High on the wall of the lobby of the Freight & Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley is an oil painting of a rangy fellow, legs akimbo, intently plucking a banjo. There is, by the look on his face, only the music. The man is Mayne Smith and, as the portrait tribute suggests, he was there from the beginning.
Smith, who in addition to being a fine banjo player was also the founding chairman of the board of “the Freight,” in many ways still exemplifies the spirit of the place.
“There was a sense of community that everyone was interested in fostering,” said Smith of those early days. “It was very egalitarian.”
In existence for nearly forty years, the Freight & Salvage Coffee House remains a scene where music matters more than commerce and being true to yourself still is widely thought to be its own reward. This spirit has seen the place grow from its beginnings in a failed used-furniture store (it kept the name) that seated just 87 people to its current 220-seat home at 1111 Addison Street, three blocks away.
Now, with the help of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Freight & Salvage Coffee House-formally known by its nonprofit name, the Berkeley Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music-has begun renovating a new home in the heart of Berkeley’s new downtown arts district that will carry the little music venue into its next forty years.
Broadening Its Mission
With a $1 million grant from Hewlett’s Performing Arts Program, the Freight has embarked on an $8.6 million renovation of a former auto repair shop that will increase its overall space six-fold and more than double its seating capacity. As befits an institution entering middle age, it will share its collective wisdom in classrooms that the additional space will make possible.
Plans also call for a small café, a music-related retail space, and an archive for folk and traditional music. That last should be a sweet sound to Mayne Smith, who has a degree in ethnomusicology and in 1965 wrote what is considered to be the first scholarly article on bluegrass music, for the Journal of American Folk Music. Now an emeritus board member, he’s still a regular at Freight shows.
The grant to the Freight is part of a broader commitment the Hewlett Foundation has made to increase permanent performing space throughout the Bay Area. Since 2002, the Foundation has underwritten twenty-three such projects, and by 2012 will have added more than 500,000 square feet to the region’s various performing arts organizations.
A-Changin’ with the Times
Today the Freight & Salvage Coffee House is the oldest full-time venue for folk and traditional music west of the Mississippi, and its mission reaches beyond the original blend of Appalachian music woven with bluegrass, blues, country, and a thread of gospel. These days, world music comprises a good part of its programming, meaning that on any given night the audience might be as likely to hear Tarika from Madagascar or an Iraqi oud player, as it would a Ralph Stanley or Berkeley’s own Laurie Lewis.
“That’s changed dramatically in the last ten years,” says Steve Baker, the self-described “recovering lawyer” who has been the Freight’s executive director since 1983.
“It wasn’t a conceptual change on our part,” he continued. “It was the availability of the musicians. That started in the 1980s. Our core audience is more mobile than the average. It used to be someone would come back from Cambridge or Ann Arbor and say, ‘I just saw so-and-so and you should see them.’ Now they come back from Mali and say the same thing.”
But, he said, that broadening embrace also is very much in keeping with the history of the place. “It’s always been about different traditions informing each other. It’s always been people sharing their musical backgrounds with other musicians.”
Since 1968, when Berkeley resident Nancy Owens started the Freight as an alcohol-free place where “men and women and children could come together in a spirit of community,” the reach of the music was broader than the then-waning folk revival of the early 1960s.
“There were many musicians at the Freight & Salvage who were self-employed folklorists,” says Smith.
“They’d travel, meet sources of the music around the country and come back and share what they had found. A lot of them would busk on campus, and then come and play the Freight for a piece of the gate.”
A Rich Musical Heritage
Among the musicians who contributed to and were nurtured by this mix over the years are Country Joe and The Fish, Asleep at the Wheel, Lightnin’ Hopkins, R. Crumb and his Cheap Suit Serenaders, Alison Krauss, and Ralph Stanley, who has made yearly visits since 1991.
The popularity of traditional music has risen and fallen through the years that the Freight has kept the flame burning. Baker said the success in 2000 of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?-a retelling of Homer’s Odyssey set in the Depression-Era South, which featured a range of traditional American music-marked a major inflection point in the music’s most recent resurgence. Today, Baker says, he and the Freight staff talk about letting members of the audience stop for an instant MP3 download of a concert as they walk out.
Hammers “gently” will start to swing in the Freight’s new home this August or September, says Development Director Jeanne Friedman. She says “gently” because the project is seeking Silver Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council and so will be reducing, reusing, and recycling as it demolishes. Friedman said there’s a one-year timetable for construction, with plans to open doors at the new facility in the fall of 2008, in time for the Freight’s fortieth anniversary.
“It’s opening up a whole new vista for us,” says Executive Director Baker. “We’ll be able to present who we’ve always presented but to a much broader audience. And we can bring ticket prices down for the bigger draws because we can sell more tickets.
“People often ask us what it means to be a nonprofit community arts organization,” he says. “The best way I can explain it is to say that we are motivated by the mission. We’re nonprofit because we think the music we present is too important to be exclusively subject to the commercial dictates of the music business.”