Posted by: ronclegg | January 19, 2008

THE ASH GROVE TURNS 50

Ross Altman kindly gave me his permission to post his outstanding article about the amazing and important folk club Ed Pearl created in West Hollywood. The 50th Anniversary Celebration of the club promises to be a first class event… read on!

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.

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 Boys 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.]

Ed Pearl’s added thoughts..
Hi. Here’s the first full essay on the subject line celebration, now
more widely distributed by NY Transfer. I’d planned on sending
the schedule itself in early January, but now can wait a bit until
it’s fully formed. I want to thank Ross Altman for an incredibly
creative and striking essay, with too much credit given to me, but
capturing lots of the essence. I guess it’s up to me to write the
rest.

One small correction to NYTr’s fine intro: The Ash Grove opened in
1958, predating the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Actually, Fidel had to choose: Stay in the Sierra Maestre or play
the Grove. Don’t ask me what was in his head. OK, that’s a joke, but
this is not: I met Bob Dylan in NY in ’61, we talked and he
auditioned for me for what seemed like 2 hours, starting after midnight. I was
immediately taken by him and booked him. A few weeks before the
date he called, telling me he’d been asked to make a record with John
Hammond and asked whether he could postpone the gig, saying it
was up to me. I told him I was delighted for him and we said we’d
set a new date when things cleared. I wound up producing him
opening for Joan Baez, in the Hollywood Bowl, in early fall, 1963.
(If Fidel had called, I’d have been as generous – probably, no cell
phones.)

Oh, this will do it for a couple of days. I’ll be at the Rose Parade
tomorrow – details at the bottom. Best wishes for a Happier New Year

Ed

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Responses

  1. […] ronclegg wrote a fantastic post today on “THE ASH GROVE TURNS 50″Here’s ONLY a quick extractDodgers 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 … […]

  2. […] THE ASH GROVE TURNS 50 One small correction to NYTr’s fine intro: The Ash Grove opened in > 1958, predating the 1959 Cuban Revolution. > Actually, Fidel had to choose: Stay in the Sierra Maestre or play the > Grove. Don’t ask me what was in his head. … […]

  3. […] Kingman wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptLiterally 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 … […]

  4. […] unknown wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptDid 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. … […]

  5. I’m sure there are thousands of people with great memories of past performances at the Ash Grove. I only went there one time, but it was a doozy. Lightnin’ Hopkins opened for Freddie King. It’s hard to upstage the awesome Lightnin’, but Freddie King was something to behold. His band started his show with this funky instrumental blues riff. As the room darkened, a bright spotlight focused on Freddie at the back entrance, dressed in black, with his top two buttons opened to show his muscular pecs. Freddie announced the members of his band, saving the final introduction for his guitar, Lucille, as he hit a note that nearly tore off the roof. I still say this was the best electric blues performance of my life. Just every stop was pulled, by the electrifying Mr. King.


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