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Lou Curtiss, San Diego Folk Promoter 1939 – 2018

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Louis F. “Lou” Curtiss in his record shop, Folk Arts Rare Records.

The American Folklife Center is sad to pass on the news that San Diego folk arts promoter Louis F. Curtiss has died. He passed away at home on July 8.

Curtiss was a founder of the San Diego Folk Festival, the owner of Folk Arts Rare Records, and a longtime festival and concert promoter and sound engineer on the San Diego music scene. A mentor to Tom Waits, Buddy Blue, Joan Baez, and Mojo Nixon, among many others, he helped promote folk, blues, and roots music to generations of Californians.  For more information on Lou, we recommend this tribute by George Varga of the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Lou’s own summary of his career on the occasion of his retirement.

During his life, Curtiss amassed a large and significant collection of tapes and other documentation of traditional and revivalist folk music. As part of an effort to preserve the collection and make it accessible, AFC helped digitize and retained digital copies of Curtiss’s 420 audiotapes documenting the first nine years of the San Diego Folk Festival, 1967-1975, plus performances at other California venues. The collection also includes a second series of 57 audiotape recordings largely by Sam Hinton, featuring Hinton himself and a wide variety of performers on his radio show. See the catalog record here.

The collection includes hundreds of performers, many nationally known and others firmly associated with the West Coast and San Diego folk scenes. They include folk revival performers, but also musicians in a variety of ethnic and regional styles including Cajun, Mexican American, and Irish American music, and visitors from overseas.  A partial list of the performers includes: Pete Seeger, Reverend Gary Davis, Seamus Ennis, A. L. Lloyd, Bessie Jones, Guy and Candie Carawan, Sam Hinton, Doc and Merle Watson, Jean Ritchie, Hedy West, Sandy and Caroline Paton, The Chambers Brothers, Earl Collins, Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb (Kathy & Carol), Alan Mills, Jean Redpath, Larry Hanks, Alice Gerrard, Benny Thomasson, Big Joe Williams, The Boys of the Lough, Cliff Carlisle & Wilbur Ball, Cottonmouth D’Arcy, Dave Page & The Siamsa Gael Ceili Band, Doye O’Dell, Ed Lowe & Tom Sauber, Elizabeth Cotton, Frankie Armstrong, George Winston, Glenn Ohrlin, Hank Penny, Happy Traum, Johnny Walker, Kenny Hall, Kirk McGee & Blyth Poteet, Lily Mae Ledford, Louis Boudreault, Merle Travis, Mike Seeger, Patsy Montana, Ray & Ina Patterson, Rita Weill, Rosalie Sorrels, Rose Maddox, Sam Chatmon, The Balfa Brothers, Tom Paley, Tom Waits, Tommy Jarrell, U. Utah Phillips, Cousin Emmy, The Sweets Mill Mountain Boys, Johnny Bond, Vern & Ray, Olabelle Reed, Nimrod Workman, George Tucker, Kyle Creed, The Golden Eagles (New Orleans Indians), The Wright Brothers Gospel Quartet, The Como Mississippi Fife & Drum Band, Model T Slim, Santiago Jimenez, Los Madrugadores, The England Bros., Bill Staines, The Hoosier Hot Shots, Blind Joe Hill, Thomas Shaw, Ervin “Big Daddy” Rucker, Pop Wagner, Jim Ringer, Otis Pierce, Silly Wizard, Dave Surman, Stan Hugill, Louis Killen, Texas Lil, Byron Berline, D.L. Menard, Martin, Bogan & Armstrong, Sara Grey, Lydia Mendoza, John Jackson, Bonnie Jefferson, Fro Brigham, Robert Jeffery, Bob Bovee & Gail Heil, and Sister Helen Sanders.

The collections also includes field recordings made by Guy Carawan on Johns Island, South Carolina in 1964-1965.

Visitors can listen to the recordings in AFC’s research center on the ground floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress.  A complete inventory of the recordings is available on site.

A small selection of the recordings is online to be listened to, at this link on the Folk Arts Rare Records site.

The retired head of our archive, Michael Taft, knew Curtiss and was involved in acquiring his collection.  He had this to say about Curtiss: “Lou was a ‘keeper of traditions.’ He was one of those necessary individuals who record, document and promote traditional culture (and popular culture), preserving their personal archives long enough so that places like the Library of Congress can reap the harvest, and continue the responsibility of ‘tradition-keeper.’ The world needs people like Lou Curtiss.”

Curtiss is survived by his wife Virginia, his son Benjamin, and two sisters, Leona Persinger and Dorothy Curtiss.

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