San Pablo Avenue Folk Music Clubs
The Steppenwolf: 2135 San Pablo Avenue
The Blind Lemon: 2362 San Pablo Avenue
Cabale, Cabale Creamery, Good Buddy, Caverns West, Questing Beast, Tito’s, Babylon, and Longbranch Saloon: 2504 San Pablo
The Jabberwock: 2901 Telegraph Avenue
Freight and Salvage: 1827 San Pablo Avenue
The folk music revival that began in the late 1950s was part of the cultural shift that peaked during the excesses of the disruptive 1960s and early 1970s and ebbed with the entrance of Rock on the popular music scene. Folk music clubs popped up in many places, notably in Greenwich Village, Cambridge, Chicago, San Francisco, and Berkeley. Centered on San Pablo Avenue, the Berkeley folk music scene was vibrant and transformative, if ever-churning.
In 1956, Berkeley’s Pacifica radio station, KPFA, launched a folk music show called “Midnight Special.” Two years later the city’s first folk clubs, the Steppenwolf and the Blind Lemon, opened on San Pablo Avenue. Folk music was riding high: the Kingston Trio released “Tom Dooley,” and Cambridge’s famous Club 47 had just opened.
In 1958 Max Scherr purchased and operated a local hangout, the Steppenwolf, a club that dabbled in both folk music and theater. Scherr later sold it to launch an underground newspaper, the Berkeley Barb. The Blind Lemon (named after the father of Texas blues, Blind Lemon Jefferson) opened in that same year, a few blocks south of the Steppenwolf. The small and intimate venue featuring coffee and folk music was owned by folk guitarist Rolf Cahn, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany who had served in the U.S. Army during the war, and singer/activist Barbara Dane. Opening night featured Odetta (a voice of the civil rights movement whose renditions of blues and spirituals inspired many musicians, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin), blues singer and guitarist K.C. Douglas, and Celtic folksinger Larry Moore. Cahn and Dane often performed at the club.
From the Blind Lemon, Rolf moved up the street to 2504 San Pablo Avenue, a spot that over the years would become home to seven different beat-era folk music clubs. It was at the Cabale Creamery (from Kabbala) that Jerry Garcia played bluegrass and folk music in the early 60s. Later, the club veered from folk towards rock and was renamed the Questing Beast (a name derived from King Arthur lore). It was an early and frequent venue for Country Joe and the Fish, and continued the trend towards rock in a further incarnation as Babylon (1969–70).
In the mid-1960s Berkeley’s folk scene migrated to the corner of Telegraph Avenue and Russell Street where Bill “Jolly Blue” Ehlert’s Jabberwock hosted locals and traveling musicians including Taj Mahal, Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and John Hammond. The Jabberwock’s predecessor on the corner was a jazz club and coffee house, Tsubo’s, where one evening patrons sat in on a recording session of guitarist Wes Montgomery and the Miles Davis rhythm section.
After the Jabberwock closed in 1968, the folk scene moved back to San Pablo Avenue with the opening of Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse, but Rock ultimately silenced Berkeley’s lively folk music scene. At the turn of the century, only the Freight remained. It had been a latecomer, but one with staying power. It now takes its place on Addison Avenue, in the heart of Berkeley’s downtown art and culture scene.
Contributed by Tom Dalzell, 2015