By Kirk Silsbee, Contributing Writer
Ed Pearl, 70, silver-haired and feisty, will forever be associated
with the Ash Grove, the folk club he opened 50 years ago with a
$5,000 investment, despite the fact that the venue's been closed for
a quarter century.
"My life," Pearl said, "has been a series of fortuitous accidents.
And," he ruefully adds, "not-so fortuitous."
The Ash Grove's golden anniversary is being celebrated this weekend
at UCLA with two all-star evening concerts at Royce Hall and two and
a half days (Friday through Sunday) full of concerts and workshops
exploring the club's legacy in bluegrass, blues, theater, women's
culture, poetry, leftist politics, gospel music and activism.
To call the Ash Grove, which sat at 8162 Melrose Ave. in West
Hollywood from 1958 to 1972, a mere folk club would be to
oversimplify. Culture, politics, art, activism and music all
converged in this West Coast outpost for all folk-related artists:
Odette, Guy Carawan, Phil Ochs, the Limeliters, Bud & Travis, the
Stoneman Family, Tom Paxton, the Jim Kweskin Jug Band and John Fahey,
among them. It was a haven for authentic blues, where the durable duo
Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry first met; where Magic Sam played his
last gig; where Albert King, Mississippi John Hurt, Son House, the
Rev. Gary Davis, Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf all played. Flat-pick
master Doc Watson first encountered bluegrass progenitor Bill Monroe
there. Taj Mahal, the Chambers Brothers, the Kentucky Colonels, Ry
Cooder, Canned Heat, Spirit, Linda Ronstadt and Kaleidoscope all
gestated at the Ash Grove.
It was also a space for Lawrence Lipton's poetry and jazz shows;
comic monologist Hugh Romney (before he became Wavy Gravy); where
Dalton Turbo read; where Holly Near first sang; where Michael McKean
and David L. Lander performed with the Credibility Gap; where the San
Francisco Mime Troupe and El Teatro Campesino stopped in Los Angeles.
It was an embarkation point for busses bound for the southern Freedom
Rides. Civil rights, voting rights for 18-year-olds, women's rights,
anti-Vietnam activism, migrant worker's concerns were all part of the
Pearl's activism was no accident. He grew up in Boyle Heights,
between Boyle and Lincoln, near County General Hospital. The area had
blacks, Armenians, Croatians, Italians, Mexicans and, of course, Jews.
"I've always been multicultural," Pearl said.
The neighborhood's famous Breed Street Shul -- off of what is now
Cesar Chavez Boulevard -- was one of the largest synagogues west of
the Mississippi in its time. When asked if he was raised observantly,
Pearl shrugs, "My cousins went to the Breed Temple. My bar mitzvah
was at the smaller Menorah Center, north of Wabash Avenue."
His father's family left Ukraine after the failed revolution of 1905
and fled the subsequent Russian persecution to Cairo. Pearl's father
was trained as a mechanic and became a tool and dye maker for
Lockheed. His mother, of Russian-Jewish stock, was carried to America
as an infant and raised in St. Louis.
Socialist and communist thinkers were seldom far from Pearl's
boyhood; this alarmed his assimilationist mother. His first brush
with activism came in junior high. Gerald L.K. Smith, the infamous
anti-Semite, was scheduled to speak at a nearby high school. Pearl
organized a large walkout at his own school. The action worked; Smith
The demonstrators all faced expulsion, though, and gained reentry to
school only after public apologies. Pearl was the lone holdout.
"Dan Margolis, the radical lawyer, intervened," Pearl said. "He
rescued me. I wouldn't apologize; it drove my mother crazy. I had to
sleep out in the garage. He talked with the school and they let me
back in, and I eventually apologized."
"That's my brand of Judaism, " he added, with a twinkle in his eye.
Pearl entered UCLA at 16. He joined a committee that tried to present
blacklisted folk singer Pete Seeger on campus. The administration
fought it and Pearl -- with some coaching from fraternity and
sorority debaters -- became spokesman for the group. While the effort
was ultimately futile, Pearl held his own as a speaker.
"Only later did I find out why I was chosen: I was the only one who
wasn't in the Communist or Socialist Parties," he said.
Pearl wound up booking Seeger into Santa Monica High School. In the
'60s, he also booked the Santa Monica Civic for attractions too big
for the Ash Grove: Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Ravi Shankar. The
club was the one mandatory folk venue west of Chicago.
"I met Dylan in New York in 1961," Pearl recalled. "He knew all about
the Ash Grove, and he said he dreamed of coming out here more than
anything. So, I had him booked, and he called me up and said, 'Ed,
I've got a chance to make a record for John Hammond at Columbia
Records. What should I do ...?'"
UCLA ethnomusicology student Barry Hansen, later to become Dr.
Demento, worked the sound and the lights at the club. Blues
scholar/journalist/broadcaster Mary Katherine Aldin worked in the
office. Guitarist Bernie Pearl -- Ed's brother -- headed the club's
music school with David Cohen. Blues harmonica titan George
"Harmonica" Smith taught Taj, Rod Piazza, James Harman and Louie
Lista at the Ash Grove. Mick Jagger personally thanked Pearl after a
night at the club.
Attorney Barry Fischer, a UCLA law student in the late '50s, found
the Ash Grove a rare showcase for the international folk music he was
playing. With his Ellis Island Klezmer Orchestra, Fisher would
spearhead the local Yiddishkayt concerts and festivals.
"In the repressive atmosphere of the '50s," Fischer said, "what is
now called world music was seen as slightly subversive. I studied
ethnomusicology and was playing Balkan, Slavic, Russian, Eastern
European music, and there weren't many outlets for that. I worked
with Mike Janusz, an extraordinarily gifted linguist. He spoke many
languages and organized great vocal ensembles. One of this weekend's
workshops will be a tribute to him."
Legal scrapes were also part of the Ash Grove's legacy, and Fischer's
legal acumen was utilized by Pearl.
"Chief William Parker had it in for us from day one," Pearl said.
"There was a law that was quietly passed shortly after we opened --
all nightclubs had to have a police license. I'd never heard of it,
and we were closed down for a short time. After the Watts riots, the
LAPD had trouble getting new policemen, so it recruited down south.
But a lot of those guys liked that we had Doc Watson and the
bluegrass players. The nearby precinct house used to send runaway
kids to us, because we could help them get a place to stay and a meal."
The police weren't the only source of troubles for Pearl and the Ash
Grove: "There were only five fistfights at the Ash Grove. I was in
three of them."
The extreme political currents that found a forum at the club drew
the open hostility of right-wing groups. No less than three break-ins
and arsons -- in '69, '72, and '74 -- forced the Melrose club to
close. Two subsequent attempts to relocate the Ash Grove -- to Santa
Monica Boulevard in '88, and the Santa Monica Pier in '96 proved short-lived.
The weekend festival at UCLA stirs both pride and pique in Pearl.
"Do you know," he asked, with slightly bitter incredulity, "that I've
never once been asked to speak to a class or at a seminar or festival?"
Still, if some sense of neglect still dogs Pearl, he's certain of his legacy.
"I'm very proud of having presented so much great music," he said,
without hesitation, "and providing the first exposure to a lot of
great artists. I brought real music to the lives of real people."
For more information, visit http://www.uclalive.org/event.asp?Event_ID=490