American Old-Time Music

The author of Nixon’s Farewell & Waiting for Nancy, Revealed!

I’ve been playing hammered dulcimer for over sixty-five years and many people recognize me as “the one who plays the …” and they wave their hands in front of them, imitating the hammers. Others remember my ballads and classify me as a singer. Others have heard my jaw harp or Thai mouth organ playing and remember me that way. And most recall that I always play a banjo with no frets. But I’m still surprised that my biggest response is as “the guy who wrote Waiting for Nancy,” or maybe "Nixon’s Farewell." Of course, sometimes it’s in the context of “…isn’t he dead?” Not yet, Bucko.
Balboa Park, San Diego, mid-1970s.

Making up tunes comes naturally for me. I did it as a kid and invented my own notation system to remember them. In college, as a music major, I dabbled in composition until I realized that Classical Music isn’t about “good tunes,” but about developing them. And that wasn’t as much fun. I’ve played fretless banjo (or banjer as I prefer to call it) for over forty years and often, just sitting, playing, almost meditating, different notes or figures come out, creating tunes unbidden. The difficulty is not in coming up with another tune but in judging whether it’s worth “keeping” or whether to throw it back. I really do feel like a Songcatcher. And that is definitely different from the feeling I had working, shaping, manipulating themes in Composition class.

I’ve always been involved in Everything and people have a hard time categorizing me. I come from very traditional, country roots but have spent most of my time in towns and cities. I tend toward the analytical and intellectual but am very passionate about people and knowledge and life in general. I am intensely interested in folkways, language, cooking, woodworking, simple technology, art and music but I have a PhD. (Of course, I didn’t get it until I was 55: on my birthday.) Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini. Or Dutch. Or right handed.

My sister, Lee, and I have been singing together in church since she was two and I was three: she sang melody and I harmony. I never considered singing anything unusual, we all did it. When folk music became popular in the early sixties I began singing songs, many of which I had known for years. For a short while I even played a guitar! But since everyone else did that (and I wasn’t too fond of the sound anyway) I began playing banjer, Appalachian dulcimer, and autoharp. I also began working on my hammered dulcimer chops, though I had played it off and on since I was about 16. Mostly, I considered the instruments accompaniment for songs and I also preferred the old unaccompanied ballads. After I performed for my American Folklore class the first time, my professor suggested I “play more on the instruments” (and do less singing). I tried not to take it personally but I do notice that most people “understand” instrumental music more easily than vocal.

One of the things I have been interested in lately is going back to some of the old tunes and songs that have fallen out of favor and resurrecting them. Sometimes it’s the words that are to blame and the traditional thing to do is just redo the words. Sometimes they are so familiar we take them for granted and we just haven’t heard them performed as Old Timey tunes for a while. If Grandpa Jones were still around we wouldn’t be surprised to hear “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” on banjo and fiddle instead of as a camp song. And anyone who loved Uncle Dave Macon should be dusting off and resetting some of the political songs that he had rescued from the previous century. Just because we don’t have mule wagons anymore doesn’t mean we’re not intimidated by modern technology. I can imagine a new version of his “Chawin Chewin Gum” about cell phone users!

I played in the San Diego Folk Festival every year since its inception and even emceed some of the first one. In his last years, Lou Curtiss, the Grand Old Man of San Diego traditional music, finally entered the modern age with a website which includes pictures and musical clips of our journey. A link to the page featuring the first festival, in 1967, is below. [That’s me, in the lower right-hand corner.]

Hand printed pass for the first festival by our artist friend, Gerrie Blake.

San Diego State Folk Festival, ca. 1973

All of my instrumental techniques have been self taught. For none of them is that more obvious than my hammered dulcimer playing. When I received my instrument, at age 16, I had only heard Hungarian cimbalom playing, with its classical and Gypsy repertory. The breakneck speed, radical dynamics, rapid arpeggios, and a host of other sophisticated techniques, though quite impressive, clearly struck me as modern and unsuitable for traditional, American music. In trying to develop a framework for style, I used old-time banjo and fiddle music as a guide. I considered a moderate, dance tempo as probable and multiple iterations based on ornamentation and variation, absolutely essential. I began to listen to other dulcimer traditions as well, none of which seemed quite what I was seeking. The Persian santur was much too episodic and even rhapsodic on the one hand, while the Chinese yang ch’in [later, yang qin] seemed too wedded to the melody, or even subservient to the orchestral sound, on the opposite extreme.

