January-February 2008

The Ash Grove Turns 50

By Ross Altman

Fifty years ago, the major leagues moved to Los Angeles. Under the auspices of a visionary owner, who ignored the well-meaning advice of every practical mind that said it couldn’t be done, some of this club’s greatest players became hometown heroes, and LA became the center of a big league renaissance. No longer just the province of New York’s boroughs, LA could now hold its head up high and shout from the rooftops, We don’t have to wait ‘til next year—here comes…The Ash Grove.

talkingashgroveedpearl.jpg That’s right, in 1958, the same year Walter O’Malley brought the Dodgers ball club kicking and screaming out of Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Ed Pearl opened a folk club at 8162 Melrose Ave. in West Hollywood, named for an old Welsh folk song—The Ash Grove. O’Malley is celebrated for bringing the big leagues to LA; well, so did Ed Pearl.

For two dollars a night you could walk in confident of hearing the very best in both traditional and contemporary folk music—and I mean the very best in the country.

To a young, budding folkie like me it was the West Coast University of Folk Music. It was there I first heard Mississippi John Hurt—who had been rediscovered in his hometown of Avalon, Mississippi by folklorist and bluegrass mandolin player, Ralph Rinzler. And speaking of Ralph Rinzler, it was at the Ash Grove I first heard his sensational city-billy bluegrass trio The Greenbriar Boys, with Armenian-American John Herald on lead vocals and lead guitar, and Russian Jew Bob Yellin on 5-string banjo.

They were like no bluegrass band I had ever heard before, combining country harmonies and classic bluegrass instrumental skills with New York’s Washington Square’s urban sense of irony and intelligence. In stark contrast to a group like The Dillards’ willingness to overplay the country hick role, the Greenbriar Boys never pretended to be anything other than what they were—brilliant musicians who knew bluegrass inside out and had mastered it without being of it. Thus they didn’t mind poking fun at themselves even as they relished the tradition that defined them. Case in point: In the middle of their supercharged locomotive version of George Jones’ classic Ragged But Right, John Herald pauses right in the middle of a guitar break to ask, “Since you folk singers are so busy walking down the highway, where do you get the time to fill out all those copyright forms?” And just as Ralph Rinzler comes forth to answer his question John Herald rolls right over him with another perfectly pitched high lonesome tenor harmony, to get them back on track to the chorus.

When the Greenbriar Boys came to town they always played at only one club—and it wasn’t The Troubadour—famous for introducing Elton John to Los Angeles in 1970, but not for promoting the kind of non-commercial folk artists Ed Pearl lived and breathed to promote—both the traditionalists who created the music we call folk, and the revivalists, like the Greenbriar Btakingashgrove.jpgoys and The New Lost City Ramblers, who preserved the music and gave it a new life for urban audiences who would never have heard Doc Watson if he hadn’t left Deep Gap, North Carolina.

 Ralph Rinzler discovered Doc too, and brought him north to Newport. But like Walter O’ Malley bringing major league baseball to the West Coast, Ed Pearl brought Doc to Los Angeles—that is, to the Ash Grove. The Ash Grove was the Dodger Stadium of folk music—all the major leaguers eventually made it out here, under Ed’s sure and guiding hand. Lightning Hopkins, Son House, Mance Lipscomb, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Ian and Sylvia, Phil Ochs, Guy and Candie Carawan, John Hurt, Doc Watson, Muddy Waters, Jean Ritchie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and literally hundreds of other performers in every genre of folk music.

With one—maybe two—notable exceptions, the Ash Grove didn’t make anybody famous. The groups and performers they presented were not seeking commercial stardom in any conventional sense—they were proud purveyors of non-commercial music looking for a place to play that respected the deep roots of their art. The Ash Grove was that place, whether it was traditional Anglo-ballad singer John Jacob Niles, or African-American blues master Bukka White.

One exception that the Ash Grove helped to groom for a major national and international career is Ry Cooder, who, when I first heard him backing up Jackie De Shannon at the Ash Grove was only 16 years old—and already the best folk guitarist in Los Angeles.

Ry would play the guitar rags and blues of Blind Blake and Blind Lemon Jefferson, and then back up current pop sensation Jackie De Shannon without missing a beat. This was before he had dared to sing a note on stage—he let his guitar do the talking for him. He was the finger-picking wunderkind of LA and with Ed’s encouragement he became one of America’s best known and most highly esteemed musicians—with a life-long reverence for the traditional music he learned to value and to perform at the Ash Grove.

The second major recording artist who I recall grew up and matured with what we might call the Ash Grove’s farm team into a true Hall-of-Famer is Linda Ronstadt, who began her career as the lead singer for guitarist Kenny Edwards and the Stone Ponies. Among the great careers Ed helped to launch from the Ash Grove’s small stage into big league stardom Linda Ronstadt must rank at or near the top.

