Lou Curtiss opened Folk Arts Rare Records on Adams Avenue more than 30 years ago. Over the years, he’s promoted folk concerts at SDSU, coffee shops, and, later, the roots festivals staged in the street in front of his shop. Too busy to listen to his shows in real time, Curtiss taped them to enjoy at his leisure. There exist thousands of hours now, going back to the 1960s. And the Library of Congress wants to archive the performances into a digital collection.
“I’m working right now on digitizing the Tenth Annual Folk Festival,” Curtiss says. “Utah Phillips is the one doing the singing.” That was 1976, at SDSU’s Aztec Center. The hardest part about going from analog to digital, he says, is remembering all the names. The Library of Congress people want those details, right down to the backup singers. But Curtiss, Buddha-like at 72, his beard gone white, says he can pick out vocalists by ear, from the no-names all the way up the folk-music food chain to headliners such as Bill Monroe, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Bashful Brother Oswald.
The project began in 2007, when the Grammy Foundation awarded Curtiss a $35,000 “archiving and preservation grant,” after which he and his partner in digitizing, Russ Hamm, began burning CDs. Starting at the beginning, they got through the year 1975 before the grant money ran out. “We’ve got about 2000 tapes left,” Curtiss says, “and that doesn’t include the video.”
Curtiss is not entirely sure whose idea it was to digitize his concert tapes for the library, but now he’s deep into it and needs more money to finish.
He produces a check made in the amount of $750, sent as a donation from a Colorado businessman. “There’s been no corporate interest in this project at all in San Diego.” How much will it cost to complete the digitizing? Curtiss says he doesn’t know. Donations arrive at the shop in dribs and drabs, enough to keep the project alive, but Curtiss says he fears the ticking of an even bigger clock.
“I’m worried,” he says. “I’m not getting any younger.”