When I finally heard American dulcimer players from the old Library of Congress recordings I was convinced I was heading in the right direction. Yet most of the more recent recordings were of players who had been in ensembles and, consequently, didn’t have the complete, soloistic sound I wanted. I experimented for several years, Sam Hinton and Stu Jamieson both patiently encouraging me, mostly with suggestions for repertory. When I first heard Eck Robertson I was thunderstruck. That was the ideal to which I aspired: endless development and variation of the melody. And that, unobtainable, goal is what spurs me on today.

One day, probably around 1960, my family all went to Knott’s Berry Farm, near Los Angeles. It was the first time we had been, so at least the older of the five kids spread out, following our separate inclinations. I’m sure we checked back periodically with my parents and we probably had something to eat. At the end of the day, driving back to Oceanside (where we lived at the time, just north of San Diego), someone asked, “Curt, did you see the woman playing the hammered dulcimer?” I almost jumped out of the car. “What woman? What hammered dulcimer?” At the time I had never seen a real live dulcimer, let alone someone playing it. It seems that an elderly woman, dressed in sunbonnet and calico dress, regularly played the dulcimer on the main street of the Old Western town, and I still occasionally meet people who mention her. None of my siblings or my parents had thought to mention it until we were almost home. I never did get back to see and hear her and, even now, have never seen a traditional player. Many years later, a young woman contacted me to find out about a dulcimer she had inherited. It turns out she was the daughter, or granddaughter, of the woman at Knott’s. She hadn’t been interested until it was too late. An all too familiar story.  [Her name was “Aunt” Nellie McKinney, born 1870, McDonald County, Missouri.]

In the late 1960’s, an old friend, Jerry Houck, was back east at a folk festival, perhaps Fox Hollow. Someone had a workshop on the hammered dulcimer where they discussed the genealogy of players and influences in the US. There was blackboard with branches and “begats:” the Michigan lumberjack school, Upstate New York, West Virginia, etc. Two thirds of the board was a mass of interconnected names and lines. Then he said, “And waaay out west, there’s this guy, Curt Bouterse. We don’t know Where he fits in.” Neither do I, folks.

In the early 1970’s I used to play regularly at The Heritage, a coffee house in San Diego, and Guy Carawan would come in occasionally and listen to me when he was in town. One day, Guy came in, beaming, “I bought a hammered dulcimer. Will you teach me how to play?” I said, “Sure. Have you figured anything out on it yet?” He replied, “A little,” and proceded to play quite a good version of some standard fiddle tune, perhaps Soldier’s Joy. I laughed, “You’re doing just fine. Keep it up.” Guy used to tell people that I taught him how to play hammered dulcimer.

Playing Malvina Reynold's "Let It Be" with my dream girls, Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb, in Balboa Park, ca. 1967.


The evolution of my banjer style is equally mysterious. In the early 1960’s several friends began playing banjos, including Warren Stromberg, who had bought a beautiful walnut instrument from Frank Proffitt. I fell in love with it and the idea of the fretless, and began playing it as often as I could wrest it from Warren’s obliging hands. We had all heard Stu Jamieson and his fretless playing, which provided our inspiration, and many in the circle of friends got fretless banjos.

From the very beginning of my playing I found that my hands and fingers did not want to do frailing. I knew How to do it – and even taught my brother Mark how – but was never successful, so I somehow settled on a two-finger style. I remember someone telling me it was from North Carolina, sometimes called “up-picking,” but I have been unable to figure out Where, or From Whom I learned it. In any case, it seemed to suit my attitude toward the instrument and the music: more relaxed than tense, slower rather than faster, and not very loud. My banjo heroes tended more toward the Frank Proffitt, Wade Ward, and accompanying end of the continuum than the Bluegrass and competitive. My emphases center on varied tunings and melodic interest, rather than technique or tempo.
I realize that the banjo has an uneviable reputation in some quarters. It’s partly bad history: slavery, minstrelsy, and inbred rednecks. But, even separate from those stereotypes, it inhabits an aural landscape with accordions and bagpipes. It’s always good for a laugh and I’m sure all players have a collection of comic strip jokes about banjos. The banjo can be loud, but so can a trumpet or violin. And it may be obnoxious, like an out-of-tune piccolo or piano. I knew that my prediliction for old-time banjos and their sound put me in a different camp from the “faster, higher, louder” Bluegrass folks. But I didn’t realize that other people had noticed until my friend Bob Webb gave me a copy of his catalog “Ring the Banjar.” It was inscribed, “…and for keeping alive the notion that a banjo doesn’t have to be (maybe Shouldn’t be) a great, heavy, loud, Public thing.”
One of my favorite stories, originally attributed to “an old-time banjo player,” has someone asking the player if he had ever heard Earl Scruggs play the banjo.
“So, what did you think of it?”
“Well, I’d like to be able to play the banjo like that, and then,…Not play the banjo like that.”
A few years ago, when Frank Proffitt, Jr, came out to San Diego for our folk festival, we became friends and, at one point I told him that story. He smiled, “That was my dad.” I was not really surprised.

