Wild Roots Chase: The Folk Music Center

Posted January 7, 2009 in Feature Story

They who dance are thought mad by those who hear not the music.” 

–Charles Chase


The term “Golden” occupies a place so cherished in American culture that it is used to describe only the most rare and precious events—golden days, golden opportunities and the singularly revered 50th—or Golden—Anniversary.  


On the final Saturday of 2008 in the bustling downtown hamlet known as Claremont Village, the city threw a Golden Anniversary party for one of the local businesses. The star power assembled was undeniable—an internationally adored favorite son; a Rock and Roll Hall-of-Famer; a veritable pantheon of homegrown singers and pickers; a thankful congregation of friends and well-wishers—all assembled under the exotic backdrop of African drums, Russian balalaikas, and a life-size man made of straw.


Everyone was there to celebrate 50 years of the Folk Music Center and Museum—the House that Charles and Dorothy Chase built. It started as a business. It endures as a community.




The Chases are former East Coasters, weaned on frostbitten New England liberalism. They lived a good life in 1950’s Quincy, Massachusetts, raising four children. Charles taught high school and Dorothy, inspired after seeing The Weavers play, took up a variety of stringed instruments. It was a bucolic life that only a burgeoning country-wide Red Mania could disrupt, and disrupt it did.


According to Ellen Chase-Harper, the third of four Chase daughters, a young Charles Chase would travel with his father to farms in the Depression-era South, where unions were organizing “penny auctions,” in which foreclosed homes were bought by community members and given back to their original owners. Years later, Chase’s early benevolent outreach would come back to bedevil him.


“He was accused of being a Communist,” says Chase-Harper. Steadfast in his principles, Charles did not bend to pressure. “He refused to name names.”  


Chase’s recalcitrance got him a seat on the blacklist express, he lost his job and soon the family packed its bags and headed west. They alit in the quiet tree-lined college town of Claremont, with its sweet smell of orange blossoms.  


It didn’t take long for the Chases to acclimate. Charles got a job at Baldwin Park High School while Dorothy, now strumming at a professional level, started giving lessons out of the family home. Charles also proved quite adept at fixing broken instruments. Soon, the Chase household was a hub of soaring harmony, while tweaked dulcimers and fiddles were piling up everywhere.


“The clutter was enormous,” says Chase-Harper. “My parents needed a bigger place.”


Enter Boots Beers, a real estate salesman with an office in the Village. Beers offered the Chases a tiny room squeezed between his office and a sculptor’s studio. The offer Beers presented them was equal parts magnanimity and condescension. “Don’t worry about rent,” he told them. “Nobody will come to see you anyway.”


Two months later Beers was loudly complaining about all the foot traffic in and out of the newly minted Folk Music Center. The Chases were forced to move again, but this time it was on their own terms.


The Music Center grew up quickly. As the folk movement spread across America, talented local musicians were drawn to both the Chase’s folksiness and charm and their invaluable technical precision. Joan and Mimi Baez, Frank Zappa and John Stewart would turn up from time to time while multi-instrumentalists like Dave Lindley and Chris Darrow, who would form the group Kaleidoscope, hung out and honed their chops.


In 1961, the Chases tried their hand at being entrepreneurs, opening the Golden Ring Coffee House for live performances. Many of the legendary figures that passed through, acts like Rev. Gary Davis and the New Lost City Ramblers, used the Chase house as a crash pad, much to the amusement of their children.


“I can remember waking up and seeing Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry sleeping on the floor,” says Chase-Harper. It was an unusual upbringing, to say the least. “Most of the kids from school, their parents worked at defense plants like General Dynamics. I would say, ‘My parents own a folk music store!’ We were very oddball.”


The Golden Ring lasted five years before the Chases, tired of hassling with the music business, closed it up and embarked on a less ambitious but more enduring course. With a multitude of unusual instruments collected from around the world, and unencumbered by electronic gear (banished in favor of an all-acoustic inventory), the Chases sunk their entire life savings into purchasing the storefront at 220 Yale. This time the move was permanent. It was 1970.




