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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Acoustic Picking!!

by Lou CurtissOctober 2014

About the same time I started collecting records, I was also playing in the Drum and Bugle Corps at Southwest Jr. High, it was also about that time (1953) that I got my first guitar (an old arch-top Silvertone for about $35). With that I got a Country Hits song book with some tunes by Marty Robbins (“I’ll Go on Alone”), Hank Williams (“Your Cheating Heart” and “I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive”), and others I’d been hearing on the TV shows and live country music shows I’d attended with my family. I started lessons with a lady in Chula Vista who was a piano teacher (I don’t think she really approved of guitar or country and folk songs for that matter) and never got much out of it. About that time my Dad bought me a harmonica down in Tijuana and taught me to play “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” which I still play today. I got a second guitar, a Regal, which was also an F-hole arch-top but it was 1955 when I met Dexter Sykes and bought an album on Sun Records called Johnny Cash: Red Hot and Blue Guitar. Boy, I guess Dexter and I learned every tune on that one (“Cry Cry Cry,” “Give My Love To Rose,” and especially “I Walk the Line”). I always wanted to get up on a stage somewhere and do our stuff but I could never talk Dexter into it. Our parents thought we were great and we did play at a couple of parties but that was the extent of the Dexter and Lou Show.

Along around 1957 I wandered into a coffeehouse for the first time. It was a place called the Zodiac in downtown San Diego on Broadway between 11th and 12th Streets, down at street level beneath the old Pacific Ballroom. That’s where I learned about a thing called a Hootenanny, where folks got up on stage and did folk and country stuff. Now I didn’t figure I was a good enough guitar player to go it solo (I mostly liked to play harmonica and sing and have someone play backup). A guy named Bill Green (who was a big Webb Pierce fan and taught me “The Violet and the Rose” that Webb made famous) backed me up a couple of times and he and I and a bass player named Jim decided to go to the East Coast to the first Newport Folk Festival in 1959. That’s where the whole folk thing really started for me. I heard the New Lost City Ramblers, Rev. Gary Davis, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Tommy Makem, Frank Warner, Bob Gibson, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger, Willie Thomas and Butch Cage, Barbara Dane, Earl Scruggs, Hylo Brown, and a host of others. I think it was Mike Seeger and the NLCR that made the biggest impression. Especially that autoharp and tunes like “When First Unto This Country” and “Man of Constant Sorrow.” I stayed around the New York area for long enough to go to the second Newport Folk Festival in 1960 where I saw many of the above again, plus Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, Earl Scruggs this time with long time partner Lester Flatt, John Lee Hooker, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Jimmy Driftwood, Odetta, and many more. I returned to San Diego in the Spring of 1960 with lots of new ideas about music.

I met up with a guitar picker named Terry Huston when I got back. He backed my harmonicas and vocals well and sang some himself; he was also willing to get on stage at some of these Hootenannys. For a reason I’ve never been sure of we called ourselves the Lysaders (I think it was something that came out of a science fiction book I was reading) and soon we were playing Hoots, Open Mics, and political rallies; we even did a parade for the Sun and Sea Festival in Imperial Beach. Then someone called us “The Lice-eaters” in a newspaper article and we sort of came apart.

About 1962 I started hanging around the End, a coffeehouse on Grand Ave. in Pacific Beach. A guy named Peter Keegan ran the Wednesday night Hoot and more often than not I’d be around the place. In 1963 I went back to school at San Diego State and soon got involved with the Campus Organized Folksingers and Folksong Society. It was a group that Michael Cooney had started on campus so he could have a forum to bring Sam Hinton out to SDSU for a concert. Curt Bouterse and I called a meeting and a whole bunch of folks showed up (Wayne and Warren Stromberg, Nicolette Birkett, Corkey Woerner, Jerry Houck, Gillian Theobald, Clarke Powell, Larry Murray, Susie McQuillen, Jack Van Olst, Dennis Squier, Karen Williams, and a bunch more). We started holding Thursday afternoon concerts in the Rose Arbor behind Scripps Cottage and on Wednesday nights a good many of us would be at the End. I played with a variety of groups in those days; Clarke Powell and sometimes Ray Kellogg and I would play old country tunes (sometimes Wayne Brandon would show up to sing Roy Acuff songs). I also did country and old blues songs with Gary McCoy, songs for bar mitzvahs by the Mad Mountain Matzo Mashers, a very short-lived Irish group (à la Clancys) from whom I learned a song called “Dick Darby the Cobbler,” which I still pull out on occasion. About the mid 1960s I had a group with Tanya Rose (then Newton), Dennis Kruse, and others called the Spring Valley Ramblers, which came apart pretty quick. I still had a gig for the group and no group, so I got a bunch of friends together and we played at this coffeehouse Occam’s Razor, which was on El Cajon Blvd. out toward 70th St. (the group included Dennis Squier, Peggy Fallon, Ned Getline, Alan Glasscoe and myself). Well we found ourselves on stage when the Police decided to raid the joint. It seems we were the only ones there. The owners had skipped out the back door. We did have a good three-week gig there (sharing the bill with Hedy West and Dino Valente) and decided during that time and a couple of jugs of burgundy to change the name of the group to the Red Mountain Ramblers and take the group back out to the End.

Over the next eight months or so the Red Mountain Ramblers (adding Pat Prickett, Larry Fumo, and Rex the Wonder Dog to the cast) played nearly every weekend at the End and travelled as a group to the UCLA Folk Festival in 1965. At the end of that time Ned Getline left to form the Sunshine String Ticklers and Dennis Squier left to form the Almost Mediocre Jug Band (with Terry Huston, my old partner from 1960). I concentrated a little more on school for a bit and talked San Diego State into starting a Folk Festival, which they did in 1967.

In 1966 I got together the Old Reliable Egg Preserver Jug and String Band (with Virginia Chodos, later Curtiss, Stan Smith, John German, Mike Tozer, and Pat Griffith). Ray Bierl introduced us at the Heritage as the Old Reliable Egg Preserver Jug and String Band and Janitorial Service and it stayed that way for the run of the band. By the time the band broke up Virginia and I were married and Folk Arts Rare Records was in full swing. We teamed up with a banjo and fiddler player named Brian Steeger to form a group called the Krudd Family. We played a couple of Folk Festivals and did a stint running the Hoots at the Heritage Coffeehouse in Mission Beach. When Brian moved on up to Santa Cruz, Virginia and I joined up with Joe Gwaltney and the group was called the Lower Washington Street Woolthumpers. We continued to play at the Heritage until it closed, did the Fresno Folk Festival, and helped start the concert series at Folk Arts Rare Records. Joe moved on in the early 1970s to become backup guitarist and partner of veteran old-timey musician Kenny Hall. After that Virginia and I teamed up with W.B. Reid or E.Z. Marc on occasion as The Old Home Town Band, but mostly it’s just been Lou and Virginia Curtiss, but going back to those front porch days with Dexter Sykes it’s been quite a ride.

Lou Curtiss

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