CONFESSIONS: A Sort Of Augustinian Biography
From zero to fourscore plus in the wink of an eye.
I come from a long line of country preachers on both sides of my family. My mother’s people are Hargises and Lees from East Tennessee; my folks were married by her grandfather, Rev. Granville B. Lee. My paternal grandfather came to America from Zeeland, and the Dutch know that Zeelanders are Really Country. Grandpa Bouterse, like much of the Bouterse clan, was in the Salvation Army for many years, then he became a Methodist minister, founding several churches in South Florida. Becoming a Baptist minister, he started several more churches in the same area. My grandmother, a Rijskamp from Groningen, was a Salvation Army lassie, passing the tambourine on skid row in Chicago at the age of 16.
My father’s first pastorate was in the edge of the Bluegrass country of Kentucky, and there I was born, named after the town, Curtis Carlisle. Carlisle had a population of about 1200 people then, just about the same as now. I probably would have remained a country boy, perhaps going into the family business, but the Imperial Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor when I was six months old and Everyone’s world was changed. My father joined the Navy as a Chaplain and 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 of their parents’ families were living. For the next twenty years we (eventually five children) traveled 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.
Music was always an important part of our family; Mom and Dad both had beautiful voices 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. Though I had always considered myself a singer, I had trifled with instruments before but this was of a completely different order: to begin with it had 97 strings to tune! 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 1962 I met Sam Hinton and Stu Jamieson who both encouraged me to concentrate on the traditional repertory. The rest is history.
Around the time I graduated from high school, the general public “discovered” folk music, the good and the bad. Hearing this oft-familiar music reinforced my love of American music and sharpened my perception of tradition and change. I think my mother was slightly amused by the sudden attention that was paid to the kind of music she had grown up with.
Sam Hinton, who lived locally, became my general Folk Guru, introducing me to Sacred Harp music and encouraging my playing. Stu, who came down from the LA area often for concerts and festivals, opened up the world of the fretless banjo around the time I first began becoming interested in banjo. Thus, I started off fretless and never worried again. The next year I built my first fretless (a box banjer that fit into an old wooden fiddle case), along with an Appalachian dulcimer (taken from pictures, before I had ever seen one in person). Our family never had many material things, and what we had was divided among five children, so everyone was a do-it-yourselfer, and making musical instruments has been a joy for me ever since. I’ve made numerous medieval instruments to complement my studies of early music, a few fretless banjers, and even a number of gourd banjers..
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 lived to 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.
Cross-Cultural Studies World History. Anthropology. Folk Art. Ethnomusicology
My initial training was as an archeologist. The requirement was that most courses be in anthropology, but that a wide range of history, art, and other subjects should be included. This suited me just fine. I ended up with majors in history and art history in addition to anthropology, with minors in geography and music. It took five years. My interests in archeology were the early Aegean, pre-Incan Peru, and Central Asia, all fields which have taken off in the intervening years. I spent most of my energy on Central Asia, reading everything I could, knowing full well there was little chance I would ever get to go there. In the 1960’s the Russians were extremely sensitive about their inner Asian frontiers and “China,” as far as the United States was concerned, was a small island between Japan and the Philippines.
My second degree was in music and I was fortunate to spend several years of intensive study with David Ward-Steinman, a dedicated, talented, and charismatic polymath. But I continued with all the world history courses I could fit in: the Middle East, the Soviet Union, the Far East, Africa, early Europe. One memorable year I was studying medieval music, medieval history, medieval art, medieval philosophy, medieval literature (with Jerry Farber, yes: That Jerry Farber), and the history of libraries. The university didn’t have Latin or I probably would have taken that too, though I had studied it for 2 years in junior high school, back in the Dark Ages. They did offer Arabic, in which I did poorly.
After a decade of working, mostly in a bookstore, studying, and occasionally teaching, I returned to get my master’s in World Music. I studied a wide range of areas, including American Indian music, Korean court music, Sumatran Batak music, and Indian classical music. But my main emphases were Bali and Africa. The department at San Diego State brought master native teachers from around the world and I was able to study gamelan with I Wayan Sinti, I Wayan Rai S., I Komang Astita, and K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat (Pak Cokro), among others. I studied African music with J.H. Kwabena Nketia, Ghanaian drumming with Kwaku Ladzekpo, and Senegalese drumming with Zak Diouf.
I had a genuine World Music Moment when, during a summer study in Indonesia, I watched a session with the rare Batak nine-drum ensemble at Lake Toba. They asked if anyone wanted to try, so I picked up the sticks and astonished them, and myself, when the breakneck, interlocking parts were channeled through Zak and Kwaku.
I presented my M.A. lecture-demonstration to a special meeting of the Southern California branch of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Mantle Hood was the honoree and he came up to me afterward, offered to publish my work, and invited me to come back to the University of Maryland Baltimore County to study with him. He had maintained for years that ethnomusicology was an approach and technique which could, and should, be applied to any and all music, not just “exotic” musics. My work had been about using world music styles and techniques to inform and understand medieval European music, so he was excited about the possibilities. It didn’t take me long to say “yes.”
While at UMBC I studied gamelan theory with Mantle, but most of my research was with Jozef Pacholczyk, my mentor and immediate friend. I often say that I walked into Jozef’s office the first day on campus, sat down, and we talked nonstop for the next three years. I did find time to have wonderful academic experiences, including studying kora with the late Djimo Kouyate. And Wayan Rai came back to UMBC to study and we got our PhD’s on the same day.
I believe, more strongly than ever, that everything is related and that no knowledge is ever wasted. My interests become broader with each passing day and each bit of information. I know my insights have deepened precisely because of the widening scope of my experiences, and I wish to share this understanding with all.