Pacific Northwest Folklore Society

Paul Ashford Archive
A Brief Biography

Paul Ashford’s collection (at the University of Washington Library) reflects the cultural life of the Seattle and Puget Sound area during the 1930s and ‘40s. The material in the collection consists of his music reviews, articles, poetry, and radio scripts; his correspondence with figures like Ivar Haglund, Earl Robinson, Pete Seeger, Glenn Hughes and others [see folders of correspondence]; his collection of music, folk songs and tunes of all cultures represented in the Pacific Northwest [see box, Folk Music/ Songs Collection]. The material also reflects the social trends of the time during the Great Depression.  He began the decade with a pure interest in classical music.  He branched out in his writing, publishing poetry and satirizing current political events in a humorous in a humorous column using the pen name, Jalmer Grog. 

For several years he divided his time between writing reviews of musical performances in Seattle [see: collected review articles in the Scrapbook] and several serious novels.  But the economic conditions were very bad and they became steadily worse.  By the mid-30s, when publishers cut back on reviews, he tried making ends meet by teaching music and operating a small lending library.

Although he knew – and was known by – most of the musicians in the area and many outside the Pacific Northwest, he was not able to overcome the poor economic conditions of the time.  He managed to get some work with the Relief Progress Administration and the W.P.A. Writer’s Project, but struggled to make a living during the Great Depression. 

Briefly, he had a New Deal job interviewing people applying for welfare. Carbon copies of his reports are included in a folder labeled, Business Cond. His work with the W.P.A. Writer’s Project resulted in the Washington State Guide. As the Depression wears on, his notes reflect a growing concern for social justice.  The concerns are evident in both his writing and the type of information – news clippings or folk music – collected.

Paul Ashford was born in Bakersfield California in 1906.  His father was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and railroad engineer, his mother a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.  The family moved to Raymond, Washington in 1914 and Paul graduated from Raymond High School where he was editor of the school paper, the Seagull, and an editor of the yearbook, Dnomyar.  In high school he played clarinet in the marching band and led a music group. He graduated from the University of Washington with a master’s degree in musical composition in the year 1929.

At the University of Washington Paul studied under Carl Paige Wood and George McKay.  Carl Paige Wood later became head of the School of Music.  McKay founded the Composition Department and influenced Ashford’s approach to composition.  McKay [ according to his entry in Wikipedia]  was “attracted to American folk-song, including jazz and blues and Native American themes, and to a great degree, his music contains a poignant evocation of the West Coast American spirit, including glimpses of a populist era of street marches, honky-tonk dance halls and social chaos along with a recognition of the great natural beauty of his home region and the vitality of its people.” In the later compositions of Paul Ashford [see box labeled, Compositions, Original Music by Paul Ashford] one can hear many of those strains and the influence can be seen in the variety of the music that he collected.

He befriended a blind music graduate named George Bailey who played the chimes on the campus.  Paul occasionally sat with Bailey and played a noon concert on the chimes in the University’s Denny Hall.  During that time, he made friends with other students of musical composition.  Of that group, Earl Robinson, graduate of 1933, became a lifelong friend.

In 1927 Paul married Jean Haven, a student working her way through school writing for the Everett Herald.  She was also a published poet by the time they met. Her poetry had appeared in three volumes, University of Washington Poems (...Selected and Edited by Glenn Hughes, University of Washington Press, 1924, 1926, 1927.)

In February 1929, a Seattle arts magazine, Show Goer and Tatler published a review of Northwest writers [see Scrapbook: “In re nomenclature” by Paul Ashford, February 6, 1929]. In his review he made serious points in a style that could be described as entertaining, ironic, and iconoclastic.

The April 19, 1929 issue of Show Goer published some of Paul’s early poetry. A promo page describes the Show Goer style as “intimate, amusing and informative.” Paul’s early work, satirical and comic, fit the magazine style perfectly. The weekly reviewed music, shows, books, radio and art.  The promo advertises an annual subscription price of $1.50.

Show Goer changed its name to The Town Crier and was unique in having as cartoonist and illustrator, Kenneth Callahan, later well known as one of the artists of the Northwest School. [Callahan’s wife Margaret was the editor.] Paul and Callahan had met in San Francisco in the late ‘20s.  In 1930, the Ashfords helped Callahan mount an exhibit in Tacoma and, in return, Callahan gave Paul and Jean several etchings and drawings, which later went to the collection at the Museum of Northwest Art in LaConnor, Washington.

