CONFESSIONS: A Sort Of Augustinian Biography

From zero to fourscore plus in the wink of an eye.
There are six billion souls on the planet. What accounts for their individuality? Why is it so difficult to pick the winning numbers in the million-dollar lottery? What makes us choose one path and not the other? How do we find our true heart’s delight? Why do we ask so many questions?

I was born Curtis Carlisle Bouterse, in a small town in the Kentucky bluegrass where my father was a country preacher. Carlisle had a population of about 1200 people then, just about the same as now. Six months later the country was at war and my father joined the navy as a chaplain. My mother took me to live with her people in east Tennessee where my sister, Lee, was born. My father was among the half of the crew that survived when his ship was sunk off Guadalcanal. By the end of the war we were all in central Florida where both families lived.

For the next twenty years we (eventually five children) travelled at the will of the navy: Pensacola, San Diego, Hunter’s Point, San Diego, Port Hueneme, Sanford, Naples, Clarksville, San Diego, ending up at Camp Pendleton. I went to three different third grades. I was always the outsider, which complemented my natural bent as a loner. But I watched, and listened, and studied, and learned.

We were a musical family, my parents both sang and played instruments. My father was raised in the Salvation Army band tradition and my mother played piano and had been offered a singing career. My father never needed to find a church organist, he brought one with him. When my sister was two and I three, we were singing in church together. I sang harmony behind her beautiful melody voice until we left high school.

In the early 1950’s, while we lived in Naples, Italy, I used to listen to the radio and its strange musics from all around the Mediterranean. If I had known I would end up studying that music as my profession I would have listened more carefully. The streets were abuzz with sounds unfamiliar and beguiling: laborers whistling and singing melodies more like Africa than Europe, bagpipers still came down from the mountains at Easter, street vendors–on foot or in horse carts with steel-rimmed wheels rumbling over the cobblestones–called out their wares in snatches of tunes or spun long melismas of song which echoed down the stone-lined streets, awakening me before dawn.

While in junior high school in Clarksville, Tennessee, I heard my first Elvis Presley (not too impressed), Fats Domino, and Little Richard havin’ him some fun tonight (very impressed). I listened each morning to a local radio program that played bluegrass and country music between the farm reports, but my favorites were the old time fiddlers liberally sprinkled in.
In 1957, in my sophomore year of high school, my father brought me a hammered dulcimer back from Hong Kong. I quickly found out quite a bit about it but had no one to teach me how to play it, so I taught myself. I figured out that players in the US would probably have adapted fiddle tunes so I began trying to find out what the instrument could do. A few years later I heard several recordings from the Library of Congress over KPFK in Los Angeles which set me in the right direction. Around 1961 I met Sam Hinton and Stu Jamieson who both encouraged me to concentrate on the traditional repertory. The rest is history.

Scripps Cottage arbor, San Diego State, 1963, with walnut Frank Proffitt banjer.
Scripps Cottage arbor, 1963, with self-made dulcimer.

Being a musician was never a choice, it was like eating or breathing. But I did have to decide how to support myself. In high school I only knew of two music professions: performer and composer. I didn’t think I wanted to be a performer and I certainly didn’t want to be a composer and starve in a garret. So I turned to my other loves, history and anthropology. I came up with what I thought was the perfect compromise: I would teach for a living and make music my avocation.

While I was in the service after I graduated college, I thought a lot about having to do things I didn’t really want to do and decided that after I got out I would pursue my true heart’s desire, no matter what. In the interim I also discovered there was another musical profession which combined music and history–wow! I had been drawn to early European music since my high school days, so I decided I would be a musicologist.

It didn’t take me long to discover that the musicological field was mostly made up of historians and not musicians. It seemed that you had to choose between making music and just talking/writing about it and neither group had much truck with the other. It reminded me very much of what I saw in folk music: singers and scholars generally lived in different worlds. But people like Sam Hinton and Stu Jamieson reassured me that the twain could meet.

The aspect of both folk music and early music that bothered me the most was the singing style. Having heard traditional singers growing up, I knew they didn’t sound at all like John Jacob Niles or Richard Dyer-Bennett. And Alfred Deller and Hugues Cuenod singing medieval and Renaissance songs sounded a lot like Niles and Bennet, which made me wonder if early singers had really sounded like that either. I began listening carefully to traditional singers from all over Europe and they sounded like my Italian memories, and even a little like singers from Kentucky or Arkansas, but nothing like any of the recordings of medieval and Renaissance music I had heard. I became convinced that scholars and performers were singing up the wrong tree.

As I began to coordinate my musical and historical and anthropological studies I realized that one could never get to the root of the problem from one direction only. It would be necessary to study the entire community or culture, in all its diversity, to fully comprehend the musical phenomena. All my background and experiences seemed to come together in a brilliant awareness: an epiphany. A few years later I discovered there was a name for my idea: ethnomusicology, and it had already been around for a decade or more. I felt like the second guy to discover the wheel.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Throughout my life I had been interested in things that no one else around knew anything about. So, I had been forced to research things from scratch myself, often coming up with different conclusions from orthodoxy. Many people accused me of ‘reinventing the wheel.’ Since we were itinerant and not rich, growing up I used to make my own graph paper and music staff paper. I didn’t know you could go to the store and buy the stuff! I still have the tendency to make things I need before asking if they are otherwise available. I guess you can take the country boy out of the country but… It’s probably the combination of the independent East Tennessee and the hard-headed Dutch parts of me.

ca. 1978: Fairbanks & Cole, ser. 2854.

