When Ed Pearl first got going in the late ’50s, there weren’t really any music clubs in Los Angeles.
There weren’t any, at least, in the way we think about music clubs today, with the Sunset Strip plugged into the main line. But by the time Pearl’s club, the Ash Grove, was in full swing, Los Angeles had access to roots music in a way no West Coast, middle-class city ever had.
This Saturday and Sunday, Pearl will bring the legacy of the Ash Grove to Royce Hall for two concerts. Some of the seminal roots artists of its heyday ““ the Freedom Singers and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ““ will contribute, and the show will also combine performances from the kids who learned music at the Ash Grove, people like Dave Alvin, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and a later generation of musicians who are connected to the club in spirit.
It’s a fitting place to hold the festival, since UCLA is where the Ash Grove and Pearl got their start ““ or, rather, didn’t.
While an idealistic undergraduate, Pearl overheard some students in the Powell Library basement talking about putting on a campus show of the great, political bluegrass singer Pete Seeger. Asking if he could join the discussion, Pearl soon became one of the organizers for the show.
But things weren’t going to go so smoothly the rest of the way. When the administration caught wind of the politically minded event, complete with Communist overtones (unbeknownst to the 17-year-old Pearl), the concert was quickly shut down.
“Soon it became a big cause. The Bruin sided with us, and the student council sided with us; the only people against us were the fraternities, the sororities and the administration … and guess who won: … the administration,” Pearl said.
Despite the publicity and the efforts of some campus organizations ““ the Daily Bruin, barred by censorship from expressing the opinion that the concerts should go on, stopped publishing in protest ““ Pearl and fellow organizers couldn’t overcome the opposition. They weren’t, however, out of solutions.
“We moved the concert to the Methodist church around the corner on Wilshire Boulevard, which has 1,900 seats ““ it’s even bigger than Royce Hall, and we got all this publicity so the place was packed with this line to go in,” Pearl said.
It seems that Pearl finally can, after all these years, have his Royce Hall concert. Understanding how he got from protesting the cultural censorship of the mid-’50s UCLA environment ““ later dropping out to make his own way ““ to heading the Ash Grove requires an understanding of the culture at large. The ’50s in America were patriarchal, to say the least. It was politically uniform, at least in public, and, when it came to the idea of an independent youth or counterculture, completely barren.
“The ’50s were a time of great repression, of sexuality and of rebellion. Families were idealized; “˜Father Knows Best’ was a perfect example of the culture that was on TV, and people were tired of it. … It’s the same phenomenon that (Sen. Barack) Obama tapped into, giving speeches that resonated so strongly,” Pearl said.
Against the backdrop of these feelings, Pearl was introduced, by a friend of a girlfriend, to field recordings of blues artists from the South and bluegrass musicians from Appalachia captured by a young Alan Lomax and other like-minded musicologists as they dragged the cumbersome recording devices of the day to the backcountry roads and middle-of-nowhere intersections of America.
The music was a revelation for Pearl. It dawned on him that, beyond the cultural repression, the mainstream of the ’50s was ignoring some of its own cultures and deep artistic traditions. While Frank Sinatra and Pat Boone painted a rosy picture of the social order, blues and hillbilly artists were portraying something more real.
“People, you know, black and white, were singing about their lives, and food, and religion, and sexual things, things about the boss, about work, about everything, and it was just, it was like realizing that 97 percent of the people carried forth the hopes and the aspirations of these people in their songs and stories. I wanted to expose people to that as the record companies began restricting stuff, putting it into categories, like black people are sexual, so that caught my mind,” Pearl said.
Pearl wasn’t the only middle-class city kid to be cloistered away from the rawness of roots music by life in Los Angeles. Gordon Alexander, the manager of night operations for the club, describes the revelation of hearing the music of other social classes sonically breaking through the stratifications. For him, meeting the musicians as people was just as influential as seeing them perform.
