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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 17:35 EDT

Autistic Son’s Love of Bluegrass Spurs Father’s Involvement

October 2, 2008

By Martin Snapp

WHEN THE Freight & Salvage Coffee House, Berkeley’s home for traditional folk music, moves to the city’s downtown arts district next year, no one will be smiling more broadly than the co-chairman of the capital campaign, Dr. Steve Sidney of Piedmont, associate director for clinical research at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland and chairman of the Alameda County Public Health Commission.

So how did a busy doctor become a folkie fanatic?

“I’m not,” he said. “Sure, I like it, but I don’t get to the Freight as often as I’d like. The main reason I’m involved is my son, Joel. He’s the real expert.”

Indeed he is. A bluegrass buff since he was 9, Joel, 26, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UC Berkeley this past May with a near- perfect grade point average, writing his senior honors thesis on “Innovation and Tradition in Bay Area Bluegrass: Historical Review and Analysis of Distinctive Regional Features.”

To complement the thesis, he also produced a CD with 20 songs, including works by Laurie Lewis, David Grisman and Sandy Rothman. A former teacher called him “certainly one of the brightest students I’ve ever encountered.”

His achievements are even more remarkable considering that he has struggled with autism since birth.

“It was bluegrass that brought him out of his shell,” Sidney said.

“Basically, a whole chunk of his life has revolved around bluegrass — going to festivals and concerts and reading books and magazines about bluegrass.”

When Joel turned 13, he had a bluegrass Bar Mitzvah, featuring an old-time bluegrass ensemble instead of the usual klezmer band. (However, four out of the five musicians were Jewish.) And he pooled all the cash he received as Bar Mitzvah presents to buy a lifetime pass for himself and a guest at the Freight & Salvage.

“I think he’s going to get his money’s worth out of that one,” quipped his dad.

He discovered his life’s passion at age 9 in February 1991, when his parents took him with them to hear Laurie Lewis and Grant Street at the Freight.

He was enchanted.

“The music really spoke to me,” he said. “When it’s played right, bluegrass sounds like the music of the people, not the commercial world.”

Soon he was attending practically every concert the Freight offered; and the Freight offers more than 250 concerts every year, both bluegrass and other forms of traditional folk music.

He also began amassing an expert collection of tapes and CDs that now number more than 600.

It wasn’t long before he became part of the Freight & Salvage family, a familiar face to staff, musicians and other regular customers alike.

“We drop him off before the show and come back just before the end,” said his mom, Dr. Carolyn Schumann. “As soon as we walk in the door, people recognize us, point toward wherever he’s sitting and say, ‘He’s over there!’”

Bur Joel’s love of bluegrass isn’t his only passion. He’s also a huge sports fan, especially Cal sports. A regular at all the home games, he’s as popular with the players as he is with the musicians at the Freight.

When the Cal rugby team threw a party last spring to celebrate winning the national championship, there were two food tables — one for the team and the other for everyone else. The players insisted that Joel eat with them.

And when a local newspaper ran a story about Joel, the baseball team posted it in their locker room and gave him a Cal baseball jersey and a card signed by all the players and coaches.

But his first love is still the Freight.

“It’s his second home,” Sidney said. “He feels comfortable being there by himself, and I think part of the reason is that it’s a family-friendly place, even though it tends to have an older crowd. I hope that atmosphere carries over to the new place.”

While dropping off and picking up Joel at concerts, Sidney and Schumann got to know the Freight staff pretty well themselves.

“I started talking to (executive director) Steve Baker, and the next thing I knew, I was on the board of directors,” Sidney said. “I wanted to do whatever I could to make the Freight a strong organization because I knew it was going to be part of Joel’s life forever.”

By happy coincidence, the Freight’s new home will be right across the street from Berkeley Rep, which is one of Sidney and Schumann’s passions.

“My fantasy is that we’ll be able to drop off Joel at the Freight, catch a play at the Rep, and pick him up again after the show,” Sidney said.

The new site will have twice the seating capacity of the current one in West Berkeley.

“That’s important because there are some acts that we can’t book because our current location is too small,” Sidney said. “We’ve had to have offsite concerts at churches and other locations, but that’s not a very convenient thing to do.”

The new building will also feature office space for the staff, rooms for music classes, and a small bookstore and cafe. But for all the changes, it’ll still be the same old Freight.

“Our legal name is The Society for the Preservation of Traditional Music, let’s not forget,” Sidney said. “This is a living, breathing museum of acoustical music traditions and culture. Without it, some of those traditions might die out.”

Reach Martin Snapp at catman@california.com

Originally published by Martin Snapp, Correspondent.

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