Noe Valley Voice September 2009

Bruce Sherman was a musician and song collector who charmed his many listeners at Noe Valley cafes and bookstores.

Troubadour Bruce Sherman, 1943-2009

By James Koehneke

Musician Bruce Sherman passed away on Aug. 9, 2009. Many know him as the kind gentleman who played the accordion and concertina at Phoenix Books on weekend evenings. Others will remember earlier years when Bruce frequented the old Meat Market Coffeehouse, and more recently Martha's, where they would have enjoyed his earnest manner, wry sense of humor, his graciousness and courtesy.

Bruce will be missed by many people in many communities. A fourth-generation San Franciscan whose happiest years were spent in Noe Valley, he was devoted to local history and lore. Bruce loved to regale all comers with tales of the past. His German-speaking grandparents lived at 30th and Church. Bruce said English was a second language in the household in what was then a German neighborhood.

Bruce was born on April 18, 1943. He was proud to share his birthday with the annual commemoration of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906. Every year at 5 a.m., Mr. Sherman would be at Lotta's Fountain for the ringing of the bell at the moment of the quake. He laughed that one year he did feel a little temblor--not the Big One, of course.

Though Bruce was born in San Francisco in the neighborhood near Lake Merced, his family moved to San Carlos down the Peninsula when he was 5. His mother joked that Bruce never quite got over leaving San Francisco, and when he eventually found his way back to the city, he came to stay for good.

Bruce served in the Army Signal Corps, stationed in Germany in the early 1960s. He and a fellow soldier there became buskers--spontaneous street musicians--to pass the time. His love of music developed into an avocation which he shared with others for the rest of his life. He was part of a major movement in American roots music in which every source of live or recorded music, from every part of the world, became part of the American songbag.

As a self-made folk scholar, Bruce collected songs from recordings and from the performances of others for decades. By the end of his life, he had a songster's mastery of many forms of Anglo/Irish/French dance tunes, which even included the archaic English morris dance. A natural teacher, he presented his tunes with introductions and background stories.

His primary vocation was as a craftsman, however. He became skilled at cabinetry and design, using innovative techniques of framing glass and wood. Upon his return to San Francisco, Bruce had become acquainted with the prominent artist/sculptor Ruth Asawa and her husband, architect Albert Lanier, residents of Noe Valley. "They took Bruce under their wing," Bruce's mother explained to this writer.

Through them, Bruce found work at Hoffer Glass Company south of Market. Bruce's window-framing work was sculptural, in that it involved many-faceted shapes, with deceptively simple-looking hexagonal or octagonal features. A culmination of this work was his scale-model of R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic dome. Bruce met Fuller at Ruth Asawa's, and the meeting was a high point of his life.

There is lasting evidence of Bruce Sherman's personal history, at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. There, one will find his name on a plaque at the permanent exhibit of Ruth Asawa's sculpture, an acknowledgment of his contribution to one of her pieces. A rare honor, he told his friends--and yet, in his own characteristic way, a quiet understatement of his own unique talent.

Bruce Sherman's deepest interest seemed to be in the history of San Francisco. He was devoted to its many causes, and was an avid appreciator of its technical glories--especially the cable cars and ferry lines, the steam-driven railroads, and the city's unique maritime history. He had a special expertise in San Francisco maps, going back to the earliest days. Accurate maps were a key to the world of the city in every era, he said, and he appreciated them as a true art form.

Most recently Bruce devoted his time to perfecting his musical craft. He performed on button accordion and concertina weekly at the Hyde Street Pier, aboard the historic ship Balclutha, and played a variety of instruments in a variety of ensembles, sometimes at the Cafe Trieste in North Beach, or in sessions at other cafes around the city, and finally at Phoenix Books where he seemed most at home. The unexpected pleasure of live music, without fuss (or amplification), was Bruce's ideal. People responded with a smile, assuming that the next time they'd stop by, he'd be there.

Bruce Sherman would always end the evening with this lovely Irish tune:

The Parting Glass

O, all the money e'er I had,

I spent it in good company.

And all the harm that e'er I've done,

Alas it was to none but me.

And all I've done for want of wit

To mem'ry now I can't recall;

So fill to me the parting glass,

Good night and joy be with you all.

O, all the comrades e'er I had,

They're sorry for my going away.

And all the sweethearts e'er I had,

They'd wished me one more day to stay.

But since it falls unto my lot,

That I should rise and you should not,

I gently rise and softly call,

Good night and joy be with you all.

A memorial will be held for Bruce Sherman at the Noe Valley Ministry on Sept. 13, 2009, from 3 until 7 p.m.