Several years earlier, in 1965, Dave Millard, a 15-year old from Ontario, saw an ad in the Daily Report for guitar lessons over in Claremont. Intrigued, Millard convinced his mom to pay for a lesson. Millard rode his bike into town. His first visit overwhelmed him. He felt a community unlike any other, a vitality and richness that immediately drew him in. For Millard, there was no turning back.


“I said ‘So long Ontario!’”


Millard became like a son to the Chases. Dorothy would teach him how to play and sing and Charles would teach him how to construct and repair. For a year, Millard pestered the pair for a job. When they relented Millard became the first of a long line of Chase-taught luthiers, or makers of stringed instruments. He’s now known for his skill.


“Dave is a master craftsman,” says Chase-Harper, a first-class luthier herself.  


“High caliber repair,” boasts Rufie Barnes. “[Millard] kept customers coming through the doors.” Barnes is the current house luthier at the Folk Music Center. Hired right out of college 11 years ago, the story of Barnes’ employment is typical of the communal symbiosis fostered by the Chases.  


Rufie’s older brother Henry was just the type of guy that Charles liked to chat up. In the ’80s, Henry spent many hours with Charles at the Walters Restaurant coffee counter, in deep conversations about life and music. Charles advised Henry that he should make instruments, if that was what made him happy.  


“Charles would give me hints on how to put in frets and how to make a good guitar,” says Henry.  


Henry soon began building guitars. Later, Rufie followed suit, and when a job opened up at the center, Henry encouraged Rufie to apply because, “he already knew what he was doing.”  


These days, both Barnes brothers work at the store. 


On a recent afternoon, Rufie strolled the aisles availing himself to the constant stream of families and curiosity seekers poking, prodding and inquiring, their faces lit up in awe. One teenage girl was fascinated by a python-skin two-stringed Chinese erhu. Barnes picked up a bow and showed her the correct sitting position to play. After a couple of notes, Barnes quipped, “If someone plays it right, it doesn’t sound like they’re murdering a cat.”


Meanwhile, Henry was returning a repaired mandolin to a customer. “I raised the action a little bit,” says Henry, plucking out a couple of chords to demonstrate. The man is satisfied and impressed. He’s driven the 40 miles from Los Angeles on a Friday afternoon to pick up the mandolin. He’ll play it the next day. The Barnes brothers keep customers coming through the doors. So does a certain grandchild.




Ben Harper has sold millions of records. He’s an artist that married a movie star, appears regularly on the David Letterman show, and is lionized by the French. But around the Folk Music Center, he is just one of the gang, even when he brings an old pal like Jackson Browne to the party.  


On stage at the anniversary bash, Harper told a story about sneaking out of his room while his mother, Ellen Chase-Harper, conducted late-night practices with the likes of (recently deceased) civil rights activist and folk singer Clabe Hangan. 


“My mom wouldn’t allow me to stay up,” he says. “So Clabe used to move her around so she couldn’t see me.”


Chase-Harper vehemently denies this. A mother of three sons, she admits, “They won the battle. Eventually I let them come in and sleep on the floor, surrounded by guitars.”


Many people believe Ben Harper was playing guitar before he was born, and they aren’t too far off base. When she was eight months pregnant with Ben, Chase-Harper was still teaching guitar at San Bernardino city adult education classes.  


“I was sticking way out to here, and every time I played a note Ben would kick me and the guitar would move. It got a lot of laughs.”


Even still, Chase-Harper maintains Ben only became interested in playing when he got a job at the center in 1988. Despite his late start, Harper’s inherited genes quickly propelled him forward. Ben was soon dropping jaws and acquiring true believers, including an old folkie named Taj Mahal.  


After seeing Harper play, Taj asked Ben to accompany him to Hawaii. No one took the offer seriously. Six months later, the plane tickets arrived in the mail. The rest is history.  


