It's a scene that would make Garrison Keillor proud. In the brightly lit back room of Kadan, the North Park bar, boisterous drinkers make an ever-louder din in the darkened main bar as three older folks gamely perform one old-and-forgotten folk song after another. The seated trio are this evening's show-ups for a weekly event called “Singers Circle”—though tonight it's barely a half-circle. Their only audience is another old guy who introduces himself as their stage manager.
Local folk legend Lou Curtiss is the leader of this pack. Curtiss, who hosts a Sunday-night radio show for jazz station 88.3-FM and writes for San Diego Troubadour, has a bushy white beard and a big belly. He wears a newsboy cap and New Balance sneakers. The zither he plucks seems a little too delicate in his meaty paws. Next to Curtiss sits his wife Virginia, who clutches an acoustic guitar to her chest and sings in a warbly, old-timey style. The Curtiss' longtime friend and musical collaborator, John Bosley, rounds out the group.
Bosley has just strummed a ballad he wrote not long ago. Lou and Virginia listen attentively as he makes his way through it, fumbling a bit on notes and lyrics, which are barely audible.
“That's nice,” says Virginia with genuine appreciation. Bosley nods, and without much ado, the trio plays another song.
This time, Virginia takes the lead, but she can't quite nail the key. “I was thinking about this song on the way down here,” she says to her husband. “Do we have to play that in G?”
“Oh! Didn't he ramble ramble?
He rambled all about aroundIn and out of townOh! Didn't he ramble rambleHe rambled 'til the butchers cut him down.”
It's an old song, originally written in the early 1900s by an African-American duo about a black-sheep rambling man of Irish-American descent. A popular New Orleans funereal jazz number, it's been appropriated over the years by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Harry Connick Jr. In the hands of the Singers Circle, it becomes a languid, folksy campfire song. It's actually new-ish by their standards—“oldies-but-goodies” often means centuries ago.
“We used to play on the porch of the Folk Arts record store,” says Lou, who doesn't speak much unless prompted. The record store he mentions is Folk Arts Rare Records, on Adams Avenue, where, since 1967, the Curtisses have sold vintage vinyl recordings, including rare LPs, 45s and 78s. Lou has spent his life archiving historical sound recordings—he estimates he has 90,000 hours and 90 years worth of jazz, R&B, blues, country, folk, vaudeville, big bands and live shows of all sorts.
“We don't get as many kids wandering by as we used to,” adds Virginia. “They showed interest.”Generating interest seems to be of utmost importance to the Curtisses. Singers Circle—which the couple estimates has drawn about a dozen local musicians since its inception a few weeks back—feels like a noble, though somewhat sleepy, attempt to keep the beloved tradition of folk music alive and kicking. It's the same passion for old songs that keeps Lou in archivist mode over at his shop.
Music is what initially drew Virginia to her husband. “I got caught in the great folk scene of the '60s,” she says. “I wanted more real stuff—not the pop stuff.”
Lou inherited a love of folk music from his parents, who had a serious collection of old records. In 1967, he launched a folk festival at San Diego State University, where Virginia would later meet him. He ran that for two decades and later became an integral part of the Adams Avenue Street Fair.
“I mostly like old music,” Lou says. “Certain periods—the '30s, the '50s, the '40s, the '20s. A lot of good ol' songs.”
“The music we do is mostly old-time country,” adds Virginia.
“I'm interested in ballads that are 200 years old,” explains Lou. “They're passed down, and they change a lot. But they stay contemporary in an odd way.
“I'm interested in cross-pollination. That's what fascinates me most about music; the way that songs and styles influence each other.”
With that, Lou and Virginia and their old friend John Bosley break into another song, smiling and tapping their feet even though no one else in the bar can hear a single note. Singers Circle gathers at 6 p.m. every Wednesday night at Kadan. 619-640-2500.