Music has always been at the core of my being. I have never known a time when I wasn’t thrilled by immersing myself in music and, very early on, I realized that great music, as opposed to sounds in the background, either made me laugh or cry. I wasn’t sure then, nor am I now, which I preferred. Both struck at the deepest part of me: my solar plexus, my heart, or as the Greeks would have said, my liver. I remember, roughly at the age of four, standing backwards in a rocking chair, rocking, conducting “The Ride of the Valkyries” as the music thundered and washed over me. My dad had bought small records of classical favorites and drawn tiny images on the labels to illustrate the pieces. One, with excerpts from “The Nutcracker,” had dancing toadstools on one side and stick figures carrying a picnic basket on the other: the Gopak (go pack). 

After the war my father brought home some V-Discs, those huge LPs which were made for the entertainment of troops overseas. (He often told of crates of records – and other things –  shoved off the fantail of Navy ships into the ocean which, as a child of the Depression, he thought of as a criminal waste. I later learned that the V-Discs were produced outside the normal recording industry royalty system as a war effort and that their destruction was part of the deal.) In any case, my favorites were the “Echoes of Eden” gospel programs (from the choir of the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles, directed by James Earle Hines). When we would visit Black churches with my Chaplain father I would often be disappointed their music sounded more like White Baptist churches than the Echoes of Eden congregation. But the soaring harmonies of 
“He’s my rock, my sword, my shield, He’s my wheel; 
 He’s my lily of the valley, He’s my bright and morning star; 
 Makes no difference what you say,
 I’m going down on my knees and pray;
 I’m going to wait right here for Jesus when He comes,”
still sets the standard for me for gospel music. I just wish I still had some of those V-discs.
Carte de visite, 2014

Passion has always directed my life. As much as I am devoted to analyzing, reasoning, and puzzling out, I tend to throw myself at problems and challenges. When I was collecting early iconography to support my research into medieval musical instruments, I went to the university library and, over a period of months, leafed through every book in the art section looking for illustrations. When I couldn’t find the proper musical instruments for my medieval group I began making them. I still do.

The other side of passion has been less constructive for me and something I have only recently come to deal with. It is now clear that for almost thirty years I was clinically depressed. I didn’t recognize it at first: I just thought I was tired or was having a bad day, or week. When I finally realized what it was I would not ask for help. That was partly, in my view, because at the time there was only ‘talk therapy.’ And I figured I was just as smart as they were and I could tell myself the same things they would, for a lot less. So some days I didn’t get out of bed, or I stood by the floor heater with the heat coming up my back for hours. I withdrew, and since there was usually no woman in my life, no one knew. And, eventually, the period passed and I was back to my usual sunny self.

That all changed when I came back to San Diego from Baltimore in 1990 and began working for the Welfare Department. Things went downhill fast. The demands of the job, the lack of support from bosses, the needs of truly desparate clients, all sent me into a tailspin. I would go home sick almost every day: headaches, diarrhea, panic attacks, all got worse and worse. One day I was sitting at home, watching a commercial from the phone company. A young soldier returning to his country home early in the morning, tiptoes in and brews coffee in his kitchen. As his family, one at a time, comes downstairs to greet him, I realized I was sobbing uncontrollably. I decided to reach out and touch someone. I called our mental health services the next day.

I went on medication for a couple of years which probably saved my life. I eventually was able to retire from that job but I have learned my lesson. Mental health is no different from physical health. Just because an illness happens above the neck doesn’t mean it should be treated differently from one below the neck. We humans pride ourselves in our mental abilities and, by so doing, we have imbued the brain with supernatural qualities. The brain is, indeed, an amazing organ, which we have only begun to explore. But it is an organ, in many ways no different than the pancreas. The ancients believed that Love resided in the liver. Maybe they were right. (That would explain my love life after my childhood hepatitis.) But with all we have learned about brain chemistry, to turn your back on help for depression makes just as little sense as trying to cure your own heart disease or AIDS.

I write this not to elicit sympathy or purge my demons but to encourage anyone who feels they may be depressed to ask for help. It is not a sign of weakness but of strength and intelligence to know oneself. If you have tried medication unsuccessfully in the past, try again: new drugs are being developed constantly. The other aspect is the social. Group therapy, along with your medication, will radically shift your old world view. It is unbelievably liberating to walk into a group of people who are suffering in the same way you are. You will find instant brothers and sisters. Everyone who is depressed feels they are alone or crazy. That is not true and a group will help you understand that and grow into the person you should be. After my recovery I felt like a new man, or like my ‘old’ self. I am very passionate about this and would be willing to talk to anyone who is having questions.

I still haven’t decided what I’m going to do when I grow up. I’ve spent most of my life pursuing knowledge and very little trying to apply any of it to making a living. Consequently, I find myself chronically unemployed. When I was in college (the first time) I saw most people rushing for the door so they could get out and find a job. My Preacher’s Kid upbringing had spoiled me for that approach: I knew all about the eye of the needle. But, in addition, I was curious about all these people who were going to work for a company for 25-30 years and retire at age 50. I wondered what they would do with the last half of their lives. I determined I would prepare myself for the entirety of my life, planning on living for ninety or a hundred years. (My father died in 2006, at age 92.) I didn’t figure on not being able to find a teaching position at age 60+. But it’s been fulfilling nonetheless. And I’m still learning.

With my sister, Lee, at her home in Mountain Ranch, ca. 2014.

I suspect, however, that delaying my monetary gratification has been a factor in my love life. I have been extremely fortunate to have been loved by more beautiful, intelligent, funny, charming, passionate, experienced women than I ever imagined possible. If one of them had, perhaps, been a little less intelligent I might have convinced her to marry me. But I think my lack of prospects has been my undoing. However, hope springs eternal and I continue to be optimistic about my chances. They say that men are at a premium in the old folks’ home.