From zero to 69 in the wink of an eye.
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 melisma’s 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.
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.
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).
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.
The Long Riders
Many people have asked me about my involvement with Ry Cooder’s famous soundtrack for “The Long Riders,” back in 1980 and, since it was such an enjoyable experience, I don’t mind telling the story one more time. And since this is on my nickel, I don’t have to cut it short.
Many years ago, prompted by an unexpected name mentioned by a new girlfriend, I made a chart of relationships between us. I took a large sheet of paper, made a small circle with my initials in it, one with hers in it, and started mapping the connections. I used solid lines for close relations, dashed and dotted lines for more tenuous ones and, before I was through, there were 40-50 people on the map–all for this woman I had only recently met. I have since realized this is not at all uncommon. “The Long Riders” is one of these stories.
In 1979, I heard an announcement that there would be a repeat of a Saturday Night Live episode featuring “Flaco” Jimenez and Ry Cooder. I was not a late night anynight TV watcher and had only seen a few SNL shows in my life. But I liked Flaco and had heard of Ry Cooder as a powerhouse guitarist since the 1960s. I had always assumed he was much older than I and figured I’d better catch him while I still could, so I stayed up to watch the show. I think I imagined him like BB King, Chet Atkins, and Les Paul, whom I had seen since the 1950s. Imagine my surprise when I saw the show: “He’s MY age!” I thoroughly enjoyed the show and had a good night’s sleep.
The next day, Sunday, around noon, the phone rang. A voice said,”Hello, Curt? This is Ry Cooder.” [My immediate thought was, “Did I tell anyone about this whole experience? Someone is putting me on.”] “Yes…,” I answered, warily, waiting for the gotcha! He continued, “David Lindley gave me your name and said you played hammered dulcimer.” “Yes…,” I replied, still hesitant. “Well, I’m putting together the soundtrack for a sort of Western movie about the James Gang…etc.,” He gave more details and mentioned Tom Sauber’s name and, eventually, said, “I’d like to get together with you to see whether you’d be interested in working with us.” We set a time in a couple of days and hung up.
[I had met David Lindley and Tom Sauber at some of the Topanga Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contests some ten years previous.]
The whole time we were talking I was still unsure whether it was real or not. Besides, I had done a few movie soundtracks before and there were usually forces working at cross purposes. My dulcimer playing was self-taught and very idiosyncratic, and I played tunes in all the “wrong” keys, since they only fit on my diatonic instrument in a couple of places. Most other instrumentalists couldn’t or didn’t want to accommodate my peculiarities. But I figured I would see in a few days whether he was real or not and whether it would work or not.
He came to where I worked, at the Green Tiger Press, in downtown San Diego, in a large warehouse and we went to a distant corner, followed by several interested friends. I set up my dulcimer, he set up a cassette. “This is just to give you an idea of what Tom and David and I are thinking about to start with,” and he pushed “play.” The first sound out of the speakers was “Seneca Square Dance.”
[I had been playing “Seneca” for ten years and had worked up what I thought was a good set of variations, but most players I knew didn’t know the tune, and those who did, played it in a different key. I had learned it from a travelling string band that had played several times at the Heritage Coffee House, owned by my best friend, Bob Webb. Bob was from LA and also knew Dave and Tom. (My wife later ran off with the band.)]
I touched a string or two on my dulcimer to check the tuning and started playing on the second phrase of “Seneca.” They were in My key and we were exactly in tune. [Since I didn’t have a tuner, and seldom played with anyone else, I only tuned my dulcimer to itself. The fact that we were in tune is still, to me, a miracle of Biblical proportions.]
Ry looked at me and grinned, “I think we’re going to get along just fine.” And that, as they say in the movies, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. The entire process was very enjoyable and even easy. Ry would give us the piece or the idea of what we were going to play, everyone would noodle a little, and we would play through it once for “take one.” Then Ry would say, “That’s just right, let’s do it.” Or, he’d decide, “I think I’d rather play the bajo sexto on this one,” and we would do it that way. I don’t remember ever doing more than three, maybe four takes. He knew exactly what he wanted and, what is more remarkable, he knew precisely how to get it. Everyone got along famously and it was a model of productivity. I was mightily impressed.
We improvised as we went along. I had brought a carload of my instruments to the studio and at one point I was messing around, singing into the back of my Frank Proffitt banjo, when Ry said,”That’s exactly what we need for the get-away scene.” So we did it. Tom Sauber used the Proffitt to play for another, solo banjo, scene. Toward the end, Ry wanted to try something a little different for the credits. He had a cut of “Jesse James” and decided to add a fife and drum version of “Rally ‘Round the Flag” when he heard me playing around with a penny whistle. So he picked up a beautiful African style double-headed drum and we launched into it after about a 5 minute rehearsal.
