Theoretical physicists describe our universe as being composed of galaxies, dark matter, and lots of empty space. But there are special regions known as "singularities": places where the curvature of space tends towards infinity and time itself does not follow ordinary rules. The Ash Grove, 8162 Melrose Avenue in West Los Angeles, was a musical and social "singularity." Born in the midst of the unreality and meaninglessness of the commercial pop world, the Ash Grove soon became the refuge and breeding ground for people's music. Founded by Ed Pearl in 1959 it grew - almost by accident - from a typical folk coffee house into a major musical power center which dominated the alternative musical environment, first of Los Angeles, then the entire West Coast during the next decade. While the Ash Grove was known as a show venue of major importance, it was also a school, a musical and political meeting place, an oasis and flophouse for wayward musicians, a multifaceted folk, country, blues, Cajun, and bluegrass resource center. This was a magic time for musical innovation. Many of the originators of major modern musical styles such as bluegrass and Chicago-style blues were still alive and performed there for audiences of young musicians who themselves began to shape the new music scene.
It was the spawning ground of the Southern California music scene: not just of folk, but of bluegrass, pop, jazz, and rock. The Byrds, The Kentucky Colonels, Canned Heat, Kaleidoscope, The Chambers Brothers, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Richard Greene, Jim Morrison, Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman, and dozens of others hung out at the Ash Grove soaking up musical ideas from Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters, Tom Ashley, Cousin Emmy, Little Walter, the Stanley Brothers, Maybelle Carter, Doc Watson, and a host of other musical luminaries from the vast treasure trove of musical Americana.
The "in" parking place was a dumpy gas station at the end of the block. You collected your instruments, walked down the street to an unassuming storefront entrance, plastered with posters of upcoming acts, then walked through the unpretentious front door to a linoleum covered entrance hall. Roger, the janitor (an identical twin for Fidel Castro), was usually sweeping up, dressed in olive-green fatigues and a well-mouthed cigar clamped between his teeth. To the immediate right, an alcove led to the cramped dressing room, filled with instrument cases, a few working makeup lights and mirrors, and old straight-backed chairs. There was a small office/ticket room, and (sporadically) a tiny built-in store offering strings and records. A long corridor led past the kitchen to the showroom which seated perhaps 150 persons. The raised stage area, backed against the far corner of the room, was almost square in shape, and was surrounded on two sides by a counter serving as a table for drinks, and for the adventurous, meals served before the performances began. Several rows of mismatched theater seats rose in two directions behind a few small tables and chairs underneath the high, dark-raftered ceiling. The daring customers would get seats at the counter to focus themselves within six feet of the performers on stage. There was a distinct smell of the indescribable, accompanied by a luminescent aura from the two-tiered stage, which was covered with carpeting vacuumed about once each year.
Musicians who ventured to stamp their feet while playing there were surrounded by a gradually-rising cloud of dust which would reach their waists by 10 minutes into the set. Even when empty, that stage hummed with power. It was a pleasure and a challenge to perform there. You never knew who was going to be in the audience, and often it was better for the timorous musician not to know. The sound system was surprisingly good, with a booth in a cramped, hot loft up above and behind the audience. Richard Greene remembers the Ash Grove as being the place where he "first discovered the power of a microphone." He got a chance to play there by winning first place at the 1st annual Topanga Canyon Banjo & Fiddle Contest: the prize was a gig at the Ash Grove with the New Lost City Ramblers. There were no monitors (probably one reason the sound was so good), but it seemed to be easy to hear oneself.
If you were a performer, you waited until showtime, then lined up in the corridor running past the kitchen for your introduction from Ed Pearl, Mayne Smith, or whoever was doing the sound that day. One week while Clarence "Tom" Ashley was there with Doc Watson and others, one of the band members looked into the kitchen, saw the dish washer and said: "Oh my gosh! that's 'Spider Web' (who was a famous wrestler)." He had to stop and call back to North Carolina and say: "I've seen Spider Web! He's working at the same club where we are!"
