Arts & Events

Downhome Music at Its Best: Freight & Salvage

By Jane Stillwater, Special to the Planet
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 10:02:00 AM

“I’m about to go off to the grand opening of the fancy new Freight and Salvage folk music coffee house,” I told my son Joe, “but I seriously doubt that it will be as good as the original old funky Freight was back in 1972.” Remember the old Freight and Salvage? Legendary!  

“Remember that time when I almost gave birth to you right there on the Freight’s kitchen table?” You don’t? Oh. 

“I loved the old F&S!” I exclaimed. But to my delight and surprise, the new Freight and Salvage turned out to be equally as awesome as the original Freight and Salvage—and perhaps even more so. 

For eight long years back in the 1970s, my life totally revolved around Berkeley’s Freight & Salavage Coffeehouse. I worked in the kitchen baking cookies, listened avidly to the music, took money at the door, painted and cleaned the place up during the day and kept the musicians [very] happy at night. Our boss, Nancy Owens, had started the Freight in a former storage facility on San Pablo Avenue, across from the Albatross bar. I started working there in 1972. I’d make the coffee and my daughter Ruby would fall asleep under the kitchen table or in the musicians’ room. All of us lived on bluegrass, coffee laced with smuggled-in Jack Daniel’s, home-made brownies and handfuls of raw cookie dough. 

So today when I went to the grand opening of the new uptown Freight and Salvage, I wasn’t really expecting too much. But I thought that I’d stop by anyway, re-live some old times and see all the people I used to know back in the good old days. But you can’t go home again. I didn’t know anybody at the new Freight. And the place was upscale, high-tech and didn’t even have a kitchen table any more. I asked one docent if I could take a photo of my granddaughter Mena next to a snack table, the closest thing to the old table I could find. 

“No, you cannot,” replied the docent. “Liability insurance won’t allow it.” Humph. The old Freight and Salvage never had no stinkin’ liability insurance. And all of the staff’s kids practically lived in the place. The old Freight ran on fiddle music and the laughter of children. 

At the new Freight grand opening, when my granddaughter Mena and I went over to listen to a singing demonstration, Mena started to sing along—and a patron actually came up to me and said, “If you want, I can take your granddaughter out in the lobby to prevent the other patrons from being disturbed. They hate being disturbed.” Times have certainly changed. 

The closest I had come to experiencing anything like that at the old Freight and Salvage was when the lead singer for “Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen” came up to me after he saw that I was pregnant and said, “It’s not mine and good-bye!” 

Then, like I said, there was the time that I almost gave birth to Joe right there in the kitchen rather than miss out on a night of good fiddle music. And baby Joe also spent time sleeping under the table at the Freight. 

But the main focus at the Freight and Salvage was always the music. We featured some of the best bluegrass, folk and old-time music in the world. Lightning Hopkins, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotten, Ralph Stanley, the Joy of Cooking, U. Utah Phillips, Rosalie Sorrels and High Country. I remember when I was going out with the main singer for High Country, Pat Enright, and he said that he wanted to move to Nashville and try to make it in the big-time. I can’t believe that I actually told Pat Enright that he would never make it in Nashville, that he should stay here in Berkeley and that Nashville would only break his heart. Ha! Two Emmies, something like ten CDs and a world tour as a singer in the Nashville Bluegrass Band later... 

Anyway, Nancy Owens got tired of running the Freight, and we workers then tried to buy it. “Let’s form the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music,” I said. And we did. And we ran the Freight until some other people came along who offered to run it better. But good grief! Eight years of my life went into that place. I had music coming out of my ears! And now I go off to the freaking Grand Opening of the New Freight and Salvage and nobody even recognizes me—and nobody even cares. 

And then Mena and I went into the main stage concert hall and a Hawaiian guy named Patrick Landeza started playing slack-key guitar over the best sound equipment I have ever heard. EVER. And suddenly the old Freight and Salvage magic that had made the original F&S a magical place that I just loved was there right in the room with me again. And the new Freight and Salvage was suddenly as good as or better than the old one. And Mena started dancing. And nobody stopped her. 

Plus on the way out afterwards, one of the new managers spotted my antique “Freight and Salvage” T-shirt, came over to me, said hello and actually volunteered to listen to all my old stories about the old F&S—maybe even the ones that are X-rated... 

Then, on our walk home, Mena and I stopped by Provo Park, where the Freight and Salvage grand opening also had some open-air music going on and Eric and Susie Thompson, who used to play at the Freight 30 years ago, were playing Cajun waltzes and two-steps in the park and there were suddenly little kids everywhere—and them and me and toddler Mena did the two-step and it was suddenly even more like old times. 

P.S. About that fight that Mena had in the park with the 11-month-old over Mena’s stuffed Totoro? Well. Forget what you heard to the contrary. Mena won. I think. I have it on tape. Click here. Take bets. Mena weighed in a few pounds heavier, but that 11-month-old was fierce!