Recordially, Lou Curtiss

A Long Day’s Journey into a Nightmare, Part 1

It was the mid-’60s and I was doing some part time work in the summer at LA’s Ash Grove. I met up with these two guys who collected records (Nick and John) and we were sitting around the lobby talking about a trip down through the South doing some digging for the rare old 78 RPM types and how to go about finding them. They were going to go back to the Newport Folk Festival and then head south from there, through the Appalachians and down into Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. They could both drive but they needed someone who could talk and keep them awake over long hauls and keep track of the maps. Well, I told them, I could certainly do that. Within the week we were on our way. The idea was that they’d stop first in Oklahoma City and check out a couple of leads they had and then sort of wing it from there. I wasn’t collecting 78s in those days, so what I’d get was good solid reel-to-reel tapes of anything that appealed to me. That was a good beginning to what became the Lou Curtiss Digital Sound Library. Both Nick and John had lots of experience digging out old sides and the old Packard station wagon they drove had a good bunch of records by the time we reached the East Coast (via stops in Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and lots of small little burghs in between. We dropped off our loot at Nick’s place in New York City and after an evening at Bernie Klatzo’s place with a bunch of collectors we headed on to Newport, Rhode Island, and the festival.

In the four days I got to see Mississippi John Hurt, Hobart Smith, Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers, Horton Barker, Clarence “Tom” Ashley with Doc Watson, Clint Howard and Fred Price, Gaither Carleton, Rev. Gary Davis, the Freedom Singers, Jean Ritchie, the Young Tradition, the McPeake Family, Seamus Ennis, the New Lost City Ramblers, Kilby Snow, and a whole lot of others. By Sunday afternoon we were all burned out, but the plan was to head south on Monday morning. We finally got out of there on Tuesday and made it down to Baltimore the next day. Most of the day was spent poking around Baltimore junk shops with a move on to Washington D.C. later in the day. I was learning what to look for and how to grade the condition of a record. I also learned how to con folks out of records (John and Nick were masters of this kind of tomfoolery). Nick would approach a lady and tell her he was from a travelling church and they were going around the country collecting those sinful old blues records and they were going to burn them. There was always someone whose husband had some of those sinful things and was willing to donate them to the cause. I remember John once asking if they had any Blind Willie Johnson, or Rev. J.M. Gates, or any other old gospel records for them to play while the flames rose high and he scored a couple of records that way.

We kind of skipped over the Carolinas and Georgia and moved on into Alabama—first, the north part of the state, which is the southern end of the Appalachians. Lots of brother duets (Alton and Rabon Delmore, Ira and Charlie Louvin, Rebe and Rabe, etc.) south to Montgomery, which is Hank Williams country and finally to Birmingham where we found one of those Birmingham jug band records that are so rare, and some other area “territory bands” (i.e., those not recorded in New York or Chicago but out in the territory somewhere) and not often recorded. We spent a day in Mobile but didn’t find much of anything. So we got a motel, got some sleep, and the next morning it was on to Mississippi. Always good pickings in Mississippi from the Highlands, across the Delta and over to Vicksburg. We decided to skip Louisiana and Texas and make it north to Memphis, Louisville, and ultimately to Chicago, where we’d take in the University of Chicago Folk Festival. So that’s what we did. Somewhere in the dewy dens of Chicago I got separated from Nick and John and it wasn’t until we all were back in our homes in New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego that we got back in touch (me to get my tapes of all that wonderful stuff we found). Meanwhile I met Bob Koester at Chicago’s Jazz Record Mart and he took me out on the town (me and another San Diego buddy, Art, whom I’d run into at the festival). In one night I saw Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. A special night like few I’ve had.

I learned a lot about record hunting from Nick and John. I met other collectors like Bernie Klatzo, Don Kent, and Dick Spotswood, saw a lot of great traditional music, and made connections that I would use over my next 40 plus years of doing festivals (putting on my own), running 47 years of a collector’s record shop (Folk Arts Rare Records, which still spins along). Coming up; Art and I spin our way into Texas and the adventures we found there. Right here on this page.

Meanwhile, the other thing I was involved with during the ’60s was the Civil Rights Movement. This resurgence of the KKK, Nazis, and other white supremacy groups reminds me of the reasons we marched back then, so that jerks like Trump would never be in a place of authority over us. It’s up to a new generation to block this kind of thinking and bring back a civil society we can all live in and enjoy good music in. Make it happen!

Lou Curtiss

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