became an ecstatic celebration of expressive hippie dance that left dancers and musicians elated and exhausted.  The improvisational dynamic of Bob and George spurring each other to greater heights of inventiveness was something to behold, even for their fellow band members who heard it every night.  

 

    Bruce contributed several blues classics to the repertoire including a beautiful version of “Corinna”, and the Muddy Waters’ classic “I’m Troubled.”  Bruce’s fine original songs such as “My Way” also became part of the song list.

  

    Jack’s songs constituted about half of Oganookie’s repertoire.  They ranged from reimaginings of traditional Appalachian songs like “Black Jack Davy;” blues influenced love songs, “The Blues Ain’t Nothing but a Bad Dream;” Fats Waller style humorous songs, “(That’s Not to Say That) Your Woman is Ugly;” jazz tunes a la Lambert Hendricks and Ross; “Play It Cool;” and songs with a Broadway flavor, “Under the Old Apple Tree.”  Lyrically, many of his songs chronicled the individual and social changes that were rampant in 1970s Santa Cruz.  They reflected the complexity of love relationships in this new world and the search for a meaningful life outside of the traditional social structures we had grown up with.

    Long listening sessions with local record collector/musicologist Glenn Allen Howard exposed Oganookie to diverse musical influences, from jazz violinist Stuff Smith to the lyric humor of Fats Waller and the ground breaking big band arrangements of Fletcher Henderson.

    It all came together, embellished with the complex vocal and instrumental arrangements that the group layered over Jack’s songs as well as reimagined traditional tunes.  Bruce’s soulful voice, Bob’s and George’s harmonies and instrumental virtuosity and Tim’s incredibly tuneful drumming, together with Jack’s tunes and piano playing created a blend of lyric sophistication and powerful instrumentals that reached out to listeners and revelers.

 

    When Oganookie arrived in Santa Cruz in September, 1970, there were a few local bands but no music scene to speak of and hardly any musicians made a living wage.  The George Stavis Trio played the Whole Earth Restaurant at UCSC several times.  Oganookie’s debut as an official, professional band was at a benefit for Cesar Chavez at Merrill College.  The next breakthrough came a few months later when Oganookie played a concert at UCSC’s athletic field supposedly featuring Crosby, Stills & Nash.  When the headliners failed to show, the local musicians averted a near riot by turning the disappointed audience on to their own particular brand of music.

 

    From there the band pressed forward, supported by a growing following who came to see them at clubs and in concerts, often with their children in tow.  City people and mountain people and students who came not just to sit and listen, but to dance and be part of the performance.  They shared potluck spaghetti dinners with the band at the Town and Country Lodge and buffet dinners at the Plantation, and learned to look upon the musicians not as untouchable celebrities but as friends and neighbors.  Oganookie played for the community at street fairs and at benefits for Switchboard, KUSP, Sundaz and other organizations. Oganookie was the house band at the Catalyst as well as the Town and Country and, what’s more, they were the Santa Cruz band and the community felt included enough to take pride in their growth and accomplishments.  

 

    The “Oganookie Plantation”, as the band’s communal residence became known, was composed of the band members, a core group of family and close friends, and a rotating cast of visitors, men, women and children.  For most of its history the commune had 15 stable members. In addition to the band members mentioned above, the core group was composed of Sherry (Bella) Frye, Consuelo Barragan, Jessica Frye, Maria Lucinda “Lucy” Garcia, Acacia Fruitgarden, Diana Troxell, David Bowers, Adriana Troxell, Candis Halverson, Courtney McGuire, and Jannette Walsh.  The commune was very accommodating to short term and long term visitors.  

 

    Life at the Plantation was an experience.  There were hundreds of visitors, friends, family and curious musicians who came away with a full stomach, heads reeling with music, and insights about communal living.  In the beginning everyone lived in the main house which had six bedrooms, a huge living room and a full porch overlooking the redwoods.  When Peter came he lived in the room next to the garage and the garage was turned into a rehearsal studio.  Jack and Acacia built a dome out in the orchard.  George and Janette renovated the guest house and moved in.  Bruce and Lucy turned the chicken coop into a home.

 

    One of the great joys of our communal life was the children who lived among us. Consuelo Barragan, age nine when she arrived, and three toddlers Jessica Frye Courtney McGuire and Adriana Troxell helped bring an expanded sense of family into our world.  Though most of us were not biological parents at the time, we were privileged to observe and participate in their lives as they grew.

    When there wasn’t music to rehearse there were vegetable seeds to plant, bread to bake, wood to chop, cars to fix, septic tanks to rebuild and meals to cook (not to mention dishes to wash).  Though living in harmony with a large group of creative people was a great challenge, we also remember the joy and union we felt as we sat down and held hands for our nightly communal dinner.

 

    Oganookie went north to play in Berkeley, Stockton, Marin County, and south to audition for the men who controlled the music business.  But the band away from Santa Cruz was never quite the same.  At their highest, Oganookie was an astounding interplay of energy between musicians and audience.  Without that audience to play their part in the performance, something was missing.

 

    Why did Oganookie end in 1973?  There is no one clear reason.  Some thought it was their lack of success in getting a recording contract.  Others cited economic reasons – the difficulty in supporting nearly a dozen people by only playing locally.  The public’s unwillingness to allow their music to evolve had something to do with it.  The predominant reason, probably, was that the members of Oganookie grew apart as they realized needs for individual rather than group accomplishment.

 

    Oganookie did finally make a record but it became a parting gift to their community and not a step on the road to stardom.  Like the wooden Oganookie plaque that graced the Catalyst wall for 30 years, the record is a testament not to what might have been but to what was:  a time of creation and of sharing for both the people of Santa Cruz and for the Oganookie family. 

 

    As to the members, Bruce and Jack remain in Santa Cruz.   Bruce has become an excellent arborist and photographer.  Jack, after working with Jill Croston (Lacy J. Dalton), continues to work as a jazz musician and has had a 38-year career in the Arts in Corrections program in California prisons and jails.  Bob became a dentist and continued his musical career; he has retired from dentistry, lives in Montauk, New York and gigs frequently, particularly with the great Mexican guitarist Gil Gutierrez.   Tim lives and plays drums in the New York area.  George, who built and ran the Louden Nelson Center for a decade, has retired from his law practice.  He lives north of New York and performs occasionally, including a recent concert featuring his solo banjo style in a festival near Washington, D.C. 

    Two Oganookie reunions were held.  In 1979, Oganookie performed at the New Catalyst [see Christian Kallen’s review below], and in 1991 at the Cocoanut Grove at the Boardwalk.  

    We remember fondly three who are no longer with us: our beloved manager Peter Troxell, who served his community and the arts with wisdom and dedication his entire life; David Bowers, who went from Oganookie roadie to work as a sound engineer for musicians as diverse as The Doobie Brothers and Luciano Pavarotti; and Lucy Garcia, whose generous, expanded sense of family touched so many people in Santa Cruz.