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June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Searchin’ for the Blues

by Lou CurtissAugust 2014

I was spending my second summer in Mississippi with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), teaching in a Freedom School in Jackson. That was the summer of 1964. Being so close to where a lot of blues had been made my friend Art and I decided to hang around the area after our stint with SNCC ended and do a little scrounging around for old records and maybe find one of those old-time bluesmen that were in those years being rediscovered. What better place than Jackson itself. The area where Joe and Charlie McCoy, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracy, and Bo Carter and the Mississippi Sheiks all had lived and worked and made those old records. There had to be somebody we could rediscover. Most of the folks we knew around Jackson and down in McComb where I had spent the summer of 1963 were church people and just didn’t have much to do with the blues.

Finally we ran into a man named Eugene Powell in a grocery store in downtown Jackson. He told us we ought to go down to Hollendale on the road to Vicksburg and talk to Sam Chatmon. He said Sam kept in touch with everyone and, besides, he was Bo Carter’s brother and played a lot with Charlie McCoy and was one of the Mississippi Sheiks. It sounded like a good lead and we were on our way that afternoon.

Hollendale wasn’t much more than a few houses, a store, and gas station so it wasn’t hard to find Sam’s place. Finding Sam was a bit harder. It turned out that Bo, Sam’s brother, had recently died up in Memphis and Sam was up there making arrangements to bring his body back to Mississippi. Art and I sort of gave up our searching about a few days later and started making preparations to head home. Art to Chicago and I to San Diego.

I thought then that Sam Chatmon would be nothing but a brief memory, sort of a tag end of a very eventful, at times scary, time in the South. It was about eight months later that I got a phone call from Ken Swerilas, local San Diego record collector and music and things-related historian. He had recently been in Hollendale and talked to Sam Chatmon and arranged to bring him out to San Diego, and could I get him some gigs?

Thus began the long acquaintance and friendship with Sam that would last over the next 20 years or so and give San Diego its very own Mississippi bluesman. And by the way Sam told me that that guy Eugene Powell that Art and I had talked to was himself a bluesman who made records under the name Sonny Boy Nelson in the mid 1930s. So we had rediscovered an old bluesman. We just didn’t know it.

It was just a short while after Folk Arts Rare Records had opened in July 1967 that we decided to do some concerts. The second one we did was Texas sharecropper and songster Mance Lipscomb from Navasota, Texas. We met Mance at the San Diego Airport and took him out to Carol McComb and Gerrie Blake’s place behind the Blue Guitar on Midway Drive. Someone had left us some fresh bread and fresh-caught fish on the porch at the shop and that impressed Mance, who said it was a sign from the Bible that the shop would have a long life and prosper. Well I don’t know about the prosper part but we’ve sure been around for awhile. In fact, BRENDAN BOYLE will open the new FOLK ARTS RARE RECORDS at it’s new location at 3072 EL CAJON BLVD on September first. Be sure to check it out and I hope he does as well as I have done. He’s going to have a lot of new old-time stuff and keep up the selection as well or maybe better than I have done. And, oh yes, that Mance Lipscomb concert was wonderful. We held it in the Puppet Theater in Balboa Park (a great place to do concerts, great set up, lots of parking; I don’t know why more acoustic music type concerts don’t take place there). We did several concerts there over a year or two-year period ending about 1970. I haven’t heard of anything going on there for several years. Someone should check it out, and while you are at it check out the new FOLK ARTS RARE RECORDS, too.

Claudia Russell and all my good friends at KSDS (“Jazz Roots” Sunday nights from 8 to 10pm; that’s 88.3FM and will be doing me a benefit concert for my digital project on Tuesday, September 9 as part of their regular “Jazz Live” series. Watch for information on it. You can check the LOUIS F CURTISS Facebook page. Taking 50-plus years of reel-to-reel tapes and converting them to DVD for inclusion in the Library of Congress Collection in Washington D.C., the UCLA Ethmusicology Collection (which will make downloads avialable), and a collection at San Diego State University’s Campus Library. This will include tapes from all 20 San Diego State Folk Festivals (1967-87); the Adams Avenue Street Fairs and Adams Avenue Roots Festivals (from 1994-2008, the Lou Curtiss years); vintage coffeehouse recordings from places like the Heritage, Sign of the Sun, the Candy Company, Bifrost Bridge, In the Alley, the Upper Celler, and Circe’s Cup; field recordings from the Lou Curtiss Sound Library of traditional music, blues, and jazz; vintage radio broadcasts going back to the 1930s; and lots more. This stuff needs to be preserved and you can help by going to the concert or sending a donation to the Lou Curtiss Sound Library Digital Project, 1725 Granite Hills Dr., El Cajon, CA 92021. You can also watch my Facebook page for examples of some of these rare recordings.
With much thanks.

MOTHER GOOSE” (a work in progress)
The Devil Is Evil
Said Mather, I’d Rather.
Have Sin,
Than Begin,
With Just Men Again

Lou Curtiss

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