Paul Ashford’s scrapbook includes a section of cartoons drawn by Callahan. [see Scrapbook]  Many of the cartoon illustrations appear more than once with different punch lines. A story Paul used to tell was that Kenneth Callahan came up with the illustration, he and Paul would then sit down with a homemade alcoholic beverage and together they invented additional captions. 

When Paul was twelve years of age, his mother had pushed him to enter an essay contest sponsored by the W.C.T.U. The title of his essay was “Why alcohol will never touch my lips.” He won the contest, but as he grew older the memory spurred rebellion.  During Prohibition, besides learning to make bathtub gin and homebrew beer, he began collecting music of the temperance movement. He enjoyed having friends crowded around the piano singing songs of the Anti-Saloon League while hoisting steins of homebrew.  In the ‘40s, he had the idea for a book called “High and Dry”.  The book presented songs of prohibition paired with drinking songs, mostly in a way that mocked the attitudes of what he called, the “blue noses.”  [see box: Drinking & Temperance songs] The book was his major focus in the mid-1940s.  [see correspondence with Earl Robinson and representatives of the Thomas Y. Crowell Publishing Company] He had discussions with Ivar Haglund and Earl Robinson (composer of Joe Hill, Ballad for Americans, etc.) about creating a stage musical based on the book. Unfortunately, for various reasons, he was never able to get the book published. He attributed the difficulties in getting published to the fact that he lived in Seattle while the publishing houses were in New York City. 

The Ashfords had pieced together a living through the late thirties with short-term New Deal appointments and Paul writing blurbs for the Seattle Chamber of Commerce and other occasional work and Jean working part-time as an editor of the Seattle City Light employees’ paper, CL News. Their work was supplemented by occasional stints with Polk’s City Directory and the U.S. Census. Paul took his first full-time job in 1941 when he went to work for the Lake Washington Shipyard. Shortly after that, Jean was hired on at Boeing.

In the meantime, his collection of folk music gained him a reputation. In 1940, hearing about the collection, Woody Guthrie, traveling with Pete Seeger were visitors. Later, during World War II, when Pete Seeger was in the Army and stationed at Fort Lawton he returned to the Ashford household on numerous occasions. [see correspondence with Pete Seeger & Earl Robinson; also, radio scripts that used material from his collection

Paul loved jazz and had an impressive collection of an estimated 3000 records (78 rpm and Edison) of early jazz and blues as well as field recordings by Dr. Laura Boulton, the ethnomusicologist. Late in his life he wrote articles for jazz magazines that described some aspect of the jazz scene in Seattle. [see: Miscellaneous folder, article “Rainy City Jazz Band.”  Unfortunately his record collection was scattered shortly after his death.

He had an enduring interest in baroque music and became interested in the recorder, a style of flute that had once been very popular in Europe. For years, he even made recorders of different sizes and dimension on a lathe in his basement shop.  Toward the end of his life he organized the Seattle Recorder Guild [later named Seattle Recorder Society]. [see articles: "Modest Maestro," and several others, in Miscellaneous folder, Correspondence & Notices.]

After receiving a diagnosis of A.L.S. (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) in 1948 or ’49, he began dividing his time between Seattle and San Francisco. During that period, he organized the San Francisco Recorder Guild. Music publishers Schirmer Co. and Hargail Press published some of his original pieces and arrangements for recorder ensemble.  More of his music is available through Lost In Time Press, Newport, Oregon.

Paul Ashford died at the age of 45, February, 1952.

Another biographical perspective appears in, “Paul Ashford and the West Coast Recorder Guild: A Short History,” American Recorder Magazine, Nov. 2007. 

By John Ashford
November, 2010

ARCHIVE COLLECTIONS at the University of Washington Library

Paul Ashford Archive ­ 2 - Scrapbook.pdf
Paul Ashford Archive ­ 3- Folk Music Collection.pdf
Paul Ashford Archive - 4 - Various Manuscripts.pdf
Paul Ashford Archive - 5 - Original Music.pdf
Paul Ashford Archive - 6 -Drinking and Temperance.pdf