John Cohen recalls the time that the New Lost City Ramblers were scheduled to appear there with Maybelle Carter. At the last moment, Maybelle and her daughters were called away to appear on the new TV show Hootenanny! Ed and the Ramblers were upset to say the least, but Maybelle called to say she was sending a solo act replacement: Johnny Cash. ". . . so he came in that first weekend, and he'd make these huge 'moves'. . . he'd just come from playing some big stadiums. Then, he'd just put the autoharp on a little chair, hunch over, and sing like Maybelle. It was astounding. . . ."
The audiences at the Ash Grove could be very demanding. Often the front row of seats would be filled with the area's finest musicians, soaking in every nuance of the performance. Usually, the good performers responded with outstanding shows. Afterwards the late folks and hangers-on headed around the corner down Fairfax Ave. to Canters' Deli for sandwiches and insults from the hard-boiled, late-night waitresses.
But the Ash Grove wasn't just a music club. The variety of the acts there guaranteed that there was going to be tension, since the club bridged the vast deserts between social groups, from collegiate folk types to blue collar workers to country folks to young urban blacks and back again. Ed Pearl's leftist politics often rubbed people the wrong way, but for him, those ideas tied together all the disparate elements of the music business, the performers, the audience, and the roots of the music itself. While Ed may have started the club with an emphasis on commercial folk groups, such as The Limelighters, Barbara Dane, Bud & Travis, etc., he soon broadened his horizons after being exposed to the music and ideas of Mike Seeger, John Cohen, and Tom Paley.
The Ash Grove was a "school" in many forms. Ry Cooder took guitar lessons from Tom Paley there, for example. There were weekly classes in folk instruments, but more important, perhaps, was the fact that traveling groups were invited to play the club for a week or longer, rather than just a night or weekend. That meant that band members were very likely to be hanging out at the club with nothing better to do than trade ideas with the local musicians who were struggling to learn the basics of old time, country, blues, and bluegrass. Friendships were made between artists and audiences that would have been impossible in other circumstances. I remember sharing a bill with Fred McDowell from Mississippi. Fred and I shared accommodations at Ed's old beach house at Malibu. We'd get "home" around 3AM. Fred would insist that I get to bed because I "needed the sleep" while he stayed in the kitchen, easing his homesickness by playing some slide blues on his guitar.
Interview with Ed Pearl-February, 1996
Peter: Let's talk about old-time music at the Ash Grove. You had some really wonderful people appear there over the years. How did you get those people out here?
Ed: It's really very straightforward. In 1959 my [former] partner, Kate Hughes [Rinzler], who was a magnificent, wonderful dancer, studied that summer with Martha Graham. We went to the very first Newport Folk Festival in '59. I had business [in New York]. When I got to NY I met with Kate, John [Cohen], Mike [Seeger], and Tom [Paley]. We talked about them coming out. I would say that the primary motivating force, the group that transmitted the literature, the music, the love of the music, was the New Lost City Ramblers-period. They and Pete [Seeger] brought all these artists to me. I was totally open to anything and the Ramblers opened my eyes to the vast range of the music. I realized that they were just the perfect group, they told jokes that were actually funny, they were appealing to a potentially mass audience, and they respected the values, the musical values, and the full range of the lives of the people that they were talking about. They integrated the music and the culture.
It was different than what Pete did. What Pete does is to take a common theme and put his own banjo style on it. The Ramblers did, in a way, what was the exact opposite. That's not to put down Pete at all, it was just that he was not part of the tradition-he's created his own in a way.
And they brought all those people. Mike would call me on the phone and say: "Here's Ernest Stoneman, he's got a job in Berkeley and he wants to come out." And the answer of course, was yes. The Ramblers came again and again and again, and we became good friends very quickly.
The Ramblers turned me on to most of the great country and bluegrass bands. In 1960, the very first time that Mike and John came out, Mike asked me if I would like to go and hear a real hillbilly band, a bluegrass band. He took me out to a little bar in Burbank and introduced me to the Country Boys. I invited them to play based on what I heard-I realized they were wonderful. To me, what was important was that they were as young as the audience in the Ash Grove. So in a way, it would be them playing to their peers. And it really worked-they had a fantastic impact.
The same thing happened to the Chambers Brothers. The Chambers Brothers played two years with everyone telling me how terrible they were. I really had to take a principal position. . . I'm not kidding! Everyone hated them, [except] me. I knew that they were great. . . . They were able to bring in a local black audience and they were able to talk with young people, people their own age, people my age. . . and it worked.
