With April 1st coming up as I write, I’m looking over the Lou Curtiss Sound Library and all the tellers of tales I’ve run into and recorded over the years. Here are a few of my favorites. First, from San Diego’s own SAM HINTON: “It was about the quick changing qualities of the weather in East Texas. I used to be able to tell by the green sky when a Norther was about to hit and the temperature would drop very sharply. Well, when this was about to happen I’d go out to a pond and stretch a lariat around the edges of the pond in the bull rushes and then I’d sit there with one end of this rope in my hand and wait ’til the Norther came and just as the Norther struck I’d give the line a shake and this of course would scare all the frogs that lived in the rushes and cause them to jump into the water and if I timed it correctly the Norther would strike and it would freeze the water. This always left the ice quite solid with the frog legs sticking out. Then I’d go home and get the lawn mower and run it over the ice and get frog legs to sell to one of the local canning companies. I made a nice living this way.”
Veteran country singer and western swing band leader HANK PENNY told this one he heard from Will Rogers: Will Rogers, the great humorist, had been invited by Standard Oil to make a speech at their big sales meeting in New Jersey and he accepted. The director of the meeting asked Will Rogers, “If you can, stress the word ‘service’ because when people think of Standard Oil we want them to think of ‘service’ and when people think of ‘service’ we want them to think of Standard Oil.” He said he would try. I don’t think anyone but Will Rogers could have come up with this. He said, “You know, it’s kind of strange they asked me to stress ‘service’ in my speech because that one little old word played such a part in my growing up in Oklahoma.” He said the way it came about was one day he was talkin’ to his Pa. “We was havin’ sort of a heart-to-heart, man-to-man type of a discussion. I asked Pa, ‘Would you explain something to me?’ He said, ‘Sure son, I’ll try.’ I said, “Will you explain what it means when someone comes to the house and says they want to borrow our bull for ‘service’?” He said his Pa shifted his foot from one toe to the other and tugged at his collar and said, “Now son, look, this ain’t the type of thing that we’re going to have to spend a whole lot of time on. By that I mean this is kind of a chore of Mother Nature. You see one morning you’ll wake up and you will have that knowledge and you won’t even know where it come from, and once more you ain’t a-gonna even care; you’re just gonna be so glad that you know.” He told me to have respect for my elders and I didn’t question him any further, kept it in my mind, however thinkin’. A few days later there was a knock on the door and it was one of our neighbors inquiring for my Pa. I said there ain’t nobody home but me. They’ve all gone into town but is there something I can do fer ya. He looked at me sort of disappointed and said, “Well, heck, Fuzzy.” Well, that got my attention – him cussing like that.” I said, “Well now, wait a minute, maybe there’s something I can do for you. He said well I wanted to talk to your Pa about borrowing the bull for ‘service’ and I said by doggies, here’s my chance. I said, “Well now, I’ll tell you what, you go over to the house and I’ll put a halter on that old boy and bring him on over to you.” Well, he left and I went out and haltered him up and was walking him over and thinking to myself all I’ve got to do is act smart alecky and like I know everything and they’ll let the cat out of the bag and I’ll find out what I’m wanting to find out and they won’t know they’re telling me. So I told him, “Look there’s no hurry, ’cause my folks are in town and I’ll just sit here on the fence and you can help yourself to all the ‘service’ you want, or need, or can use or somethin’.” He patted me on the head and said, “You better go on back to the house and I’ll bring him on back over later when we’re through.” He give me a little shove and I was walkin’ down that old dusty lane and I said, well, I’ll be a suck egg mule and I said to myself there ain’t no reason why a man should be shut out in his quest for knowledge like I’ve been did and a strong feeling of determination overtook me and down that hill I went to the creek and I walked that creek way around the bend over there behind that place. I come up that embankment to there old high board fence and I found me a knothole and on that beautiful May day down in Oklahoma thru a knothole I found out what the Standard Oil Company has been doing to the people of America these many years.”
Here’s a story ROSALIE SORRELLS told at the fifth San Diego State Folk Festival back in 1971: “Now, Alfred Packer was a mountain man and he was pretty damned tough – like one time he was caught out in the cold and he killed a buffalo, slit it open, and slept inside. That’s how touchy he was. Another time he went out with a bunch of other mountain men to check the scene, lay traps and all. It was late in the season and they got caught in an early snow and everyone thought they were dead, frozen, but come spring down comes Alfred Packer. Now, nobody would have given it much thought about him coming back because he was a very resourceful guy, but the thing was that he looked so fat and healthy for somebody who had been up in the mountains with nothing to eat for a long time and the other guys didn’t come back and when they found them it came out that Alfred Packer had ate those other guys. Well, they tried him for murder and cannibalism and convicted him and when the judge read the sentence: “Alfred Packer, there were seven Democrats in Hemsdale County and you voracious man-eatin’ son-of-a-bitch, you et six of them.”