Much later, when the film was finally released, I went with some friends to see it in a local San Diego theater. We stayed until the very end and, when the credits rolled there was even a list of all the musicians (an unusual occurrence, I am told). When my name came up, all my friends stood and clapped and cheered. I would have been embarrassed if the theater hadn’t been empty except for us.
In the following months, my name popped up in reviews of the film in such disparate sources as the Washington Post and Rolling Stone. Occasionally I find references to the film or the music which mention the hammered dulcimer or “the perky tin flute of Curt Bouterse,” or some such. And recently, I found a mention by Paul Hostetter in banjo-l where I supposedly played the banjo while Stu Brotman played the hammered dulcimer. Well, the dulcimer probably would have sounded a lot better if Stu had played it but I definitely wouldn’t have picked up a banjo with Tom Sauber around. I’m also supposed to have taken Paul’s daughter to “the premiere.” Must have been some other Curt Bouterse: I never got invited to the premiere, and I don’t think I’ve even met Paul Hostetter, let alone his daughter. You never know how these stories get started: they’re like the Folk Process, lost in the Mists of Ambiguity.
I suspect I’m not the only one who has thought it would be cool to discover something new–an animal, plant, or technique–and have it named after me. Imagine my suprise when I recently found it had (almost) happened without my having to do any work. There is a wild grass which grows across the Central Plains and into eastern California, side-oats grama, scientific name: Bouteloua curtipendula. The official explanation is that it was named after some alleged early 19th-century Spanish (!) botanist brothers. But you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize someone just messed up my name, again.
I am attempting to shape my yard with native Southern California plants. They are generally drought resistant and I am not one of those who wants this area (average rainfall 9″) to look like New England. All our water is imported, either from the Colorado River or Northern California, at least 500 miles. Bouteloua curtipendula seeds are available and I think it would make a wonderful addition to the mix. I may eventually post a picture of the results. (Postscript: I recently saw my first, live side-oats grama – at the Sonora Desert Museum outside of Tucson!)
Bouterse, Bourtese, Bowders, Boutros
Speaking of my name, I sympathize with anyone who is not named Jones or Smith. As someone who always been interested in sounds, accents, words, language, and their use in society, I notice how frequently otherwise-intelligent, articulate people choke up on an unfamiliar name. It doesn’t matter that you tell them, “It’s easier than it looks: it’s ’bout’ as in boxing and ‘terse’ as in short.” They look back at the spelling and panic.
I was in the service with a fellow from Cullman, Alabama (home of the Sacred Harp Publishing Co.) and he solved the problem in a very GI way. In his very “Hail, fellow, well met” country voice he always greeted me as, “Hey, Bout!” Of course, that was usually followed by “…you ol’ horse’s ass!”
My grandfather went to Florida early in the 20th century and most of his children ended up around Miami. My father’s brother, Harry, was a motorcycle cop until an accident crippled his leg. Another brother, Howard, was a jazz musician, playing in most of the big bands of the era in the large Miami hotels and who married “Bebe” Rebozo’s sister, Mary. One of his sons became a famous local architect with a Cuban partner. By this time most of the Miami Bouterses had caved in to the common local pronunciation, “BooTERSE.” Thus, an article I recently found from a Spanish-language paper, speaking of Hispanics in south Florida business, mentioned the Cuban architect and his “French” partner.
Our favorite family story took place back in the ’50’s. My father was invited to speak at a church in central Florida. He worked the pastor through the hazards of the name until he felt certain he could say it. The pastor introduced him in some detail: “Our guest this evening is a Navy Chaplain who has… etc, etc,.” At the end, he said, “So, let’s give a warm welcome to…” and he made the mistake of looking down at his notes. I saw him freeze. His eyes widened, his face flushed, and he stammered, “Chaplain …… Buttersauce!” The rest of the family were sitting in the front pew and I know I was not the only one who sputtered trying to hold back a guffaw.
My nephew Dylan used to compete in BMX races as a kid and we still remind him of the announcer who shouted, “And here comes Dialin’ Boathouse!”
Bouterse & Humbead
Those who weren’t on the West Coast in the 60’s may never have heard the name Humbead and traveling that road is perhaps beyond the purview of this site. Suffice it to say that both my sister Lee and I were included in the in-joke List of Population for their Revised Map of the World. For the 1968-9 List my name is next to Don Stover and Lee is next to Arlo Guthrie. Reading the List of names is both a nostalgic and psychedelic experience.