When Clarence [White] played his first solo, "Jimmy Brown the Newsboy," that opened up vistas to young musicians, including Ry [Cooder] and Dave Lindley, etc. . . . all of them. If Doc would play something, that might do it, but Clarence was there every day. Clarence was an Ash Grove employee. He and I together put in all the theater seats, a lot of carpentry and stuff like that. They had no money. . . . I really and truly loved him. Particularly when Roland went into the army, I took over the job of older brother with Clarence.
Peter: I remember you had Flatt & Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Cousin Emmy, all those people. . . .
Ed: I might have found some of them myself, but the Ramblers were always there, always accessible. They could always pick up the phone and recommend somebody. . . come out with them-like Roscoe. John brought Roscoe out. Actually Roscoe came out with Doc and Fred and Clint-drove out with them the first time.
Peter: One thing I remember about the Ash Grove were the audiences. That was a tough audience to play for-they were very astute.
Ed: The stage was surrounded by that counter where you had all these young-ass kids. . . . You never knew who was in the audience. You had all those musicians listening.
Peter: Did you work with any people in the Bay Area (Barry Olivier for example) in bringing out performers from the East?
Ed: I didn't work with Barry, though I had gone to some shows that Barry produced before I started the Ash Grove, in '57 or so. I was aware of him, but it was Chris Strachwitz. . . .
Peter: "Mr. Chris" of Arhoolie Records?
Ed: Yes. I never became the sort of buddies with him the way I was with the Ramblers and with Ralph Rinzler, but Chris brought all kinds of people out. Bess [Hawes] brought Lighting [Hopkins] and Bess brought Brownie [McGee], Bess brought a lot of people, but as the sixties got started Chris was really developing and he did bring Mance [Lipscomb]. . . .
Peter: That was my first show in Santa Barbara: Chris called me and said how'd you like to have Mance Lipscomb play?
Ed: He was the best. Chris Strachwitz was in Berkeley, John Ullman was in Seattle, there was someone else in Portland, there was the San Francisco Folk Music society, Faith Petrick, Lou Curtiss in San Diego. So we did have a sort of a network. When Bess was at [Cal State] Northridge, we could always get a gig there. But I never developed that at all. There were all kinds of things that should have been done. . . .
Peter: Who were some of the people, besides the performers, that worked at the Ash Grove?
Ed: The people that were most important to the history of the Ash Grove were Kate Hughes [Rinzler], Phillip Melnick, my first manager and my very, very close friend who teaches art and art history at the University of Illinois, Ed Michel, bass player and record producer, probably the best jazz producer of all time. He produced all of the ABC / Dunhill things with Sun Ra and Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, all that sort of thing. Sandy Getz was absolutely critical on every level, Bernie [Pearl, Ed's brother] and David Cohen, who were the leaders of the school but who also played all that music almost before anyone. . . . Gordon Alexander took care of the Ash Grove as manager from '67 through all the fires and everything and with Gerry Kay, who split afterwards with the farm workers. . . . There were dozens of people who worked there.
Peter: I remember Mayne Smith, who did sound for a while. . . .
Ed: Yes, there was also John Lyon, Barry Hansen did a number of things. Actually, Barry, David, Bernie and possibly Ry formed a band called King David and the Parables. . . that was just six months after the Beatles came out and they collapsed just six months before Canned Heat hit it. . . . Canned Heat was their replacement at the Ash Grove then. There's a million "house" Ash Grove groups; the Kentucky Colonels, King David, Canned Heat, the Chambers Brothers, Kaleidoscope, The Rising Sons could have been the best with Ry and Taj. They had an argument or something and split up. . . .
As soon as they became interested in that kind of music, they made me hire JB Hutto, and Buddy Guy, and Junior Wells, and all the Chicago stuff, and in the meantime, Willie Dixon who played at the Ash Grove all the way back in '59 with Memphis Slim, brought to me by Barbara Dane (who also played regularly at the Ash Grove). The one group that I should mention is Brownie [McGee] and Sonny [Terry] and Lightning of course who played regularly throughout the entire history of the Ash Grove. I forgot to mention the Scragg Family. . . my favorite band. (Laughs)
Peter: Besides running shows at the Ash Grove, you were putting on shows at UCLA at the same time?
