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.”
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