Many of these artists are coming home next April 18th, 19th and 20th to pay tribute to the man whose vision and commitment knew no bounds. They will be performing at Royce Hall in the 50th anniversary weekend tribute to the club that truly was a beacon for those who were searching literally for something off the charts—music that had intrinsic meaning and not merely pop success. It will be a weekend filled with music and memories, as well as renewed commitment to the animating purpose of the house that Ed built—music that made a difference.

Just as the Dodgers transcended the world of baseball, the Ash Grove transcended the world of music. Just as Jackie Robinson broke the color line in baseball and made the Dodgers a part of civil rights as well as baseball history, the Ash Grove from the beginning was determined that the music it presented be representative of a cultural view that reinforced the inherent dignity of all people and participated in the struggles of its times to bring unheard or hard-to-find voices into the spotlight.

Literally from opening day, July 1, 1958, Ed’s folk club made it crystal clear that it wasn’t going to be satisfied by just filling the seats—it would fill your mind as well. Thus on its first official “Ash Grove Concert” there was a traditional white performer—Guy Carawan—who hailed from Los Angeles but would soon be heading south to join the civil rights movement and become a part of the Highlander Folk School, which launched We Shall Overcome back in the 1930s. There was an African-American blues master—Brownie McGee—who would soon team up with blind blues harmonica genius Sonny Terry to create the greatest double-play combination of blues guitar and harmonica in the 1960s. And finally, there was flamenco guitar virtuoso Geronimo Villarino—together they created the extraordinary multi-cultural mix that was the hallmark of Ed’s approach to booking. Ash Grove audiences came to expect that they would be lifted out of their comfort zones by being exposed to artists from other worlds than the ones they may have come to see.

Did I hear someone say World Music? There was no name for it back then—when Ed Pearl helped to create it.

Nor was there only music. Ed produced poetry readings, dance events and visual arts exhibitions as well. Just like the Dodgers broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, Ed Pearl and the Ash Grove broke the sound barrier by signing great artists from many disparate disciplines, and broke even the barriers that surrounded and guarded each distinct art form as if it was a world unto itself. Not to Ed it wasn’t. Why shouldn’t a poet share the stage with a musician, and a dancer share the stage with a photographer?

The Ash Grove thus became a meeting ground for artists of different backgrounds and forms of expression, united in a common pursuit of a world in which humanity—and not just one nation—was indivisible.

There was no other folk club or indeed art venue in Los Angeles quite like it—and probably not in the whole country for that matter.

In time, the Ash Grove itself became a work of art—a unified field vision of a better world—one that was integrated and a beacon of human liberation. For that we owe Ed Pearl a debt of gratitude, and at long last we as a community will get the opportunity to make a small down payment on that debt—by coming out to UCLA on the weekend of April 18th,19th and 20th and saying thank you for what Ed did for Los Angeles 50 years ago. He shook up a small, sleepy town of orange groves and movie stars and shocked them into seeing a new world soon to be born—the world of the 1960s.

If Walter O’Malley helped bring LA into the modern world, LA’s own homegrown, hometown hero, Ed Pearl, provided the soundtrack for that world, and even though the Ash Grove is no longer here, we have never stopped listening to that soundtrack.

A century before, in 1855, yet another Walter from Brooklyn—poet Walt Whitman—brought poetry kicking and screaming to the open road out west as well. The inspiration for the Ash Grove goes back at least that far. For like Whitman, in 1958, Ed Pearl heard America singing. Whitman wrote a poem about it; Ed created the Ash Grove.

[Author’s note]: The Ash Grove 50th anniversary tribute will be multi-faceted—to reflect the scope of the original folk club itself.  There will be two nights of ticketed concerts at Royce Hall, with a galaxy of major performers across the folk music spectrum. On Saturday and Sunday during the day there will also be free concerts and workshops at other campus locations. These will include (on Saturday) a broad discussion of the political and cultural history of the club with Mike Davis and other writers; a new songs performance workshop with Dave Alvin, Peter Case and others; a panel discussion and performance of poetry from the Ash Grove produced by Ed’s brother, poet Sherman Pearl, and including San Francisco Poet Laureate Jack Hirschman and others; a blues performance/workshop with another of Ed’s three brothers, bluesman Bernie Pearl and others; a sing out of political songs with Holly Near, Len Chandler, Guy and Candie Carawan, and myself (at Schoenberg Hall); a children’s concert with KPFK’s Uncle Ruthie and others; a Sunday Morning Gospel Concert, a Sunday afternoon closing concert, and a number of other special programs and events. See you there!


Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at Greygoosemusic@aol.com.

  

All Columns by Ross Altman