Bob Dylan idolized its stage. Mick Jagger was a frequent patron. Charles Bukowski recited his dark beat poetry there, and from April 18-20, UCLA students have the unique opportunity to honor the 50th anniversary of the Ash Grove, the perennial 1950s and ’60s West Coast roots music club.
From Friday through Sunday, a series of free afternoon panels and performances, featuring such Ash Grove luminaries as the Watts Prophets, Taj Mahal and the Freedom Singers, will accompany two Royce Hall concerts to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1958 inauguration of the Ash Grove.
Organizers seek to recapture the spirit of the original Ash Grove through the festival’s daytime activities, which range from panels about old-time Southern music, early bluegrass and 1960s revolutionary poetry, to performances of gospel and world music ““ niche genres that found a home within the Ash Grove’s welcoming doors.
Sandy Carter, who will participate on the “Cultural Politics of the 1960s” panel this Saturday, credits the Ash Grove with providing an alternative from the popular music in this era for a new generation of folkies.
“Ash Grove in the late ’50s came into existence during the time of a folk and blues bloom,” Carter said. “A lot of young people were looking at folk music as being more authentic at that time than what was available in the hit parade. It expressed the history of the country in real life and created an authenticity to it that other music didn’t have.”
The great political upheaval during the 1960s shook the foundations of American culture as the Civil Rights and anti-war movements coalesced into a prevalent left-wing sentiment. Musicians and performers at the Ash Grove began to couple traditional musical idioms with activist politics, encapsulating the 1960s political ideology. It was in this context that the Ash Grove developed its musical and cultural legacy.
“The original Ash Grove really flourished during the late 1950s and the ’60s … a period of tremendous political upheaval in the United States and around the world,” Anthony Seeger, a professor of ethnomusicology, said.
“That belief in the democratic potential of music to represent an authentic people’s voice was the driving force of the Ash Grove,” added Carter.
During the panel, “Cultural Politics of the 1960s,” Carter will expand on the Ash Grove’s role in providing a voice for the left-wing politics of the musicians, poets and activists that the club featured.
“In the 1960s, with the explosion of the Civil Rights movement, the student movements and the anti-war movements, young people drew from the folk tradition ““ bluegrass music, folk music, Appalachian music, blues music ““ and electrified it to express the ideas of the time, the protests of the time,” Carter said. “That was the period where Ash Grove had its widest audience and its biggest impact culturally. Los Angeles, in particular, became well-known as a feeding house of the left.”
Seeger also explained the promise in the communicative nature of music, which provided ample opportunity to be passed around and shared by communities.
“There was a labor songwriter who wrote that “˜People read a pamphlet only once. They sing a song a thousand times,’” Seeger said.
In order to convey progressive political ideas, performers at the Ash Grove utilized old-time traditional music, a pre-media genre that established the roots for the contemporary music during the late-’50s. Mike Seeger, whom Ash Grove founder Ed Pearl invited to the Ash Grove with his seminal old-time string band, the New Lost City Ramblers, in the 1960s, recounts the importance of traditional music to the Ash Grove.
“We were advocating for traditional music. … We felt it was very important for us to play in the traditional style or base what we were doing on traditional style and try to show our respect for the tradition,” Mike Seeger said.
These traditional forms of music had the unique capability to convey activist politics, a trend that will be discussed and contemplated at length during the weekend panels. As Carter explains, the Ash Grove provided an egalitarian setting in which the division between performer and audience diminished.
“The idea that music sprang from the people and expressed democratic impulses in people (is) what made music so powerful as a political expression,” Carter said. “It could come directly from the people.”
The series of panels and performances offers UCLA students the opportunity to glimpse into a time capsule of the Los Angeles folk scene of the late 1950s and ’60s when radical political ideas converged with traditional musical expression.
“The Ash Grove played a really important role in allowing people who were doing alternative, noncommercial music ““ be it political music or just wonderful music that no one cared enough about to want buy a thousand or a million records ““ a place to play and a place for other people to hear them,” Anthony Seeger said.
“It’s important to enjoy the opportunities we have to hear things we’ve never heard before. That’s part of what the Ash Grove has been about, and partly what I think this weekend’s going to be about too.”