Featured Stories

Honoring the Legacy of Lou Curtiss

The late Lou Curtiss. Photo by Ryan Kuratomi.

Lou and Virginia Curtiss at Folk Arts’ first location, corner of Washington & India, 1967.

Poster for one of the early Folk Festivals.

Folk Festival #19.

Poster for Lou’s Jazz Roots radio program on Jazz88.3.

We hope that this new year brings a seismic shift to what the life of musicians and music lovers has been over the last two years. For that second group, being able to enjoy live music where it’s happening is something that means so much to you—for those of us in that first group, you can double that feeling, because sharing the space with you and connecting with you is what inspires us to make music.

Someone from our San Diego community who was a tremendous source of inspiration and pure musical knowledge was our own Lou Curtiss.

Troubadour readers know Lou Curtiss from his monthly Recordially Yours  column, which has been published posthumously since July of 2018. But there was so much more to him. Lou Curtiss was the creator of the San Diego Folk Festival, an audiophile, folklorist, author, raconteur, radio host, and proprietor of Folk Arts Rare Records. His shop was a mecca for some of the most celebrated American roots musicians in America, such as Jack Tempchin, Tom Brousseau, A.J. Croce, Mojo Nixon, George Winston, Sue Palmer, Alison Brown, Tomcat Courtney, Tom Waits, Gregory Page, Mike Seeger, Sam Hinton, Sam Chatmon, Rose Maddox, and many others who were profoundly influenced in their careers and lives by Lou.

His influence on the extraordinary musicians who flocked to his shop extends far beyond this corner of the world (today the shop is located at 3610 University Ave. San Diego, CA 92104 under the visionary leadership of Lou’s heir apparent, Brendan Boyle). There were countless others, some of whom came to Lou directly from the airport, who eagerly traveled to San Diego to soak up his knowledge, stories and advice, and sift through the thousands of vintage and rare vinyl they could only find in one place. The knowledge he imparted to these practitioners has been shared all over the world.

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What Don Freeman of the San Diego Union-Tribune had to say about Lou’s radio show:

A two-hour fest of a show… somewhere in the day before yesterday on the cloudless plains of nostalgia, Lou Curtiss happily resides, surrounded by a past where the music and the memories are evergreen.

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Lou’s story is also the story of the folk music scene in San Diego, beginning in the 1960s. Folk music in America bourgeoned during this period as a cultural outgrowth of the progressive political movement, particularly its coalescing around the Civil Rights movement and opposition to the Vietnam war. As a child, Lou was introduced to both folk music and labor-oriented politics by his father, who was a member of the IWW (International Workers of the World) union and rode the rails during the Great Depression. Lou’s own experiences included registering African-American voters in the deep South and being threatened by the KKK. His social sensibilities, activism, and love of roots music from the South (blues, Cajun, bluegrass, etc.) shaped his lifelong dedication to collecting and disseminating American roots music, mirroring the efforts of Jon Cohen and Alan Lomax.

With like-minded colleagues, Lou shepherded the folk music scene in San Diego in places like the Heritage, (where Tom Waits worked as doorman and was encouraged and fostered by Lou to play and sing), The End, The Alley, Orango’s, Old Time Café, and Drowsy Maggie’s. In 1967, Lou created the San Diego Folk Festival, the progenitor of the Adams Avenue Roots Festival, on the campus of San Diego State. It was the largest folk festival west of the Mississippi until it ended in 1987.

When we began working on a documentary about Lou, titled Recordially Yours, Lou Curtiss, we already knew a lot about him and, needless to say, were fortunate to know him personally. But through our extensive and lengthy interviews—most especially with Lou himself—Strom and Schwartz discovered even more extraordinary details about his life. Lou wasn’t just registering voters during the Civil Rights Movement, he was jailed in 1964 along with dozens of others, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior (whose life and work we commemorate on January 17th). Not only did Lou’s father ride the rails during the Great Depression, he taught Lou to do it himself. In fact, he hopped a freight from San Diego up to the El Monte stadium in Los Angeles to catch a Johnny Otis (“Hound Dog”) show.

This portrait of a legend in the folk music world is made with the loving and gracious support of Lou’s family, community, and the internationally renowned artists who carry his indelible lessons with them wherever they go. San Diegans are rightly proud that the epicenter of so much in the music world is here, in the story of the singularly fascinating, brilliant, and idiosyncratic Lou Curtiss.

The San Diego public will be able to see the film this year. The pandemic hasn’t prevented us from transcribing, researching, and editing, and we are in post-production. In addition to interviews and footage of many renowned artists, music and cultural historians, friends and family, the film includes archival film and sound recordings.

We invite you to be part of the final process. Thanks to San Diego Folk Heritage Society, we are performing a fundraiser concert with Yale Strom & Hot Pstromi—with a sneak peek of the film—on Saturday January 29th, 7:30pm, at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, 2020 Chestnut Avenue in Carlsbad. We’ll also have some very special guests with us: Jack Tempchin, Curt Bouterse, Sue Palmer, Patty Hall, Walt Richards, Virginia Curtiss, and other surprise guests. Let’s welcome the New Year by coming together to honor Lou and his legacy for us and the community.  Lou Curtiss Film Benefit | San Diego Folk Heritage (sdfolkheritage.org)

Note: Please check out a rerun of Lou’s Recordially Yours column this month, where he talks about his friendship with Tom Waits. (https://sandiegotroubadour.com/?p=19610)

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