Ed: The thing is, I had no particular plan. I put on Joan Baez at the Hollywood Bowl, and introduced Bob Dylan. Bob, who I'd met in New York through John Cohen, was supposed to come to the Ash Grove. He called me up about two weeks before his engagement and said: "Ed, I've got a chance to make a record with John Hammond." Well God, I wouldn't dream of telling a promising young artist not to make a record with John Hammond of Columbia. So the next thing I know, he's famous. So I presented Joan at the Hollywood Bowl and I had Bob Dylan as her opening act. That was in '63. I also did Johnny Cash at the Hollywood Bowl and a whole bunch of other people, and I did Ravi Shankar (at the Santa Monica Civic Center) and a lot of other things. Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and The Weavers supported the Ash Grove by letting me put on regular concerts of theirs at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. I did that right from the very beginning. . . from the very, very beginning.
Peter: That's quite a range of artists right there, that you're speaking of. Was the Ash Grove ever a self-sustaining sort of thing, or did you rely on supporting concerts, etc. as part of the process?
Ed: I considered the supporting concerts a part of the Ash Grove process. I've always known how to make attractive shows, to get inside art and music, to really make it meaningful, how to attract a large number of people. I've never done anything beyond that.
Peter: Speaking about the closing of the original Ash Grove. . . .
Ed: There were three fires. The Ash Grove didn't fade away, but it might have. It was really clear to me-the fires began in 1969-they all were arson. The people who set the fire in 1971, they all were caught. It turns out that they were Cubans organized by the Nixon White House. It was part of the paranoia that was known as part of the Houston Plan. It was a plan to control radicals as they saw it. Doing things like: they had a plan to kidnap Tom Hayden. They moved the Republican 1972 National Convention from San Diego to Miami precisely because it was too close to the Universities, to the UC's who had closed down because of Cambodia just before. I really don't even know why they chose the Ash Grove except perhaps because it was a meeting ground for a lot of stuff, and I certainly had been involved. . . I certainly wasn't making wild-eyed statements or anything. . . . I guess they looked at it as [having a] profoundly independent, potentially subversive in the best sense of the word-nature. The other place that got closed down was the socialist workers party bookstore and some sort of Maoist. . . it had nothing to do with what I did. I certainly had no connection with either one of those groups. But three of the eight persons who entered the Ash Grove with automatic weapons were caught by accident and there was immediate suspicion because there was one of my hillbilly cop friends from the Hollywood division called the local radio KPFK and told them to tell me that the funny thing was when they brought in these guys, and before they could book them there was a call from the FBI telling them not to book them before they got down there to talk to them. So we knew there was something beyond [normal] was involved. They would call me up and say "we have the cross hairs of our rifles on the back of your head and don't make any trouble"-that sort of thing.
The Ash Grove finally succumbed in the early 1970s, probably from a combination of diminishing interest in the broad musical spectrum it presented along with three fire-bombings that Ed attributes to the radical right. There had been many left-wing political meetings there, and no one at the club was very subtle when it came to expressing political opinions in public. Perhaps the political climate of the country, influenced as it was by the ever deepening morass of Vietnam, was simply too much in force to foster the kinds of cross-cultural experiments conducted there. The final firebombing did enough damage to close the club on Melrose. It has since been rebuilt and is now known as The Improv, producing stand-up comedy acts for TV. But there is a new Ash Grove, now opening on the Santa Monica Pier, again under the direction of Ed Pearl. I'm sure that all of us who experienced the old club in its many forms wish this new venture the best of success.
Peter Feldmann, a performer of old time and bluegrass music for more than 35 years, first visited the Ash Grove as a performer in 1963 with his string band: The Scragg Family. Besides working as a solo and group performer, in late 1971 Peter began the music club "The Bluebird Cafe" in Santa Barbara, patterned on his memories of the Ash Grove. Selling the club in 1975, Peter founded Sonyatone Records, and served as the Director of the Santa Barbara Old Time Fiddlers' Convention, now celebrating its 25th year. He currently lives in the Santa Barbara area, dividing his time between performing music and writing.