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A Musical Soul Food Library

I have a new nomination for the ultimate cool old record store.

After reading about it in the San Diego Union-Tribune, I'm kind of afraid that if I ever went into Folk Arts Rare Records I wouldn't emerge until sometime in the latter part of this decade.

I'm not sure exactly what that says about me except that I'm a music dork who gets the same kind of satisfaction from digging out cool old records as others get from, oh, say, a life.

So now I'm talking to you, o record collectors, because only you will understand. Imagine a mighty fortress of vinyl - 90,000 hours worth - lovingly tended in neat rows by burly, bearded Lou Curtiss, a 70-year-old curmudgeonly Seattle native considered one of the country's prime archivists of early recorded jazz, blues and country music.

I mean, this man's collection of sound is so immense, a couple of years ago he got an Archiving and Preservation Grant from the Grammy Foundation to digitize a boatload of four-inch, reel-to-reel tapes he made at the early San Diego Folk Festivals, as well as at other venues around the city from the early 1960s through the late 1970s.

Curtiss co-founded and first staged the San Diego Folk Festival in 1967 and was its show-runner until the late 1980s; he later on produced the city's annual Adams Avenue Roots Festival. The newspaper says he has had a pretty influential role in the shaping of the city's folk music scene over the years, mentoring such local talents as Tom Waits and A.J. Croce as they hung out in his store as youngsters, learning through him just exactly where America's musical roots had spread.

Tom Waits' endorsement of Lou: "Folk Arts is a soul-food library and seed bank, much like the Library of Congress, where you go to light your torch."

On his Web site, Curtiss has posted some tasty bits of real Americana from his live tapes, such as a haunting version of "Come Over Here" performed by the legendary Chambers Brothers - then still strictly a gospel group - in 1962 at a San Diego high school gym!

How about the Reverend Gary Davis finger-picking his way through "No More" at the Sign of the Sun bookstore in San Diego, circa 1962, perhaps the only time he was ever recorded playing a 5-string banjo? Lou has that, too.

I'm betting a real good place to hear more samples of Curtiss's massive trove is on his weekly radio show on non-commercial KSDS-FM, San Diego's Jazz 88.3. His show, Jazz Roots, runs Sunday nights from 10 p.m. to midnight (Central Time) and can be streamed here.

Still, it's probably not quite same as sauntering into his store and beholding the collection in all of its glory. An impressive description of the Folk Arts Records shopping experience comes from Ace at Ace Lounge, who says under the heading "San Diego's Best Record Stores:"

"Folk Arts is a converted residence that looks like any other house on the block, except inside is one of the most expansive selections of vinyl imaginable.

folkarts_records.jpg

"Owner Lou Curtiss was kind enough to show me his archives, consisting of thousands of live, locally recorded and self-produced reel-to-reel recordings, as well as his personal record collection. Honestly, all of it is a little mind-blowing.

"For me, the jewel was an album from a '73 Tom Waits show, but that's only because I don't know shit about music before the '60s. Curtiss spreads the wealth, too - the place is filled with stacks upon stacks of records, most of which are surprisingly inexpensive and well categorized."

Boinng! My music dork-o-meter just buried the needle!

In 2006 there was a benefit concert staged to raise money for Curtiss's archiving efforts, and I was able to find some video from it - Lou (on the autoharp) and his wife Virginia (on guitar) performing "Coal Black Choo Choo" by the Maddox Brothers & Rose, "America's Most Colorful Hillbilly Band."

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From the Beachwood Country All-Stars to Dylan's Grammy Museum, the finest bones of rock 'n' roll are rattlin' 'round Don's Root Cellar.

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Comments welcome.



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Posted on March 1, 2010


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