I've been playing hammered dulcimer for over fifty 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 jew's 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.
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
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've been playing in the San Diego Folk Festival every year since its inception and even emceed some of the first one. Recently,
Lou Curtiss, the Grand not-so-Old Man of San Diego traditional music, has 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.
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
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 came in occasionally
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." To this day, Guy tells people
that I taught him how to play hammered dulcimer.
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 tried to play it,
but unsuccessfully, and 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.
Since many people play my banjer tunes and have asked about using them, I will post my usual, traditional response.
However, this information has been updated below.
(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.)
All that having been said, the new reality is that, as part of the process
of releasing my CD, "Down the Road I'll Go," Eagle's Whistle Records and Dancing Cat (George Winston's company) have enrolled
me with BMI. As the modern global village grows to six billion people we are all a little closer but have a little less room
to be free.
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
The Currier and Ives print has a copyright date of 1870 and gives a great example of the city-country divide. (Click on
it to get the full size effect.) 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 CD's 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 six billion souls
on the planet.