Recordially, Lou Curtiss
Thursday April 9th, 2020
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Recordially, Lou Curtiss
Folk Arts Rare records in Normal Heights

Source: San Diego Troubadour, March 2003

   The 30th Annual Adams Ave. Roots Festival is coming up April 26-27 right here on Adams Ave. in the Normal Heights area of San Diego. Since it's been call[ed] the Roots Festival these past 10 years (the first 20 were called the San Diego Folk Festival), I figure it's about time that roots music got a definition. Because I've booked the previous 29 and I'm booking this one, I guess that I should be the one to do that.

   Well, we start with our own traditions, ranging from blues, jazz, country, gospel, cajun, tejaño, and zydeco, and add to that all the ethnic minorities that brought their music here. Now we add to that the fact that this is "roots" music, so what we look for is music the way it was and music that was influenced by that music. For instance, we book a bluegrass band for the old-timey content of their music. We book a singer-song-writer whose songs are influenced by old-time songs and whose way of playing them sounds old timey.

   The interesting thing is that my concepts of "old time" and "roots" have changed in the years I've been doing this festival. There are people being booked today who play in a style I didn't consider old time 30 years ago. My tastes have changed and the music I consider old timey and worth preserving certainly have too. Add to that the fact that 30 years ago it was still possible to get artists who were performing music in the 1920s and '30s, but that is mostly past us now. We need to locate the survivors, but I'm seeing fewer and fewer of them every year. There is more old-time roots music available today on CD reissues, on the Internet, and on the radio. You can find great old-time music on vintage 78s and LPs. Why do so many people write dismal songs with two-chord accompaniment and think they are accomplished performers? Lots of the coffee houses hire such people and they develop a following, and some give me a bad time because I don't want to hire them to play at the Roots Festival. However, just because some misguided people out there with little or no taste in music tell you how great you are doesn't mean that you are. Learn five or six more chords, listen to songwriters like Cole Porter, Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan, Mary McCaslin, Bob Nolan, or Lalo Guererro. Learn a couple of their songs. Learn a couple of new tunings on your guitar, mandolin, accordion, or whatever. You might wind up at the Roots Festival.

   I find that different kinds of roots music often tug on each other. Cajun accordion guys learn stuff from tejaño accordion guys. You'll hear an old-time Blind Lemon Jefferson lick in a tune by Bob Will and his Texas Playboys. The best contemporary pop music draws on roots music for lyric content and hot licks. There's nothing wrong with that. To be a [complete] performer, you've got to have all these things. To be a unique performer, you've got to put them together with your own stuff, where it be interpretive or original, to get what works right for you and for those who want to hire you. Listening to a wide range of music can do one of two things. It can teach you how stuff is done or it can discourage you from wanting to perform. If the latter is the case, then maybe you don't want to be a performer. Maybe we'll actually hear some roots music in the coffee houses.

   At any rate, festival number 30 is coming up. Along with that are several other anniversaries for me. Festival number one took place 35 years ago, which was the same year I opened Folk Arts Rare Records, and for 25 years Folk Arts has been located on Adams Avenue (3611 Adams Avenue: shameless plug). I also did my first radio show in 1967 for KPRI. Along the way, I've been on KGB and KDEO (remember Radio Kay-Dee-Oh). For the past 16 years I've done "Jazz Roots" on KSDS (now on Sunday nights, 8-10 p.m.) and for the past three years I've been doing "The Melting Pot" on World Music Webcast [] which runs about four times a week (Saturday, 8-9:30 a.m.; Sunday, 1-2:30 p.m.; Thursday, 5-6:30 p.m.; plus a floating show that might up anywhere). This winter and spring "The Melting Pot" has been rebroadcasting tapes of some of the early Folk Festivals we did. There's great stuff here from such artists as Jean Ritchie, Ray and Ina Patterson, Roscoe Holcomb, Mike Seeger, U. Utah Phillips, Wilbur Ball and Cliff Carlisle, Frankie Armstrong, Kenny Hall, Robert Pete Williams, Lydia Mendoza, Joel Sonnier, and so many more. It's been a big kick for me to revisit so many of these fine people we've had at festivals over the years. I'm trying not to talk too much but I'm hoping the occasional story puts some of this music in context. Listen in if you can. And you musicians/performers, listen to what these people are doing. This is the best of the best in roots music. I find so many wannabe performers who don't know how to listen. I spend most of my life (whether by selling records, playing music on the radio, or presenting music at festivals and concerts) giving you opportunities to listen. Most of these opportunities don't cost you anything, and the rewards are what ever you make of them. As the old harmonica player said: "Go thou and blow now." Good luck.

Lou Curtiss

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