The Ash Grove: A Tiny Ripple of Hope

2013 “Best of The West” Award from FAR—West

Gives Long Overdue Recognition to Founder Ed Pearl

By Ross Altman

AshGrove Logo

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” Those were the words of Robert F. Kennedy, spoken at The University of Cape Town, South Africa to their national student union on behalf of the Declaration of Human Rights to embolden them to think they could end apartheid. It took place on June 6, 1966—6-6-66—two years before he was assassinated.

They speak to a lifelong commitment by FAR-West Best-of-the-West honoree Ed Pearl, whose mission through his legendary folk club The Ash Grove was precisely to bring forth the people’s music of all races and nationalities in a setting that framed each artist as part of a community that represented the highest ideals of—in RFK’s words—“individual integrity, human dignity, and the common humanity of man.” Over fifteen years, from 1958 to 1973, when the last of three arsonist fires left the Ash Grove in ashes, Ed brought Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Lightning Hopkins, Doc Watson, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Phil Ochs, The Greenbrier Boys, Ian and Sylvia, the New Lost City Ramblers, Ralph Stanley, Bill Monroe, Linda Ronstadt, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, and hundreds of others to the most haloed stage in town—many of them for the first time out west. He made 16-year-old local boy Ry Cooder a star.

1958 was thus a banner year for Los Angeles: Walter O’Malley brought major league baseball to LA with the Dodgers; and Ed Pearl brought major league folk and blues music to LA with The Ash Grove at 8162 Melrose Ave.

Ashgrove MelroseEnglish mystic poet William Blake wrote that you can hold the world in a grain of sand, so I am going to tell you why the Ash Grove and Ed Pearl have earned this award with one story—a tiny ripple of hope which intersects all the other names mentioned above.

The son of an ex-slave, he was born on April 9 near the turn of the last century, and died during the Bi-Centennial in 1976. He sang folk songs, spirituals and popular songs with equal affinity. His very name symbolized freedom and the struggle to overcome oppression

Paul Robeson? Not this time, though every word above is true of him too—born April 9, 1898, son of an ex-slave, and died on January 23, 1976; Robeson—though he sang folk songs—was a classical artist, not a folk singer, and never played The Ash Grove.

Ashgrove 2Think again: Mance Lipscomb, the Texas Songster, was born April 9, 1905, and died January 30, 1976. He too was the son of an ex-slave—who was born in Navasota, Texas, where he is buried. And therein lies the secret to his unusual first name—a symbol of freedom buried in the strange Texas history of the Civil War. Mance is short for emancipation—which was proclaimed by President Lincoln for all the world to hear on January 1, 1963—one hundred and fifty years ago this year, the Sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation. Somehow the news never got to Texas, not for two and a half long years—on a date referred to ever since as “Juneteenth” in 1865. It is celebrated on June 19th, and is a word created by ex-slaves—to include a number of days around it.

Mance Lipscomb’s father was one of those ex-slaves for whom the belatedly dawning reality of Emancipation was so profound he named his son after it—to let people know his son was born free—the first in his family.

He preferred the description Texas Songster to “folk singer,” or “blues singer” or “balladeer;” it seemed less standoffish or pretentious; he was from Texas and he sang songs—all kinds, including Shine On Harvest Moon, which he recorded like all the others in his repertoire for Arhoolie Records.

Mance Lipscomb is buried in his birthplace of Navasota, Texas, and if you look at his tombstone you will see mounted a small photo of him that was taken—where else—at the Ash Grove around 1970. How did this photo from the Ash Grove get to Navasota, Texas and wind up on Mance’s tombstone? Ah, thereby hangs a tale.

Ed Pearl brought him out to LA to the Ash Grove for the first time—as he had so many others on the above-mentioned list. It was there, around 1964, between sets, that a young folk aficionado and guitar student named Michael Birnbaum was able to sneak into his dressing room and meet his guitar idol—encouraged to do so, I might add, by Ed’s brother and blues guitarist Bernie Pearl, who told Mr. Birnbaum that Mance Lipscomb was very approachable and would be happy to meet one of his fans.

That was an understatement: Their initial conversation quickly blossomed into a genuine friendship and Michael soon found himself being invited to accompany Mance on stage playing backup guitar for Mance Lipscomb’s future Ash Grove bookings. During one of those shows photographer Dan Rose took an extraordinary picture of Michael and Mance which the now Cal State Fullerton Psychology Professor Michael Birnbaum put up on his web site—right alongside his scientific research. It’s part of a riveting account of their friendship over a decade, including letters and photographs from Mance. Because of that web portrait of this great American artist someone sent Michael a picture of Mance’s final resting place—with an edited copy of the Ash Grove photo (showing only Lipscomb) now permanently affixed to his tombstone.

Mance LipscombThat’s where I found it when I was doing research on Mance Lipscomb coincidentally the night before we had a local gathering to celebrate Ed Pearl’s upcoming award. I copied out both photos to present them to Ed—and to show his closest friends why the Ash Grove still matters—and how deeply it has impacted the world of folk music across the country—reaching into the heart of a small town in Texas where one of America’s greatest musicians is buried.

A tiny ripple of hope—that is what the Ash Grove was to hundreds if not thousands of young people like Michael Birnbaum—and to me as well, for whom Ed’s small folk club was—in words I used to describe it in 2008 during its 50th anniversary concert at UCLA—the West Coast University of Folk Music.

One of its distinguished professors was Mance Lipscomb, who wrote the following to Mr. Birnbaum’s guitar students who wanted to know something about his life; (punctuation added by MHB):

I begin to Play a guitar when was the age

of 14 for Scool Programs and contry

Dances and Partyies. I Lerned Songs

by Hearing them by ear.

My father Played Vionlin.

I would Play guitar music

Because I Liked it. I Has Played guitar

over 59 years. I was Descoverd

in 1961. I Has Ben in --- 12 Stetes.

I lever lift Navasota until I Was call

to the Berkely folk festial in 1961.

I was Born on April, 1895.

I was Raised on a farm. at the age of a 11,

I Had to do a mans Work to Support my

family. I Had a Hard Life. I Has did all

Sort of Hard Work,

and musik Has made my Life Better.

I Still Love to Play my music.

I Hope you Studens Will learn my music.”

Kudos to FAR-West for recognizing what we in Los Angeles have known for 55 years,, that without Ed Pearl our musical education would have been impoverished and deprived—and that because of this true musical pioneer visionary we have been inspired beyond imagining, and our lives enriched with what Victorian poet/critic Mathew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said.”

And with mentors such as Mance Lipscomb, played and sung. Thank you, Ed!

Michael Birnbaum’s appreciation pages for Mance Libscomb may be visited at www.psych.fullerton.edu/mbirnbaum/Mance/

The FAR-West (Folk Alliance Region West) 10th Anniversary Conference will be held on October 10 - 13, 2013 at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Irvine, CA.

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.