Friends and Relations

The Long Riders

James & Stacey Keach, left; Tom Sauber, Ry Cooder, & me, standing behind David Lindley, seated on floor; director Walter Hill, standing far right.

Photo by Susan Titelman, 1980.

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 David and Tom.]

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.

The Dutch magazine, De Bouwbrief, is a rather obscure, specialized publication which is devoted to musical instrument researchers and builders, mainly historical. One of their most prestigious members is M.C.J. “Jan” Bouterse, a distant cousin whose speciality is Baroque wind instruments. Our great-grandfathers were brothers; his stayed in the Netherlands, mine came to America. Somehow we both ended up studying historical musical instruments and obtaining Doctoral degrees: what are the odds? In 2018 a colleague of his wrote up an article about me and my work and published it in Bouwbrief. [An auto-translation follows.]

The surname will certainly be familiar to you as a reader of the Bouwbrief. After all, our unsurpassed editor-in-chief has the same last name. This is of course no coincidence. Some time ago he gave me a CD with traditional American banjo music performed by his distant cousin Curtis Carlisle Bouterse, PhD. In the late sixties I was a frequent visitor to De Waag in Haarlem, where Coby Schreijer ran a folk song cafe at the time. The American singer/banjo player Derroll Adams also regularly performed there, which aroused my interest in this instrument and this music. It is interesting to note that the life courses of two distant relatives (great-great-grandfathers were brothers) [*Actually, only great-grandfather brothers. Our great-great grandfather was Cornelis Marinusz. Bouterse (1820-1913)*] can show so many parallels after several generations. Both are descendants of a musical family where their fathers worked as preachers. Furthermore, they both wear a pony tail and, like Jan, Curt received his doctorate later in life (Dr. and PhD respectively) and both theses deal with topics from music history. As is well known, Jan’s great passion concerns woodwind instruments. These also belong to Curt’s area of interest**, although the latter’s preference is for folk instruments, such as the hammered dulcimer (family of the cembalo, better known as hakkebord in the Netherlands), mouth harp and (mouth) harmonica. His favorite instrument, however, is the “banjer”. This is a fretless, usually five-string banjo. On his websites, which contain a wealth of information, he describes in a humorous way how he arrived at the name “banjer”. Curt was born in the town of Carlisle six months before the outbreak of WWII. After father Bouterse became a chaplain in the navy, the family had to move frequently. After numerous wanderings (Pensacola, San Diego, Miami, Naples (Italy) and Clarksville, Tennessee), Curt returned to San Diego and eventually to Camp Pendleton. On this wandering he came into contact with all kinds of music styles, which sparked his interest in folk music. When he was seventeen, his father brought him a hammered dulcimer from Hong Kong, on which he taught himself to play. The traditional fiddle tunes were a great source of inspiration for him. He is considered in the American folk scene as the person who made the hammered dulcimer popular again. If you look on YouTube now you will see a multitude of players in all kinds of styles. The four- and five-string banjos (banjers) also hold no secrets for Curt. In addition to his interest in playing American Old Time Music, he was also affected by the construction virus. He built numerous 4- and 5-string banjers, which can be heard on his many CDs. Below this article are some links to music examples. Curt has thoroughly studied the various versions of the fretless banjo that have been played in the United States over the years. A wealth of information can be found on his banjer site. In addition to the banjer, Curt has also done a lot of Early Music research and has been singing for decades in a group Alfonso In addition to the banjer, Curt has also done a lot of Early Music research and has been singing for decades in a group Alfonso X, named after Alfonso ‘the Wise,’ king of Castile and Leon in the 13th century. But perhaps more about that in a next article.     **”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 birth-day.) Maybe it’s because I’m a Gemini. Or Dutch. Or right-handed”

Bouteloua curtipendula

Bouteloua curtipendula

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, into eastern California and south into Argentina, side-oats grama, scientific name: Bouteloua curtipendula. The official explanation is that it was named after some alleged early 19th-century Spanish (!) botanist brothers, Claudius and Exteban Boutelou . 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.

There are, of course, many similar names scattered all over the linguistic map, many of which sound very much like attempts at mine. One of my favorites was the doubly-named Boutros Boutros-Ghali, Secretary-General of the United Nations; Boutros is actually the Arabic for Peter, a fact that I’m sure would have delighted my minister father and his many so-named ancestors, including an uncle and his grandfather.

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. The published list is no longer available but Lee’s name can be seen one up from the bottom, to the left of Rick Shubb’s scroll. My name is squeezed in the margin at right, just in front of the duck’s bill, a little below Paul Krassner. Reading the List of names is both a nostalgic and psychedelic experience.

An interesting discussion of the entire phenomenon is at