The Prism Coffeehouse is poised to reopen at The Haven

Peter Jones is leading the campaign to recreate the Prism Coffeehouse and give Charlottesville a much-needed listening room. Peter Jones is leading the campaign to recreate the Prism Coffeehouse and give Charlottesville a much-needed listening room.

For 40 years, the Prism Coffeehouse was a highly-regarded venue in Charlottesville, and revered by folk and roots music connoisseurs nationwide. Originally located at the corner of Gordon Avenue and Rugby Road, the space could accommodate over 100 people, but it always felt much smaller. I have vague memories of going to concerts there as a child in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and what I remember clearly is the reverent feeling in the room.

It wasn’t your typical bustling, clattering coffeehouse—it was more like a church for the “religion” of traditional music. The listeners were sometimes packed in like sardines, but the mood was cozy and quiet enough to hear every breath the musicians took, along with the sound of their fretting fingers brushing the strings. The near silence may have been partly due to the fact that many shows were broadcast live on WTJU, but it was also because the audience was eager to give the music its full attention. And the music was worth listening to. Mike Seeger himself once said, “I know of no other place in the United States where you can hear such a great variety of folk and traditional music.”

WTJU’s folk director Peter Jones has been a WTJU volunteer since 1996, and he was involved with the original Prism, hosting monthly broadcasts of his syndicated children’s program “Tell Us a Tale” and would “occasionally  be recruited to hit record on the DAT machine.”

“The Prism was originally started in 1966, by what was called the ‘God Squad,’” Jones said. “A group of ministers around Charlottesville wanted to give students at the University who were opposed to the Vietnam War a place to go, and then music developed out of that—Emmylou Harris performed there back in the early ’70s, and it’s said that Bob Dylan even came down and introduced her the first night.”

The venue stayed in vogue with folk and mountain music fans, and thrived as an outlet for local singer-songwriters until Fred Boyce was hired as artistic director around 1990. “He started booking acts, and it really just went up to an entirely different level at that point,” Jones said. “World-renowned artists of all styles came in, and loved to perform there because they knew that the audience was there to listen.” Locals like Tim Reynolds and Greg Liszt got started at the Prism, and touring acts like Andy Irvine, Robin and Linda Williams, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings regularly made appearances.

The Prism closed in 2006, after a public feud between Boyce and other members of the organization. Now, over seven years later, Jones is leading a group that hopes to bring the popular coffeehouse back in a new location. “We have two original board members who were on [the Prism’s board] back in the ’90s and we have three new members, including myself,” Jones said.

Jones hopes that he can establish a new home for the Prism and fill a void in the music scene. “There are great venues around town, but a listening room has been missing from Charlottesville and central Virginia,” he said. “You had the Mockingbird [Café, which recently closed] in Staunton, but folks weren’t making that trek. That was trying to pick up where the Prism left off, and they didn’t make it.”

The Prism’s new home will be in The Haven, the former church on First and Market streets that serves as a resource center and day shelter for Charlottesville’s homeless, while also hosting events for the wider community. “The Haven has been looking for an organization like the Prism to put on concerts in the sanctuary space, and it’s a win-win for both sides,” Jones said. “We’re thrilled to have that relationship with them.”

Jones and the new board (Joe Ayers, Laura Seale, Dave Shreve and George Dayton) are currently holding a fundraiser for proper sound equipment for the space. “We’re using IndieGogo, which is like Kickstarter, they just take less money from you,” he said. “We’re trying to raise at least $5,000 from that, and we’re also working with BamaWorks on the final portion.” Jones hopes to reach a goal of $14,000.

The fundraiser will continue through November 26, and they hope to hold the first concerts in early February following the folk marathon on WTJU. “We love the idea of working with WTJU,” he said. “Not only because I’m part of it, but because WTJU is truly what the Prism is about: bringing you diverse music, great quality music.”

As for the acts the new Prism hopes to host? “We’re working with the Charlottesville Jazz Society, and we’ve talked to some of the blues groups here in town, and some classical folks,” said Jones. “So just as the old Prism used to bring in world, classical, jazz, folk, blues, and even rock, we’re going to work with all types of groups to create a real listening room.”

Share your memories from The Prism Coffeehouse in the comments below.

  • Tom Barden

    God Squad! Not hardly, Mr. Jones. The chuchie folks just helped us get the building lined up. It was Chuck Vandersee, Mitch Reese, and yours truly who put the place together. Mitch and I modeled it on Kyle’s Coffee House on Cary Street in Richmond. The Wesley Foundation folks were great and the Presbyterians too, but they didn’t instigate it–we did, as undergraduate students!
    Tom Barden

    • Prism Coffeehouse

      Apologies for the misunderstanding. I simply meant that the church leaders came together to offer you the space, but it was of course the students who did the work. And “God Squad” was the terms I heard from several others when being told about the history.

    • Patti

      WoW…those WERE the days! I will never forget the music, the friendships, and washing dishes all night long, on opening night

    • Patti

      I hope the Prism reopens with the same passion for freedom, justice, and great music, originally fostered by Tom, Mitch, DK, and so many others in those early years…….love to all.

    • Jerry Angell

      I second, third and fourth what Tom stated. I was not an organizer (thanks Tom, Mitch and Chuck!!!) but I served coffee, performed a bit, and generally hung out there the first few years of its operation. It was a rollicking, reveling, music-making, poetry-reading, coffee-drinking wonder in those first years. I understand it went way “upscale” later on, and I suppose that is OK. But I will never forget the Prism the way it was at the start and wouldn’t trade one night there for anything. I feel truly lucky to have been even a small part of such a great adventure and am so glad there are others who remember.

