The Freight & Salvage is a nonprofit community arts organization dedicated to promoting public awareness and understanding of traditional music—music that is rooted in and expressive of the great variety of regional, ethnic, and social cultures of peoples throughout the world. We are supported by your attendance, grants, musicians’ benefit performances, volunteer efforts, and your generous tax deductible donations.
Berkeley, California, in the 1960s, was characterized by a free-wheeling mix of anti-establishment politics, radical life-style experimentation, struggles for racial and gender equality, and a profound respect for traditional cultures able to survive and even flourish outside the commercial “mainstream.”
This ethos was vitally linked to the city’s music scene. Country Joe & The Fish, Barbara Dane, Alice Stuart, Asleep at the Wheel, Lightin’ Hopkins, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders, Brownie McGee, Utah Phillips, the East Bay Sharks, and the Cleanliness & Godliness Skiffle Band are just a few of the artists who contributed to and were nurtured by this mix. Performance venues, including the Odyssey, the Cabale, the Jabberwock, New Orleans House, the Longbranch Saloon, Keystone, Mandrakes, and the New Monk, all had periods of glory.
Today, there is but one performance venue that continues to reflect those heady times. Since its founding in 1968, the Freight & Salvage has been deeply rooted in that aspect of Berkeley’s culture that embraced freedom, justice, acceptance, collaboration, and innovation. The Freight is mission-driven, and has become a world famous venue for traditional music– music that is rooted in and expressive of the great variety of regional, ethnic, and social cultures of peoples throughout the world.
It all began when Nancy Owens took over the lease and the name of a failing used furniture store at 1827 San Pablo Avenue. Keeping her predecessor’s business sign, telephone number, and yellow page listing, she re-opened the door as an 87-seat coffee house in June of 1968. “It was the first place that was available,” Nancy recounts. “I had a vision of a place where people could be whatever they wanted to be, as individuals and as members of a community. Almost immediately, kindred souls gathered around and gifted musicians emerged to fill the room with song.” In those days, everything was done by hand. Volunteers baked cakes and cookies and brewed tea and coffee on a small stove, and augmented the inventory taken over from the furniture operation with tables and chairs accumulated from a thrift stores, garage sales and donations.
“By 1968 psychedelic rock ruled the Bay Area and the pop charts, and folk music was written off as dead,” Nancy recalls. Nevertheless, players picked guitars and plucked banjos and the Freight’s impact grew. By the end of its first year, we had presented an amazing array of talent from all over the world — Mexican, Chinese, bluegrass, acoustic delta blues, jazz, Celtic fiddling and dancing. “From the start, my hope was to be multi-ethnic and multi-racial,” Nancy continues, “a group of men and women and children who could get together in a spirit of community. Somehow, our dreams came together and meshed, and we created this community.”
By 1972 the Freight was the hub of a growing folk and old time music scene so remarkable that traditional Appalachian folk performer Mike Seeger documented it with the album Berkeley Farms (Folkways). At the same time, the Freight welcomed new and experimental music. When mandolin player David Grisman created his Dawg blend of bluegrass and jazz, he brought his ensembles to the Freight to develop the new approach. As women’s music broke out of its underground confines, the Freight welcomed Teresa Trull, Meg Christian, and Cris Williamson. Delia Bell and Bill Grant brought in a band of Nashville heavyweights to play a mixture of bluegrass, acoustic country, and blues that has become known as Americana and alt-country. The Terminators of Endearment skewered and barbecued every sacred cow in sight with original tunes that sounded like they were written by the children of Tom Lehrer and Noel Coward and arranged by Phil Ochs.
By 1983, with Owens moving on to other endeavors, patrons, performers, and employees formally incorporated the operation as the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music. Thanks to a solid base of community support, astute business practices, and a little bit of luck, the club was on its way to becoming a secure cultural institution. Steve Baker, a guitarist and “recovering lawyer,” came on board at that time. “The Freight already had the attributes of a community organization,” Steve recalls. “We’re a nonprofit because the music we present is too important to be subject, exclusively, to the commercial dictates of the music business.” “The change-over was more of a formality and the success of the new group became obvious within the first year. Mayne Smith was the organization’s first board chair. A talented songwriter and performer, he understood that the primary asset of any community organization is trust, and he set a standard for good faith and for commitment to service that continues to set the tone for the organization. Allison Fisher managed the club during that period. She was very effective at bringing new people into the audience, and after four years many of us were casting about for a way to expand our seating capacity.”
After a year’s search, the organization settled into its facility at 1111 Addison Street. Only three blocks from the original storefront, and with 220 seats and a new sound system (thanks to Berkeley-based Meyer Sound Labs), the new facility became one of the best spots in the San Francisco Bay Area to see and hear live music. Randy Pitts was hired to do the booking, and expanded the scope of the music before moving to Nashville. Within a year, the audience was growing sufficiently to fill the seats and the “new” Freight was off and running.
The club celebrated its 40th Anniversary in June of 2008. It remained a valuable community resource and continued its eclectic booking policy. Traditional music from outside the continental US began to make up a good portion of its programming—the Freight hosted Hawaii’s Dennis Kamakahi, Tarika from Madagascar, Hungary’s Muzsikas with Marta Sebestyen, Iraqi oud player, Rahim Alhaj, and Tlen-Huicani, Mexico’s leading exponents of traditional gulf coast music along with such favorites as Greg Brown, Dar Williams, Alasdair Fraser, Dan Bern, Ricky Skaggs, Cheryl Wheeler, and Odetta.
Thanks to a dedicated board of directors, Steve Baker’s leadership, the City of Berkeley, and the generosity of its donors, the Freight moved to its current, world-class location in the heart of the Berkeley Arts District. The Freight celebrated 50 years in 2018, with a commitment to continue its work preserving and promoting traditional music. Sharon Dolan, executive director from 2015 to 2021, said, “as we look forward toward our next 50 years, our mission will continue to be at the heart of our work. We look forward to engaging more fully with our community and to giving back to the community that has been so generous with us.”
The Freight’s superb sound system is composed of speakers and amplifiers exclusively designed and installed by Meyer Sound Labs of Berkeley. We offer our sincere thanks to the folks at Meyer Sound for the generous support and assistance they have provided year after year. Their contribution has been indispensable in establishing the Freight as a premier listening room.