Veteran Country singer CLIFF CARLISLE appeared at the fifth Folk Festival with his early partner Wilbur Ball and told this story about their early days in the ’30s on the road: We got a job for $5 apiece and boy, that was money in those days, across the river from Lowell, Kentucky. There was an old boy over there who was emceeing, master of ceremonies that night. The name of our act, at that time we were doing Hawaiian stuff, nothing but Hawaiian stuff; we had a hula girl and everything so there was a lot going on, a lot comin’ off too, so we had the name of Wilber Ball and Cliff Carlisle, the Walana Duo. Of course, duo means duet. I don’t know what Walana means. And this emcee was the most nervous guy I’ve ever seen in my life. He said I know I’ll get that mixed up and I’ll never be able to announce it. He was whipped before he went on the stage, so he went out there. Now, remember this was Wilbur Ball and Cliff Carlisle, the Walana duo. He went out there and he said folks we’ve got an act here that I know you’re going to enjoy; the boys are really coming to the front. They’re one of the biggest things on the radio today I take great pleasure in introducing to you Wilbur Walana and Cliff Duo.
And of course a few words from the mouth of BRUCE “U UTAH” PHILLIPS who played so many of our festivals. This ones from the eleventh Festival in 1977: I remember being in jail once; you know, it was that sheep assault rap up in Grand Junction, Colorado. It was a bum rap, but I asked the guy in the cell next to me what he was in jail for. He said for shooting his wife. I found her with another man. I said why didn’t you shoot the man? He said I’d rather shoot her once than a new man every week. There’s a certain amount of economy in that. I never started out to be a jailbird. My mother never intended for me to be in jail. They tried to raise me right but I’d get in a lot of trouble. I used to throw firecrackers out in the pasture and the cows would eat them and I’d run out waving a shotgun yelling “that’s abominable” and stuff like that. They decided I needed a pet. I was a very lonely child and their weren’t any other children around there. The first pet I had was a trout. The Ute Indian people are very canny people and they live very close to nature. They don’t use hooks and lines and sinkers like other people. They use patience and practice and two fingers in what they call “tickling up the trout.” You see, a trout will get in a pool where it’s kind of warm and sleep and a Ute Indian will lie on his stomach and reach his hand slow down under the water and find that sensitive piece of skin and he’ll tickle it and hypnotize it and with a flick of his wrist he’s got himself a trout. Well, there was a trout that was a particular friend of mine in our local stream and I’d tickle it up each day. I didn’t want to catch it. It was my friend. One time I tickled it up and I turned to leave and I heard this “bloomph” and I turned and looked and there was that trout on its stubby little fins following me. It was my boon companion for the better part of nine months, following me everywhere I went. It was a lonely trout and I’d reach down and tickle it now and then. It just wanted a little affection, don’t you see? I lost it. I was going over the Old Flat Bridge and it was following me as usual and it slipped between the planks and drowned. So I got a chicken. My uncle, he had a chicken ranch. We only had two chickens to begin with and one of them got sick so we had to kill the other one to make chicken soup to make the first one better, of course. The one we killed didn’t like it none. It came back and haunted us. Ever been haunted by a poultrygeist? The chicken I had, I lost it. It was the high wind that blows thru the basin there. It roars through both day and night at 60 miles an hour. My chicken was laying there with her back to the wind and she laid the same egg four times and went up in a dust of feathers never to be heard from again. My uncle was outraged and said, “You are done. You’re about bright enough to have an ant for a pet.” Taking him at his word I went out and I stalked the wily ant and I found myself a Montana Red Ant. I mean it was a big one. I carried him everywhere in a little box. I’d take him to school and we’d stay up late at night reading funny books, a jar full of fireflies on the nightstand, you know. It was during times like that that I learned to speak in the ant tongue. Ants talk with the little things on their heads called mandalas. It came in very handy because my uncle used to make his own whiskey called Autumn Leaf. You take one shot, change color, and fall. And there wasn’t very much I could do out there in the Basin, so I’d steal into his pantry and steal his whiskey and drink it. I’d know he couldn’t catch me because he was an extremely big guy. I wouldn’t say he was fat but he had more chins than a Chinese phone book. So I’d snort that stuff and I’d get so high I’d go duck hunting with a rake. And I’d lie there, eight years old totally paralyzed on the ground but with my eyes open, you know, and I’d listen and talk to the insects. Ants would go by and I’d listen and understand what they said. One time when I was lying there, paralyzed and drunk and there was a bunch of ants gathered around this dog turd about five inches from my nose, having a serious discussion about how they could get that dog turd back to their anthill; it would carry them through the whole winter and they’d never have to set foot outside that anthill for the rest of their lives. So they started rolling that dog turd Bloomph! Bloomph! Bloomph! 12 feet back to the anthill. Now there were a bunch of ants down around that anthill, late risers I guess, and they were having a philosophical discussion about a cow that had stepped on the anthill and wiped out part of it and the intention of the Gods toward the future of their civilization, and they looked up in time to see the other ants lose control of that dog turd, which was hurtling like a bat out of hell down the hill toward the anthill that would be wiped out, and they were all waving their mandalas, which in ant language means STOP THAT SHIT!!!!!!!
And that’s a few tall tales or maybe youthful recollection for this April.
Recordially, Lou Curtiss