  • Sandra Bienalle

    Open it up with Chris Thile and David Grier!

  • greg doggerel

    whoever started it it was so great. i lived off Virginia Ave back in the early 90’s and got to see Pierre Bensusan, Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Tony Rice , Norman Blake, just to name a few. if this version is half as good what a godsend! keep it away from the greedy people running everything else!

  • Ewan McNay

    Sitting three feet from Peggy Seeger: definition of awesome. Some really glorious memories of the Prism from our days in grad school.

  • Sara Sings

    I remember sitting on the couch, in the back, with my young son, having tea or soda and great cookies from The Rising Sun Bakery, watching Pierre Ben Susan, and other awesomely talented musicians come through and showing us their licks….I remember sitting in a small venue, where the audio and sound were never the problem, as the room could always support an acoustic duo, trio and more, it was a happening place. We missed the Prism when it closed. CVille Coffee has taken up where the Prism left off… The Haven will be a different venue…..not quite the same, but an interesting idea… Good Luck to the entrepreneurs looking to reopen a music venue for great music and lively entertainment. I hope the prices stay low, as we used to pay so little to see great groups…

  • PhantomTramp

    On page 38 of my new “Holiday 2013” issue of Guitar Player, Pierre Bensusan discusses how he contacts some folks in Charlottesville to get recordings of his old shows at the Prism for an upcoming release.

    Also, I remember the night my wife and I sat right in front (literally) of Guy Clarke and his son as they played their way through the highlights of his songcraft. TWTD!

    The Tramp

  • Vern Fischer

    I’m glad that there are still folks who value a place like the Prisim that provided a much needed venue for local musicians to meet, play, perform and interact with other musicians in an environment that was creative, supportive and challenging. I played old time there every Wednesday with the Well Fed Stringband from the Fall of 1980 until about 1991 or so as well as at open mics and concerts. We played fund raisers for and did repair work to the building occasionally. I recall playing old time with Pete and Ellen Vigour, Dick Harrington, Pete Marshall, Joe Aryes, Lou Pritchard, Rob Cockrell-Craighurst, Bill Evans, Freyda Epstien, Irish pipper Paddy Keenan and having Bella Fleck come over and sit in with us and doing a work shop with Russ Barrenberg. In those days the Prisim seemed more community oriented and the open mic on Saturday evening was the major event and it didn’t matter who you were you got about the same amount of time to play as everyone elese did. Concerts were occasionally on Sunday evenings. I’m looking forward to seeing and playing with some of my old friends and meeting new folks at the new venue.

  • PhantomTramp


    I ‘ve been listening to Pierre Bensusan’s awesome new release called “Encore – Live” on Spotify and derned if Fred Boyce doesn’t introduce him. His introduction is titled “Babillage”. That means “super-cerebral introduction” in french.

    The Tramp

  • Pecker Wood

    I used to work there in the late 60’s. Does anyone know whatever happened to Phyllis Knight who used to perform there?

  • John Nolan

    I remember the Prism fondly from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I discovered the place as a refuge while at UVa. I started hanging around and got to know the crowd, including Rob Cockrell, who was then managing it. Somehow, I ended up as manager in 1980-1982. We opened up the space, removing the studs that used to separate rooms.

    I remember great music: John Jackson, John McCutcheon, Si Kahn, Battlefield Band, Red Clay Ramblers, Robin and Linda Williams, Joe Ayers & Family, Peter and Debbie Hunter, etc.

    It is sad to see the place closed down, but exciting to see that it may soon reopen!

  • Cooper Whiteside Norman

    i suppose this discussion string is so old no one will ever see it again; but then, I ran across it tonight and was delighted with who and what I found, so who knows, maybe someone else will come across it again next year — maybe as they search for notices of The Coffeehouse’s fiftieth anniversary?

    Almost to the day and hour — forty-nine years ago — I walked into the Prism Coffeehouse for the first time. I think it had been open for about two weeks then — yes, Tom, Mitch, and Chuck were there, along with the Mullins, Eric, and so many others who became important to me; and what I saw and heard there gripped me so thoroughly that i don’t think I ever really left that room for very long over the next seven or eight years.

    I passed through Charlottesville in 2004 and made it a point to stop at The Coffeehouse for an evening’s visit and was amazed that the place had changed so little. There was artwork still on the walls from its inception. The same performance space (I think the stage had moved back to its original spot in front of the fireplace); the old central hallway walls hardly more than a minimal stand of rough wood studs holding up the second floor (did it ever occur to us that those studs did something more than define a walkway through the room when we removed the plaster?); and the rich sixties era graffiti on the bathroom, kitchen and pantry walls — some of it placed there without discretion by my hand. Even the Wednesday, Friday and Saturday night performances were the established routine. And the place was full; and — besides the old guy walking around staring at the walls — everyone else was attentive and obviously there for the music.

    Passed messages recently back and forth with Eric Sigmund on his sixty-seventh birthday and we both wondered … if somehow .. on that night marking fifty years since its opening … whether some or even all of us who cared about the place might just make it a point to stop by. I suppose more than a few still play their guitars and sing about women and glasses of beer …

    How about it Tom? You always were a great organizer and it would be fitting if you did it again, if only for a night and a song and a beer…

    Best regards and goodnight wherever you all are.

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