During our few days together I showed him some of the instruments I had made, as well as the flamed maple banjer of his father’s. I was also able to buy two instruments that he had made. We had a great time playing banjers and telling stories. At one point he said, “Your playing reminds me more of my father’s than anyone I know.” I cannot imagine ever receiving a greater complement. Frank, Jr, died in 1985, much too young. He will be greatly missed.

San Diego Roots Festival, 2004. Photo, Virginia Curtiss.
Since many people play my banjer tunes and have asked about using them, I will post my usual, traditional  response.
I am a great believer in encouraging the creative process which our society has done so much to squelch. I am also against the elitist, excusivist attitude tied to copyrights and infringement litigation. On the other hand, fair is fair, and as I would not steal from another, I would not want to be stolen from. Freedom and responsibility are not opposites. Most of my tunes have been “composed” in the Folk Tradition and in that tradition the beginning of the tune is only part of the process. The evolution and modification of the initial tune is an integral, organic part of the tradition and one in which I truly believe. 
I think of “my” tunes as my children. I may have created them but I send them out into the world to make their own way. If you find them enjoyable and wish to entertain them for a while, feel free to do so but treat them kindly. If they become their own persons or turn their backs on their origins, that is a risk I must take. If, on the other hand, they point with some pride to the one who set them on the way, that will make me happy. I would appreciate hearing how they are doing and what they have accomplished from time to time and if they make a recording I would love to hear it. And, if they want to send something back home to help with the retirement of their aging father, it will be gratefully received.

The Arkansas Traveler: tune & theme

Transcription of the tune from before 1859.

Sam Hinton used to do the most amazing version of “The Arkansas Traveller” I ever heard. I always enjoyed the endless banter between the snooty city traveller and the despised homespun fiddler. It was very much in the vein of rural humor the world around: the urban sophisticate (whether tax collector or tourist) getting his come-uppance from the seemingly dense peasant. And, at the end, in a distinctly American, egalitarian twist, they joined hands in musical brotherhood.
This is not the place for an extended scholarly study on the dichotomy between urban and rural America but there are a few things anyone interested in traditional folklore should remember. Little over a century ago 10% of our population lived in cities; today it’s roughly 90%. Few of us can remember life without any electricity. Since history is an account of events written by city folks we need to be aware that the view of country life we read about in books bears little resemblance to what most of our ancestors actually lived. There is a long tradition of writing about country people which alternately romanticizes and brutalizes them. “Deliverance” won’t be the last. Those of us who come from the country have a responsibility to ensure that our people are no more subject to negative stereotypes than any other group if we really believe all are created equal.

The Currier and Ives print has a copyright date of 1870 (though based on an 1856 painting by Edward Payson Washburn/Washbourne [1830-1861] and published in Boston in 1859) gives a great example of the city-country divide. The traveller, dressed in the latest fashion, complete with gauntlets, sits astride his charger looking like a figure of George Washington, or Robert E Lee (astride his “Traveller”). (It’s clear the artist never saw a real saddle: what kind of pommel is that?)
The backwoods scene pulls out all the stereotype stops for the Full Hick effect. The log cabin with its rough slat roof and Whisky sign over the door sits in a deserted landscape which includes gourd bird houses in a dead tree. A tanning skin is tacked on the wall and dipper gourd and powder horn hang over an antique weapon by the doorway, which, naturally, has no door. Six kids hang around, several play on the dirt floor, the pre-pubescent daughter combs her hair, preparing to greet the stranger. The woman, smoking a pipe, peers out with an iron skillet in her hand. The fiddler himself sits on an empty barrel surrounded by his familial dogs. He has a full beard and wears a coonskin cap, Indian moccasins, and tattered pants. But he holds a fiddle (in the traditional position) and he plays it. And therein lies the tale.
By the time his great-grandchildren grow up, they will live in a city, clamor for brand-name clothes, grow obese on fast food or obsess and starve themselves, and learn never to talk to strangers. They won’t play an instrument or know a song other than those they learn from downloads of musicians who earn a thousand times more than they do, but whom they admire inordinately. But they will consider their lives to be infinitely superior to that of any of their ancestors or the other seven billion souls on the planet.