As fame hurtled young Ben into a life of celebrity, Father Time was busy catching up with the Chases. Yet, where once the Chases seemed a bit bohemian for the city, they now had the pleasure of seeing the entire downtown Village grow up around them, and in an artist’s haven they were the rock stars, the pillars of the community.


Dorothy had slowed down a bit, but no one had forgotten her work with the Claremont Folk Song Society, the days when she told stories to the kids at Sycamore Elementary, or how she encouraged her charges.


“She got me my first gig,” says Marguerite Millard, Dave’s sister, who followed him to Claremont. “She took us under her wing. We definitely felt like part of the family.” Now the pair front the band Squeaking Wheels, and play the same songs they learned from Dorothy.


Charles mellowed a bit, but was never too far removed from the mischievous rebel who around 1972 spray-painted a public poetic diatribe called “Neutron Bomb Man.” The city of Claremont considered it graffiti and painted over it. Now, Chase’s legendary “Poet Post,” located outside the front door, invites anyone to contribute a verse.


During the late ’90s Dorothy contracted supranuclear palsy and had to retire from the store. Charles was beginning to fall asleep in the back room. How would the store survive without their guidance?


Ben Harper knew what he had to do. Proving the adage that an apple never falls too far from the tree, Harper agreed to purchase the store, on one condition—his mother Ellen, by this time a public education professor at CS San Bernardino, return to run it.


Chase-Harper was fiercely loyal to her parents, but this decision was a tough one. She was on tenure track at CSSB. Her son persisted and continued to plead with her. Finally, she relented.


“I have no regrets,” she says.


Once back in the fold, Chase-Harper inherited the Folk Music Festival, which began modestly as five dulcimer players at Memorial Park in 1980, and now has been transformed into a meticulously planned all-day event with maypole dancing, educational workshops and world-class music.


Channeling the old Golden Ring days, Chase-Harper also brought back live music to the center, where artists have the pleasure of performing amidst the soothing proscenium of Martin guitars, African masks and Arabic ouds.  


Charles passed away in 2004, and Dorothy followed him in 2005. Their passings greatly saddened the tight-knit Village community. An era had passed.




It was getting late at the anniversary party, over a dozen musicians were gathered on stage for a final tribute to the Chases. Searching for the appropriate closer, they picked a song performed at Dorothy’s memorial—“Goodnight Irene.”  It moved some in the audience to tears.


Then they cut the cake, eager for the next chapter, and the sweet pluck of a dulcimer.



Some Folk Music Center Highlights


The FMC’s location was originally the first movie theater in Claremont, and then served as a hardware store before its most recent incarnation as a music store. Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Los Lobos and Taj Mahal have all paid visits to the store, as have visitors from countries like Australia, Japan, Italy and France.




Around 1960, Mike Seeger of the highly-influential folk band the New Lost City Ramblers, played at the Sycamore School Auditorium, a concert sponsored by the Folk Music Center. 




“[Nigerian drummer Babatunde] Olatunji came and looked at some of our African drums,” Chase-Harper recalls, noting it was sometime in the early ’70s, “and he said they were much too dry. He took them up to my parents’ house and threw them in the swimming pool! That was an interesting one.”




An earthquake retrofit for the brick and cinderblock building disrupted the store’s activities in the late ’80s. The large steel beams inserted into the walls made for massive amounts of dust, which was hardly a good thing for a store crammed with exotic acoustic instruments. 




Ben Harper filmed the video for his song “Better Way” at the FMC in 2006, which was directed by his wife and actress Laura Dern. The video depicts Harper with hundreds of onlookers following him down Yale Avenue in the Claremont Village. Talk about a safety dance.




California’s Gold television show host Huell Howser filmed a lengthy segment about the Folk Music Center in the summer of 2007. “They aired it two Fridays before Christmas, and I’m telling you, I think it helped it the whole town. We had so many people,” remembers Chase-Harper.




The store sponsored concerts with Ben Harper and Jackson Browne in 2005, and again with Rage Against The Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello, who performed with Harper in 2007 at Bridges Auditorium in Claremont.




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