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The Ark in Ann Arbor: 50 Years of Blues and Balladry

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News
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As The Ark celebrates its 50th anniversary, it's interesting to look back at the scene that gave birth to the venerable Ann Arbor roots music venue.

In 1965, there was enough going on in the folk music scene for several coffeehouses around Ann Arbor, including The Ark and Canterbury House. The latter focused on emerging national acts such as Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot, while The Ark delved deeper into the origins of the music; booking musicians who played traditional Scottish, Irish and Appalachian music, as well as the blues idiom native to the United States.

"There was a real fear that those traditional songs were being lost," said Marianne James, The Ark's executive director. "Other venues were a little more contemporary."

The Ark plans a full roster of events this year to commemorate its 50th, looking forward and to its past.

It starts with Friday and Saturday's Ann Arbor Folk Festival, now in its 38th year. Actor Jeff Daniels, who plays gigs as a singer/songwriter between roles, is honorary chairperson of the celebratory year, and will do a benefit concert for the venue sometime this year. And a special "50 Year Fling" series of concerts in July will combine new acts with veterans who played in The Ark's early years.

The Ark started out in a house at 1421 Hill Street behind a Presbyterian church in 1965. Patrons would pay $1.50 to sit on sofas, chairs and the floor; for that they got coffee, doughnuts, cheese and crackers, as well as entertainment. The coffeehouse was funded by four churches, and while it was mostly music, there were movies, spoken word nights and all-night sessions on Saturday for song-swapping.

By 1969, David and Linda Siglin managed The Ark and lived upstairs with their daughter Anya. In those vagabond days, the artists often stayed overnight after a gig — some even longer. Leon Redbone stayed three months, until one day he just packed up and left.

Once Canterbury House closed, The Ark started picking up more of the contemporary singer-songwriters who used to play that venue. In its early years, The Ark hosted the Band, Little Feat, John Prine, Leon Redbone, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Steve Goodman, Loudon Wainwright III and Michael Bromberg, to name a few.

While the slate leaned to folk, it's interesting to note that Iggy Pop played there in his first band, when he was drummer for the bluesy Prime Movers, and future "Saturday Night Live" star Gilda Radnor sang in one of The Ark's "hoots" when she was a student at the University of Michigan.

By 1973 the church subsidies had ended, and The Ark, always a nonprofit, had to start raising money to cover its costs. After the Presbyterians had the original house torn down, the venue relocated to a warehouse on Main Street, and then in 1996 to its present location at 316 S. Main, an intimate venue accommodating 400 patrons, who don't have to sprawl on sofas or the floor.

There are no more free snacks, but a well-stocked concession area sells food, and members of The Ark may buy alcohol, with membership costing as little as $5.

A few years ago, as the 50th anniversary approached, James and The Ark's board of directors decided they needed to look to the future and give the venue some stability.

"In all its years, this venerable venue with an international reputation never owned its space, that was a huge vulnerability," James said. So they bought the building at the end of 2012, and launched a $2.5 million capital campaign to pay off the mortgage, do renovations and put some money toward future maintenance. This year they hope to raise the remainder of the $2.5 million.

"We thought this is a great moment to mobilize our supporters around retiring this loan so The Ark can turn its attention to presenting more than 300 nights of music a year," James said.

As younger generations discover the old songs and acoustic instruments, folk music has expanded, and periodically, retrenched. As that's happened, The Ark's musical offerings have evolved. In the early days, along with Anglo-Saxon and Celtic folk music, there was rustic African-American blues by acts such as Elizabeth Cotten.

Currently, native Detroiter Bettye LaVette, a sophisticated, urbane artist if there ever was one, proclaims The Ark one of her favorite places to play.

"Our program is emblematic of what I call full-spectrum folk," James said. "It's so inclusive. If you ask 10 different people what folk music is, you'll get 10 different answers. But yes, Bettye fits in — she has that passion, she knows how to go back to the roots of music. It's a big sandbox we play in, and that's what makes The Ark continue to be so relevant."



The Ark: 50 Folkin' Years, 1965-2015

Ann Arbor's The Ark is kicking off a year of 50th anniversary celebrations with this weekend's Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Jeff Daniels will serve as the honorary chair of the 50th anniversary, and will schedule a benefit concert at some point during the year.

¦Jan. 30-31. The Ann Arbor Folk Festival, Hill Auditorium. Friday: Brandi Carlile, Jason Isbell, Yonder Mountain String Band, Baskery, Bahamas and Mandolin Orange, among others. Saturday: Amos Lee, Ani DeFranco, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Holly Williams, The Dustbowl Revival, Noah Gundersen and Laith Al-Saadi. Some tickets are still available for Friday; Saturday is sold out. vendini.com/ticket-software.html?t=tix&e=220cc1f49b15cadc912b42f63b0ccbdc

¦March 1. Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn will perform at the Power Center for the Performing Arts, 212 Fletcher, Ann Arbor.

¦July 22-29. 50 Year Fling Concert Series. The series will feature national headliners as well as newer acts.

Some highlights of The Ark's upcoming shows:

Feb. 4. Kathy Mattea

Feb. 7. Willie Nile

Feb. 10. Charlie Mars

Feb. 17. Ladysmith Black Mambazo

Feb. 22. The David Bromberg Quintet

Feb. 23. Albert Lee

Feb. 28. Dave Alvin & Phil Alvin with The Guilty Ones

The Ark is at 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. (734) 761-1818

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