“When I started working there, a whole new world opened up to me. Not so much politically, because I was already active politically, but a whole new world opened up culturally. I got to meet these old blues guys and these old bluegrass guys who exposed me to a culture that was far different from the way I was raised, and it opened me up to be much more inclusive in my own thinking, and I gained a respect for, relatively speaking, undereducated Americans from the poor class. I was raised middle-class; I went to UCLA, a privileged institution, and what I was exposed to and learned was the respect for people, who by intellectual standards were undereducated, but by life’s experience offered me the best education and the most worthwhile respect for others that I could have gotten,” Alexander said.
Removing cultural barriers wasn’t the only thing the Ash Grove crew had in mind. As Alexander recalls, it became “the only West Los Angeles meeting place” to share liberal political ideas.
Alexander first appeared on the Ash Grove scene in the ’60s as a 22-year-old fresh from UCLA who came by in the daytime to register Angelenos for the Peace and Freedom Party. Music and politics, however, were not separate entities at the Ash Grove; in fact, the collaboration between the fields is what Alexander remembers most. While politics provided fodder for musical ideas, the music breathed soul and life into the political movements.
“The Ash Grove has a terrifically important cultural legacy because it demonstrated that you can integrate culture and politics, that music and art can help build a political movement. In fact, in 1963, Ed brought the Freedom Singers out to the Ash Grove ““ Bernice Reegan and the Freedom Singers, who are in fact playing at the festival, so the relevance of that music to the politics of the day could not escape the clients and customers that went to the Ash Grove,” Alexander said.
Activism implies opposition, and the political career of the Ash Grove certainly inspired its share. In its most dramatic form, that opposition involved automatic weapons, arson and a bizarre disappearing act by the perpetrators. Following a film series about post-revolutionary Cuba that surveyed the positive changes brought about by Castro, from education to health care, a quiet, preshow Sunday night took a violent turn as Cuban reactionaries, displeased with the positive perspective on the Communist regime, stormed the club.
“They stormed in with automatic rifles into the concert room and told me to lie face down on the floor and pointed these automatic weapons at my head and asked me if I was Ed Pearl; fortunately I wasn’t, because I don’t know what would have happened. I said, “˜No, I just work here’; while I was being held at gunpoint, several of them proceeded to throw Molotov cocktails against the walls of the concert room and light the concert room on fire, and it was burning while I was being held to the ground,” Alexander said.
While the arsonists were fleeing the scene, they had a chance encounter with a police car doing its routine rounds; they were arrested but eventually skipped bail.
After a third fire in the early ’70s, Pearl finally decided to call it quits. “I took a 10-year alcohol break,” he said.
He says he’d do it all over again, though, and hopes the Royce Hall concerts will inspire another generation of activism and music.
In some ways, it already has.
Michelle Shocked, set to perform on Saturday, compared the rawness of the roots music at the Ash Grove and its political leanings to the punk culture she came up in.
“I believe that I carry on the legacy of the Ash Grove … not because I came of age at a time when there was a folk revival or when it was popular, but rather that I was hanging out on the hard-core scene, you know; I was hanging out with hard-core punks in S.F. and in N.Y., and I was the one that recognized the relationship between the musical values of the (tradition) and the grassroots music and this ostensibly very modern music,” Shocked said.
Looking back at his time at the club, Pearl muses that perhaps, albeit simply, a story best illustrates the environment at the Ash Grove.
He remembers one day toward the end of the Vietnam War, in a time when some of the activists at the venue had been working on women’s rights projects, specifically regarding the legality of abortion. Then as well as now, religious groups recoiled at the idea of abortion, but subscription to religion was certainly not something Pearl was going to use as a basis for discrimination.
Pearl had a Catholic employee working for him, one whose activism brought him to team up with the Ash Grove on human rights issues but to oppose it on abortion. One day the employee picketed with fellow activists outside the club to protest its stance on abortion. An end to the demonstration was in sight, however: The counter-activist was scheduled for work that day.
“I told him it was time for work and he came right in. … The Ash Grove was completely open,” Pearl said.