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Lynyrd Skynyrd and “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”

The Ballad of Curtis Loew

In 1974, American rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd released “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” The song was penned by Allen Collins and Ronnie Zant and produced by Al Kooper under MCA Records. And the band reputedly performed it only once – before the 1977 plane crash that killed members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, and Cassie Gaines. 

While it was assumably one of the band’s favorite tracks, appearing on two of their compilation albums, it existed somehow as a footnote in their early history. Nevertheless, its complex lyrical and thematic style has attracted attention and curiosity toward the character of Curtis Loew. 

What is the Story Behind “The Ballad of Curtis Loew”?

The ballad is about a black man named Curtis Loew, a musical virtuoso who has existed on the margins all his life. And no one – except for one young boy – took notice of him and his talent. The boy, who’s also the narrator of the story, would search soda bottles, bring them down the corner, then go to the country store to cash ‘em in and give his money to Old Curt so he’d play blues for him all day. 

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Even when his mama whooped him down and their community called him “useless,” it never stopped him from seeing the man and hearing him play one or two tunes (before taking another drink of wine). To him, he was “the finest picker to ever play the blues.” 

And so, when Curtis Loew passed away, the boy felt the loss of a profound influence in his life. He was the man who he looked up to, like a mentor who awakened his musical consciousness. And even then, no one showed up for him. The preacher just said some words, and it was done. 

“Well he lived a lifetime playin’ the black man’s blues / And on the day he lost his life that’s all he had to lose.”

Is Curtis Loew Based on a True Story?

No, “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” wasn’t based on a true story. But it was inspired by a real place – the now torn-down Woodcrest Grocery building in Jacksonville, Florida. According to Gene Odom, in his book “Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock,” the store was opened in the 1950s by Claude and Ollie Mae Hamner. 

He and the late Van Zant would hang out there, but he was sure there was no “black man with a curly hair.” Claude Hamner was the only one with a guitar, and he was a baldheaded old white guy. 

However, we could look at Loew as a symbol instead of a specific individual. That is, he is a representation of a composite of various blues influences that the song’s writer Zant had heard of in his life (probably including Hamner) and a homage to all the artists who didn’t have the same opportunities he had because of their skin color. It also acknowledges the widely disregarded fact that the blues is anchored in the black sonic culture.  

Who Originally Sang Curtis Loew?

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Curtis Loew story and song is the band’s original. It was first released as the fifth track of their second studio album, Second Helping, which also introduced fans to “Sweet Home Alabama.” It also appeared later in their 1998 two-disc compilation, The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd, which recorded a classic line-up from their peak years from 1971 to ‘77. And then again, in 2000, on their All Time Greatest Hits.

Who Played Guitar on The Ballad of Curtis Loew?

Aside from the song’s lyrics, it captivated many with its sound – particularly Ed King’s bottleneck slide guitar. This technique of guitar playing utilizes a hard object to press across multiple strings and slide along the fingerboard. And this creates a smooth, whining sound described as “evocative of the human voice.”

Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” has since become a band’s fan favorite and a legacy. And it deserves to be appreciated for its deep narrative and musical craftsmanship. Check it out below.