At 35, the Freight Finds Its Future in Tradition

By FRED DODSWORTH Special to the Planet
Friday June 06, 2003

Whether it’s been gone so long or always on your mind, the sound of “traditional” music is everywhere these days except on commercial radio. Then again, who listens to commercial radio? 

Berkeley’s own Freight and Salvage Coffee House, a rare and enduring stalwart on the traditional music circuit, celebrates 35 years of live acoustic music this month with a special anniversary concert featuring prodigal son Phil Marsh with the long deceased, now resurrected Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band on Saturday, June 14. 

The Skiffle band performed opening night in 1968 and was a local favorite and mainstay of the Fillmore and Avalon ballrooms. In their heyday, the group released five albums, including a “superstar” spoof under the nom de guerre Masked Marauders. Greil Marcus touted the album in Rolling Stone magazine. Joining the original Skiffle band members are a veritable hootenanny’s worth of renowned musicians, renegades, mystery guests and other ne’er do wells such as Bruce Barthol, Darryl Henriques, Arthur Holden, Marc Silber, “Dynamite” Annie Johnston and Will Scarlett—promising to turn this into the traditional music event of the season. 

Inadvertently begun back in 1968 as a local clubhouse for friends of Nancy Owens, the Freight, as it’s affectionately called, immediately evolved into an unprofitable music venue. No money meant that everything that needed to be done had to be done by volunteers, a condition formalized by a conversion to nonprofit status in 1983.  

Current executive director and chief bottle washer Steve Baker recalled those times:  

“In 1983 the group of people involved in the club at that time wanted to transform the Freight, whatever it was, into a nonprofit organization, a traditional music organization. A friend of mine asked me if I knew anything about non-profit organizations and how they worked. I knew quite a lot actually,” Baker said. “I’d written some books on the subject and I was working for what’s now called California Lawyers for the Arts. I did the incorporating work and ended up being on the board of directors and here I am. I’m responsible for the entire operation. I’m one of four full-time employees. On the nuts and bolts level I edit the calendar, I oversee the finances, I do the booking. Also, I talk to all the agents and performers and cut the deals. But I’ve done just about everything. It helps me to get the end result that I want.” 

Today the Freight is the performance venue for the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music. 

“We define traditional music as music that’s rooted in and expressive of many of the varieties of cultural and social, ethnic and regional cultures that exist in the world,” said Baker. “It’s a window into another culture. It’s the living, growing product of a culture, not the calcified culture of a century ago or whatever. It’s an on-going process, which connects it with the folk process — the transmission of the oral tradition of art and music, the transmission of a culture from generation to generation. It’s the window that we all have into our own culture and into someone else’s culture.” 

As is only appropriate for a now middle-aged venue, the Freight has grown up.  

“Twenty years ago we were in an 80-seat store front around the corner,” Baker said. “Today we’re in a 220-seat theater. We had a mailing list of less than a thousand when I first got involved in this operation. Today our mailing list is pretty close to 10,000. These are 10,000 very current names of people who haven’t moved, or people who tell us when they move, of people who support the organization. About a third of the people on that list are members, people who have paid dues or made some sort of contribution in the last three years. So it’s grown. It’s a broader demographic, if you want to use that word. The age demographic is broader. I’ve got a daughter who recently graduated from college and I see her friends here now. I see them signing up on the mailing list. I think we’ve expanded the demographics all the way around.” 

Not content with simple survival, the society recently purchased two adjoining buildings (formerly an automotive garage and the current home of the Capoeira Café) in Berkeley’s downtown Arts District in addition to its current home at 1111 Addison St. The organization plans to move into the new 400-plus-seat theater in 2006, after completing a $4.5 million renovation.  

Despite its lack of exposure on commercial radio, traditional music is enjoying growing popularity. 

“It goes in cycles but I think there’s always been a great deal of interest in this music,” Baker said. “Sometimes there are different aspects of it that are more prevalent than others, but I think the interest is deeply rooted, in this society, in this country, and it’s been deeply rooted for decades. It’s always been there.” 


The Freight & Salvage Coffee House is located at 1111 Addison St. in Berkeley. Phone number is 510-548-1761 or e-mail info@freightandsalvage.org. The Freight & Salvage Web site is located at http://www.thefreight.org/.