Folkie” is defined as “a singer, player or fan of folk music.” Yours truly falls into the fan category.
Back in the day, I was mesmerized and more than a little obsessed with the music of iconic artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Bob Marley, Donovan, Leonard Cohen, Simon & Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, and Peter, Paul and Mary, to name a few.
These were my musical heroes — gifted songwriters, musicians and vocalists who brought an indelible artistry (and social consciousness) to a treasure trove of original and traditional works that were irresistible then and now.
It’s therefore no surprise that during my career as an arts presenter — charged with bringing an annual roster of touring artists in multiple disciplines to numerous venues and a variety of communities — I leaned heavily toward choosing artists steeped in Americana, or traditional world music and who, for the most part, played unamplified (for example, The Wailin’ Jennys, Falco Jimenez, Judy Collins and David Grisman).
For inspiration and education about emerging talent in the field, I would habitually peruse the lineups of my most knowledgeable, “folk-minded” colleagues: The Ark (Ann Arbor), The Troubadour (Los Angeles), Old Town School of Folk Music (Chicago) and my all-time favorite, Freight & Salvage (Berkeley).
Call it fate or, as Will Shakespeare observed, “The wheel has come full circle.” I am currently assisting Freight & Salvage as interim programming director while the organization conducts a national search to fill the full-time position.
If there is a heaven for folkies, I’m now floating in it!
The thrill of being immersed in booking my favorite music, however, was quickly eclipsed early on by the organization’s reality: Sustainability of this $3.4 million nonprofit, founded in 1968, is heavily dependent on ticket revenue to the tune of 45 percent. To accomplish this goal, 340 nights on average are filled annually in the 490-seat venue. You read this correctly — 340 nights!
Many of the shows are both community-focused and mission-driven: “to promote public awareness and understanding of traditional music that is rooted in and expressive of the great variety of regional, ethnic and social cultures of peoples through the world” (TheFreight.org).
The Freight’s real estate is fully utilized, often with morning lectures, afternoon classes and events plus a calendar full of evening performances. While most shows are presented by the Freight, there’s also a mix of rentals, benefits and free-to-the-community offerings.
Take May for example, when there’s Tuesday open mics, a monthly Moth StorySLAM, “Classical at the Freight” and Patchwork-produced shows geared to children.
The Berkeley Bluegrass Festival last week comprised a three-day weekend of performances, workshops and lobby jams. Touring acts such as Blind Boys of Alabama, Break of Reality, Sean Watkins, The Waifs and Joan Shelley fill other dates. It’s a rich, diverse and affordable schedule that each month draws audiences from counties around the Bay Area (and only 20 percent from Berkeley).
“It all works because of the incredible history of the Freight,” said Sharon Dolan, executive director, “and the level of investment of people who’ve supported it for years. It’s amazing to me the number of people who say ‘we’ when referring to the Freight, well beyond the board and staff.”
As I sit in my comfy padded chair listening to the music of the new American folk trio The Kruger Brothers, I’m reveling in both the venue’s impeccable acoustics and carefully designed sight lines. Thoughts of our own Opera House drift by including the fantasy of a Blue Note café downstairs and Freight & Salvage cloned upstairs.
In this folkie’s paradise, anything is possible!