Pamela Polland - vocals; Ry Cooder - guitar
The Ash Grove will long be remembered as the West Coast epicenter of the traditional folk and blues revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s. As such, the Los Angeles venue was a critical component, not only in the careers of many important folk and blues artists, but as an educational environment to many younger musicians and songwriters, providing them with firsthand exposure to the best of the best in an intimate setting. Also a focal point for progressive thought, the Ash Grove would have an equally strong impact on the cultural and political perspective of these young emerging artists, laying the groundwork for what would become the rock music revolution of the 1960s. The Ash Grove's high musical standards and owner Ed Pearl's vision of facilitating interaction between young and old musicians made the venue a hotbed of creativity. The Ash Grove stage helped launch many musical careers, and this recording is another prime example. Recorded on July 19, 1964 this high quality recording captures a young Pamela Polland accompanied by one of the most respected guitar players of 20th century, Ry Cooder, then only 17 years old.
Pamela Polland would first gain recognition in the folk-rock group Gentle Soul, a collaboration with Rick Stanley in 1966. They only recorded one album and a few obscure singles, but their ethereal harmonies and musical blend of folk and pop remain beguiling examples of the Los Angeles folk-rock scene that included the Byrds, Love, and Buffalo Springfield. When Gentle Soul disbanded, Polland pursued a solo career, releasing two albums on Columbia Records. She also served as a backing vocalist for an impressive list of artists, including Van Morrison, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, and Taj Mahal, to name but a few. She also experienced considerable success as a songwriter, having her songs recorded by Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds, Vicki Carr, Nancy Ames, Anita Carter, and Bobby Bare. Polland was also invited to join the legendary 1970 Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour with Joe Cocker and Leon Russell, appearing on the resulting live album and in the movie. As the 1970-s progressed, Polland returned to her blues roots, creating a fictional character named Melba Rounds, and forming a revue of music from the 1920s through 1940s eras that included tap and ballroom dancing. The Melba Rounds Revue won Polland rave revues and introduced her to the world of jazz, which landed her the position of principle vocalist in the Golden Age Jazz Band. She would continue her exploration of jazz and blues over the course of the next decade.
All of which makes this 1964 Ash Grove recording all the more fascinating, as it not only captures Ry Cooder prior to his earliest recordings with the Rising Sons, but also features Polland at the dawn of her career, prior to her recordings with Gentle Folk. This set provides insight into both Polland's and Cooder's roots and not surprisingly places a heavy emphasis on traditional folk and blues, always popular fixtures at the Ash Grove. Much like the 1963 Jackie DeShannon and Ry Cooder Ash Grove recording (also available here in Concert Vault), this is a prime example of the torch being passed. The performance strikes a nice balance between originality and reverence for the material. Cooder's guitar stylings richly complement Polland's vocals and her engaging voice inspires his playing. They were wise to collaborate at this early stage in their careers, as the sum is indeed greater than the individual parts. Neither has developed charismatic stage presence at this early stage but the talent and potential of these young artists is undeniable and clearly conveyed on this outstanding quality recording.
The recording begins with Bessie Smith's "Mean Old Bed Bug Blues," the first song of their set, already in progress. Polland's earthy vocals and Cooder's forceful guitar playing set the stage for what is to come. They introduce the next number as "out of their idiom," which in this case relates more toward applying their own interpretation and experimentation to these songs than the genre of music. Here they blend the blues of "Corinna" with the folk balladry of "Weeping Willow," creating an adaptation that displays both originality and style. They are clearly searching for new ground here, and while it isn't as unique as the work each would pursue during the next several years, it is clearly a precursor to the blending of pre-existing styles that would come to define both of their careers. The next two numbers continue exploring the folk and blues idioms with a strong bluesy reading of "Young Woman Blues" (another Bessie Smith cover) and a more modern arrangement of the popular folk song, "I'm A Rake And Rambling Boy." Here, Polland's breathy vocals are particularly lovely and Cooder adds ringing notes to marvelous effect, creating one of the most beautiful moments in the set.
What comes next will be of major interest to Ry Cooder fans, as he gets a solo showcase performing two guitar instrumentals. The first, "Grandfather's Clock," displays Cooder's gifted fingerpicking on a Civil War era folk melody. Cooder acknowledges Doc Watson as an inspiration for tackling this song. The second of these instrumentals Cooder credits to Joseph Spence, a bricklayer from the Bahamas who developed his own unique approach to acoustic guitar. This is a truly remarkable performance that combines classical elements (think Mozart's minuets) with country and gospel flavorings.
The set concludes with a lovely reading of "Going Away Blues," a Ma Rainy influenced blues recorded by Lottie Kimbrough and Winston Holmes in the late 1920s. Cooder mistakenly states the song is titled "Leavin' Blue" in his introduction, but does acknowledge Kimbrough as the original vocalist. Despite Cooder's lack of historical knowledge about the song (one must remember he was only 17), his love for the music is obvious, and this is a particularly fine example of Polland and Cooder's natural chemistry. The set concludes with another example of the duo's interpretive abilities, this time by adapting two classic ragtime numbers into one—"Bill Bailey" and "Just Because."
In terms of sound, this is an outstanding quality recording for the era, which has survived the ravages of time fully intact. In terms of young, up and coming musicians that got their start on the Ash Grove stage, this recording is certainly one of the more astonishing finds.
Written by Alan Bershaw