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January 2023
Vol. 22, No. 4
In Good Company

Recordially, Lou Curtiss

The Sign of the Sun

by Lou CurtissApril 2012

Harold Darling opened the Sign of the Sun bookstore at Adams and College Ave. in San Diego sometime around 1960, catering to the students of San Diego State (then College) with used textbooks and magazines of a political and artistic bent, It was the time of folk music’s all-too-brief tie up with the pop music world, and Harold, not exactly approving, put in a stock of the more traditional types of records of the time (on labels like Folkways, Orgin Jazz Library, Riverside, and Prestige) and hired people to work at his store who had a traditional bent in both the arts and music.

A traditional music concert series was the inevitable result and over the next few years the store presented a wide variety of traditional performers including Mississippi John Hurt, Jean Ritchie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Rev. Gary Davis, Bessie Jones, Rosalie Sorrells, Guy Carawan, Hedy West, Skip James, the New Lost City Ramblers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Jean Redpath, Rita Weill, Fred MacDowell, Mike Seeger, and many others. Along with the traditional people from out of town, Harold also gave local and not so well known West Coast traditional performers a place to play. (Like today traditional performers were sort of shut out of the local clubs in favor of folk artists with a more pop-oriented performing style). Heard at the Sign of the Sun were Larry Hanks with his then partner Roger Perkins, Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb, German songster Gunter Schmitz, the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers (with then 16 year old Chris Hillman), Jack and Marilyn Powell, Mason Williams, and still San Diego favorite Curt Bouterse.

Along with the Sign of the Sun and somehow attached to it was a big old boarding house in Hillcrest at the corner of Front and Beech Streets where a lot of the Sign of the Sun employees lived. It was a big old house that catered to musicians and folks with an artistic bent. Whenever he could, Harold Darling would get his musicians in town a few days early and allow them to rest and jam a little with some local folks before they played a concert. The musician would them be relaxed, alert, and comfortable, feeling good about where he was. The result was almost always an exceptional performance. Sometimes artists like Bessie Jones would come into town and stay for a month or more at a time and many of us who hung around the Sign and visited the Boarding House got to meet and know her. The Sign of the Sun had a second location downtown for mostly concerts but it wasn’t open very long.

Sometime in the mid ’60s, Harold Darling decided that traditional music had enough support, and that vintage movies and art film didn’t. He moved to La Jolla and opened a small theater and bookstore complex (the Unicorn) and San Diego’s only regularly scheduled traditional music and country blues concert series came to an end.  Still, later, when movies had enough support Harold Darling opened the Green Tiger Press, reprinting the vintage out of print books they are still doing today.

Traditional Music has never been very good at blowing its own horn. That’s particularly so when the competition for the same gigs is the more contemporary types of music (striped shirt trios of the ’60s or today’s singer-songwriters) It’s always taken folks like Harold Darling who figure someone ought to be supporting things that are old-timey, whether it be music, arts, film, or music. Too bad there aren’t more like him in San Diego today. We could sure use a Sign of the Sun today. We could also use some folks that are willing to put a little energy into bringing traditional folks to San Diego. It’s no way to get rich, and sometimes it’s a pain in unspoken parts, but you get to hear a lot of great music and you get to feel like you’ve done something for it and you get to meet some of the greatest folks you’ll ever get a chance to meet and that should be reason enough.

I’ve put up three to four thousand music tracks on my LOUIS F. CURTISS Facebook page. Lots of rare material from old 78s, movie clips, and a whole lot of rare stuff from festivals and concerts I did, concerts from the Sign of the Sun, the Heritage, In the Alley, from the Sam Hinton Collection. I invite you to become a friend and listen in to some great music. Along with my listings there are a bunch of music forums devoted to various kinds of music where you can hear some great blues (the Real Blues Forum), country music (the Real Country Music Forum), Gospel (the Real Gospel Music Forum) and others including the RBF listing of articles, discographies, and information written about the blues. This is a great way to hear and read about stuff you won’t come in contact with anywhere else. If you care about what I’m going to play on my radio show, when our Singers’ Circles are, and other things I care about (maybe even some politics but not too much), drop in.

Lou Curtiss

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