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Legend and Legacy: Ash Grove's 50th Anniversary

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By Randi Schmelzer

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM


Once upon a time — in the '60s, in West Hollywood — there stood an idyllic folk-music venue called the Ash Grove.

"The Ash Grove brought together people that never, ever would have got together before," says club founder and owner Ed Pearl '56. "Every crazy [music lover] from the '60s walked into the place, whatever their ideology — hillbillies, black people, Latinos, hippies ... [all] ready to learn and live together."

Sadly, the fairy-tale folk scene didn't last. In 1973, after 15 revolutionary years, a suspected arson fire left the once 250-capacity coffeehouse little more than ash. Today, an Improv Comedy Club occupies the site.

Still, the venue's legacy as a pioneering musical and political crossroads lives on: Pete Seeger, the Byrds, the Chambers Brothers, Muddy Waters and Johnny Cash played the Ash Grove. Taj Mahal, Roger McGuinn, Linda Ronstadt, Country Joe McDonald and many, many others pinpoint the club as instrumental to their then-fledgling careers. At the time, Pearl says, "the club was a microcosm of the most dynamic era of the century."

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Now, 50 years after the venue's 1958 opening, those who were there and those who wish they were there can relive its halcyon years — and reflect on the era's turmoil — as the Ash Grove celebrates its would-be golden anniversary with a weekend of concerts and workshops at UCLA, courtesy of UCLA Live and the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music and supported by the Evelyn & Mo Ostin Endowment for the Performing Arts.

The April 18-19 events and concerts feature a small army of fabled singers, pickers, producers, writers, scholars and even Dr. Demento. Speakers and players include Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Culture Clash, Michelle Shocked, Holly Near, Van Dyke Parks, Ross Altman, Terry Wolverton, The Watts Prophets, Paul Krassner, Laraine Newman and a host of others.

But the Ash Grove celebration is more than just a nostalgia trip, notes UCLA School of Ethnomusicology Professor Anthony Seeger, director of the school's Ethnomusicology Archive, and — along with Pearl and UCLA Live — among the festival's key organizers. It's also meant to "introduce the club and its ideals to a new generation," he explains.

And UCLA is an ideal place for this, Seeger says, as the university's intellectual and historical bonds with the venue run deep. Among them: Pearl's student years organizing landmark concerts as a member of the school's Folk Song & Dance Club, to this year's Ethnomusicology Department Regents' Lecturer, legendary musician and folklorist (Pete's half-brother and Anthony's uncle) Mike Seeger.

Seeger will, of course, be playing at one of the Ash Grove festival's two evening concerts. Commemoration events include free afternoon performances, art installations and free workshops and conversations about the era with musicians, professors, songwriters and poets.

As Professor Seeger notes, music has long been used "as a means to unite people." So for one weekend at least, the fabled Ash Grove will once again unite, expose and communicate diverse cultures through music. And in today's fractured society, Pearl says, "that's needed more than ever."

The Ash Grove 50th Anniversary: Legend and Legacy. Royce Hall and Schoenberg Music Building and Schoenberg Hall. Friday-Saturday, April 18-19. Various times. Tickets: $56, $42, $28, $15 UCLA students. To purchase tickets and for more information, visit www.tickets.ucla.edu or www.ashgrovemusic.com.

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