It started out to be a "jug band," but it isn't.
The four young men in the group were interested in traditional American music, but what they played together didn't emerge as a purely "traditional" sound; they had too much formal musical training, too much city background.
On the other hand, they didn't end up forming another "slick" commercial folk group.
Instead, they produced something unclassifiable which they called the Berkeley String Quartet: four men playing guitars, banjos, an autoharp, a washtub bass, harmonicas, kazoos and odds and ends like washboards, stovepipes and salad spoons.
Their repertoire ranges from traditional American songs and tunes through popular songs of the twenties and thirties to contemporary folk and topical songs.
Their approaches to songs range from irreverence -- as in the performance of "Grandfather's Clock" to the tick-tock of a wooden spoon held across Joe McDonald's teeth -- to simplicity and sincerity -- as in the flowing rendition of Bob Dylan's "If Today Were Not an Endless Highway."
Audiences in San Francisco Bay Area coffeehouses have learned that the group follows no pattern except unpredicability, but there are at Ieast two rules underlying the group's arrangements:
One -- based on the fact that two members of the quartet have made extensive study of folklore and traditional music -- is that traditional material should be treated with respect.
The other -- a sort of echo ot Spike Jones -- is that music should be fun, both for the performers and the audience.
Why the Berkeley String Quartet? Because something about that famous city drew together four young men with widely divergent backgrounds.
Bob Cooper, whose suggestion to form a jug band gave birth to the group, came west from New York City where he had been immersed in folk music since the age of 14. He attended Hofstra University in Long Island and St. John's College in Anapolis, Md. In between, he went to sea, working his way around the east coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Northern Europe. A devotee of old-time country music as played by performers like Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family, he performs on guitar, 12 string guitar and five-string banjo.
Joe McDonald came to Berkeley from Los Angeles with the stated intention of becoming a professional folk singer. He had studied classical trombone for nine years, played in a Dixieland jazz combo, and in high school led a rock 'n roll group. He carried his guitar through three years in the Navy, learning songs along the way, and occasionally writing his own.
Carl Shrager was formerly a classical pianist, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 15. He attended Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he discovered folk music. The discovery led him from Oberlin to Berkeley, and then to some 50,000 miles of travel through every state and nearly every city in America. He performs on guitar, autoharp and assorted home made rhythm instruments, and has composed original ballads and love songs.
Bill Steele, who provides the musical foundation for the group on washtub bass, came to the Bay Area five years ago from upstate New York, where he had encountered folk music and learned to play guitar and banjo in the Cornell University Folk Song Club. He was at one time editor of a small newspaper and currently pursues a career as a freelance writer, specializing in science articles for young people's magazines.