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 Ash Grove.
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 was cancelled.
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.