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September 2023
Vol. 22, No. 12

Featured Stories

THE Music Film You Need to See in 2023: Recordially Yours, Lou Curtiss

by JT MoringJune 2023

Music is an art form, an experience, and a culture; it’s also a community. I feel more connected to all those things after watching a pre-release of the new film, Recordially Yours, Lou Curtiss. Any Troubadour reader is going to find a lot in this exceptional documentary to love. It’s enlightening, it’s entertaining, and it’s inspiring.

From BlackStream films, it runs just over an hour and debuts on June 23 in downtown San Diego. I spoke to Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz, director and producer respectively, about how and why it came together. Not surprisingly, they made it happen with a little help from their—and Lou’s—many friends in the music world. Elizabeth says, “This was a community effort by people whose lives were touched, shaped, and expanded by Lou Curtiss; it is really a love story from San Diego.”

Lou Who?

The venerable Lou Curtiss.

For decades, Lou Curtiss provided a direct musical conduit from the heyday of 78 rpm records in the first half of the 20th century to people in the age of FM radio and beyond. Many of those people are musicians who channel echoes of that old music into the ears of today’s audiences. Mojo Nixon, Alison Brown, and Jack Tempchin are among today’s icons whose connections to Lou led them to testify on his behalf in this film.

A lot of us have treasures from Lou’s Folk Arts Rare Records store. (I’m holding a 1972 LP of Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, recorded in 1928-30.) Troubadour readers are familiar with his monthly column in this magazine, where he took us down his personal memory lane to meet bygone musical heroes, e.g., The Time I Saw Hank Williams in 1952. San Diego fans of roots (which Lou rhymed with “puts”) music no doubt remember his radio show, Jazz Roots, on KSDS, where each Sunday evening he would spin tunes and provide commentary on some facet of traditional music. And the older folkies that walk among us fondly recall the music festivals Lou ran for decades, bringing in the biggest names in traditional folk and blues, in addition to his innumerable song swaps and jam sessions.

I knew Lou only in that context, which is well-covered in the film. Watching Recordially, I was delighted to learn of his adventures growing up in the South Bay, as a young adult active in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, and his make-or-break venture into the nascent folk scene in Greenwich Village. The film gives us glimpses into these chapters of his life, leaving me wishing I could go back and get Lou to tell me the more of that part of his story.

The Film

Lou and Virginia Curtiss in front of their first store on India St., 1967.

Elizabeth and Yale claim the film was a labor of love, and it shows. Working with their frequent collaborator Luke Jungers, they collected interviews and performance video, archival footage and recordings, and memorabilia of Lou’s life. Yale had the foresight to interview Lou at the record store before his retirement in 2014 and his passing in 2018. Others in the San Diego music community pitched in from their collections, including Gregory Page, Kent Johnson, Patty Hall, and Claudia Russell. San Diego Folk Heritage and the Troubadour facilitated a crowd-sourcing campaign that allowed the public to contribute to get the film through the final editing stages.

Memorable moments from the film include short musical performances from top talent inspired by Lou, including AJ Croce, Gregory Page, and Curt Bouterse; Mojo Nixon enthusing over Lou from a hotel room; and Alison Brown proudly sharing her first music award, a hand-printed First Prize certificate from Lou that she’s had framed and treasured through the years. Other folks helping weave the story include Sue Palmer, George Varga, Liz Abbott, and Brendan Boyle, the current owner of Folk Arts Rare Records. An unreleased recording of the song Tijuana, written and performed by Jack Tempchin and Tom Waits, is worth the price of admission itself.

Yale and Elizabeth

Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz.

Yale Strom and Elizabeth Schwartz, partners in life, music, and film, have each been profiled in the Troubadour before as cover stories. With them wearing so many hats, it’s amazing this movie was ever finished. The COVID pause gave them a chance to dig into this project. Elizabeth said, “With any film, what it takes is money and/or time. We had neither, until the pandemic gave us the time to work on this.”

When I spoke to Yale he had just returned from Lithuania, where he was consulting on a documentary film project for a new museum. Their next album with their band Hot Pstromi, The Wolf and the Lamb: Live at the Shakh, recorded in the Czech Republic, will drop this summer on Naxos World/Arc Music UK. They each have books coming out this year, and in their “spare time” they lead international musical/cultural tours in Europe, Africa, and South America; Croatia is on their fall calendar.

An exciting new role for Yale is curator for a concert series at UCSD’s new venue at Park and Market downtown, which will also host the movie’s debut screening. “I thrive off of creativity,” he says, in case no one noticed.

Lou’s Legacy

Poster for the San Diego State Folk Festival, 1974.

Lou is gone but not forgotten. His posters still adorn the walls of Folk Art Rare Records, where Brendan Boyle carries on Lou’s work of sharing good old music with new audiences. “Brendan has been amazing—his stewardship of what Lou started extends so far,” notes Elizabeth. The shop remains a nationally known venue for buying, selling, and listening to “wildly eclectic” music. One feature Brendan has added is DJ space both in-store and in the PTL Hi-Fi bar at 3829 30th St. A selection of Lou’s concert recordings are available for streaming from the shop’s website.

Lou’s writings about his experiences with the old musicians are archived and available on the Troubadour web site. Lou’s concert energy lives on in festivals such as Adams Avenue Unplugged and San Diego Folk Heritage’s Sam Hinton Folk Festival. His thousands of hours of concert tapes have been partially (so far) digitized under the auspices of UCLA, the National Archives, and the Library of Congress; check with Folk Arts about an upcoming boxed set on Smithsonian Folkways. I’ve just been told that KSDS, inspired by this project, plans to post hundreds of hours of Lou’s radio show for on-demand streaming.

Tom Waits at the piano in Lou’s first record store. Photo by Virginia Curtiss.

Most of all, Lou’s legacy lives in the music of the people he influenced over the years. Every time Tom Waits goes to the recording studio, every time Gregory Page steps up to the microphone, every time Jack Tempchin puts words to music, there’s energy from a fire Lou stoked long ago. Multiply that times thousands, and it’s clear we’re all living in a world made richer through that husky bearded guy with the autoharp and all those records. Recordially Yours, Lou Curtiss will give you a better appreciation for this, and maybe help your own ember glow a little brighter.

Screening info
June 23, 24, 25 at the Digital Gym Cinema
1100 Market Street, 2nd Floor
San Diego, CA 92101

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