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Ash Grove: The Other Side of Melrose 

Think the "freak folk" movement is a new conceit?

Wednesday, Apr 16 2008
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It seems fitting that the three-day 50th-anniversary celebration of the Ash Grove — the folk-music club that, between 1958 and 1974, introduced a couple of generations of L.A. patrons to a wealth of indigenous American sounds — should take place this coming weekend on the campus of UCLA. It was at that school, in 1954, that Ash Grove founder Ed Pearl, then a UCLA sophomore, took his first steps toward becoming a folk-music presenter.

(Click to enlarge)

click to flip through (2) Ed Pearl (on roof of car), back when gas cost 29 cents.
  • Ed Pearl (on roof of car), back when gas cost 29 cents.
 
 

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Ed Pearl (on roof of car), back when gas cost 29 cents.

(Click to enlarge)

Ramblin' Jack Elliott gigged at the old club, and will honor it at UCLA.

“I was sitting in the library,” the now-70 Pearl said the other week, “and next to me, I heard these people talking about putting on Pete Seeger. Now, I’d heard Pete Seeger ... so I just moved my chair over there and said, ‘Well, I’m interested; could I help?’ ”

Pearl and his new friends, though, ran up against the school administration: “They simply didn’t let Pete on campus, [so] we wound up putting on Pete around the corner at some big Methodist church on Wilshire Boulevard. And I learned how to produce a concert.”

Four years later, the 21-year-old Pearl opened the Ash Grove on Melrose, a venue that would showcase hundreds of folk performers, from Appalachian string bands to Delta-blues singers to Cajun swing groups. By then, the focus of Pearl’s musical interest had shifted, he says, under the influence of Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music, featuring music recorded from the 1920s and ’30s. “The change in the Ash Grove,” Pearl says, “was from singing songs about other people to songs by other people.”

The New Lost City Ramblers, with Mike Seeger, were an early Ash Grove mainstay, and the Texas blues singer Sam “Lightnin’ ” Hopkins was a turning point. “When Lightnin’ came,” Pearl recalls, “there was a tremendous audience for [him] among younger people ... the people already starting to play the banjos, and so on. ... People like Bob Dylan had begun writing — and the entire ’60s ethos had begun gathering.”

The Ash Grove was a 1960s oasis for many newly rediscovered performers and a mecca for youthful acolytes. At the Ash Grove, patrons could see, listen to and study the fingerings of such blues singers as Son House, Bukka White and Mance Lipscomb; country and bluegrass legends including Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and Merle Travis; and vocal ensembles from the Georgia Sea Island Singers to the Chambers Brothers.

In time, certain Ash Grove devotees, including singer-guitarist Ry Cooder, themselves became noted performers of the sort of music they soaked up at the club. Cooder’s first significant exposure came in a ’60s band named the Rising Sons, which included singer-guitarist Taj Mahal — another dedicated Ash Grove attendee.

“I always thought the Ash Grove was one of the most exciting places in the United States to be purveying music at the time,” says Mahal — who, like Cooder and other Ash Grove veterans, including Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Barbara Dane, Holly Near and Mike Seeger, will be part of this weekend’s activities. “We got to see some of the real icons in the music ... the great real artists.”

The Grammy Award–winning Mahal’s voice grows excited with the memory of some of those greats: “Oh, man, I liked about everybody that ever came to there ... Arthur ‘Big Boy’ Crudup. Big Mama Thornton. Mississippi John Hurt. Sleepy John Estes and Yank Rachel ... Albert King, you got that right! And then Junior Wells — with Howlin’ Wolf? I mean, he was on! That was when Buddy — Buddy Guy — was playin’ with Junior.”

The club’s customers were deeply involved with the music, Mahal says: “It wasn’t just entertainment as much as it was, you know, American culture that people were really into. And they weren’t into it like, sorta slumming ... like in the Cotton Club or something like that [in the ’20s and ’30s] in New York City. It was wide-open ... to all kinds of people, and all kinds of folks showed up there. And they had a lotta stuff going, and they had classes, and people taught.”

“I never pushed,” Pearl says, but, rather, settled on “presenting both the music and, as much as possible, the full lives of ... traditional cultures of America. I was really trying to give a lesson.” Photographic and other displays in the club’s foyer documented the ongoing social history of visiting performers — from the labor struggles of coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky, to the sit-ins and marches of the segregated South. The club gathered blacks from the South, hillbillies, middle-class people, academics and, adds Pearl, “every possible hippie and doper. ... It was a place of many things and many different politics and different colors.”

But such a place also attracted enemies. The Ash Grove was set on fire three times. After the third incident, Pearl closed the Melrose venue, in 1974. “But the era closed anyways,” he says, “and towards the end, I knew it was over. I mean, everyone ... wanted a normal life. So they went back and became lawyers and teachers, and — whatever people do.”

But the performers — those still living — kept right on performing, decade after decade. “Yeah, it keeps movin’ that same kinda way,” says Mahal, now about the same age as some of the blues men he used to see at the Ash Grove. “Naw, it — it never stops, man ... You gotta be doing what you’re supposed to be doing — whenever, however it’s coming down, you know. If you’re getting your butt kicked — you still gotta do what you gotta be doing.”

Taj Mahal did, and does; so did Ed Pearl.

The Ash Grove 50th Anniversary: Legend and Legacy will take place on the UCLA campus at Royce Hall, Schoenberg Music Building and Schoenberg Hall on Fri.-Sat., April 18-19. For more information, visit www.ashgrovemusic.com.

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