Now 89, one-time refugee Chris Strachwitz presides over one of the greatest US labels, having removed the stigma from working-class music like blues and zydeco to give a voice to the ignored
This year, 3 November saw two momentous events take place in the US: American voters chose Joe Biden for president and Arhoolie Records turned 60. I put this conjunction to Arhoolie’s founder, Chris Strachwitz, who laughs. “Well, that may have been the day of the invoice from the pressing plant when they shipped the first albums,” he says, underplaying quite how seminal the release of Mance Lipscomb’s 1960 LP Texas Sharecropper and Songster would prove to be. He pressed only 500 copies of Lipscomb’s album to begin with, but one of America’s greatest record labels has grown from those humble beginnings.
The recording of Lipscomb, who had rarely sung beyond the cotton plantation he lived on, came about after Strachwitz, a San Francisco Bay Area high-school teacher (“I was lousy”), had spent his 1960 summer vacation in Texas failing to record Lightnin’ Hopkins. The blues musician insisted on being paid upfront for every song recorded, rejecting Strachwitz’s offer of a small advance plus future royalties. Strachwitz was directed towards Lipscomb instead, and while initially reluctant – Lipscomb was a “songster”, his music far gentler than Hopkins’ razor-sharp blues – he agreed to make the recording.
Fortuitously, the album’s release rode a wave of interest in folk music then under way across North America and Strachwitz found that by booking concerts for Lipscomb and selling the album (alongside trading in rare 78s) he could earn enough to quit teaching. Now aged 89 “and a half”, he has never retired and Arhoolie Records (named after the sound of a field holler) stands as the world’s foremost repository of American vernacular music: alongside blues, Strachwitz would record Cajun, zydeco, all manner of Mexican American music, New Orleans jazz and brass bands, klezmer, polka, hillbilly, gospel, street and outsider musicians, free jazz, bluegrass, sacred steel and more. Arhoolie captured the sound of myriad American communities and, in doing so, has preserved a remarkable kaleidoscope of music.
“I don’t see myself as a producer, more a song catcher,” says Strachwitz when I inquire as to his recording technique. “When I heard Lightnin’ in that Houston tavern in 1960, he was playing electric guitar, backed by a drummer, and he kept up these stream-of-consciousness raps, singing anything that passed through his mind. It was so exciting, and that’s what I wanted to record. Folklorists had recorded him playing acoustic guitar as they disdained electric, but I wanted to capture what I experienced in his neighbourhood bar.”
He adds: “I’ve always been very attracted to what you might call ‘honky tonk’ type music; I just find so much value in what gets called ‘low class’. There’s always been this stigma attached to it and people try and make it ‘respectable’, but I don’t see any value in that.”
Arhoolie’s albums, then, are “snapshots”. “It’s nothing permanent. Classical musicians can play the same way every day, but this vernacular music can change so quickly. And this is what we like about it – it’s so quirky!”
Quirky is an appropriate description of Strachwitz himself, a friendly, happy man who is also restless and extremely opinionated. Ain’t No Mouse Music, Maureen Gosling’s 2013 feature documentary about Strachwitz, captures his idiosyncrasies – at a festival he berates a lemonade vendor for not using enough lemons – and enthusiasms. “Mouse music” is, in Strachwitz parlance, anything he dislikes, ie almost all popular music across the spectrum. As for the music he does like, he’s devoted his life to ensuring it gets heard.
Age has slowed him of late. He’s now in an assisted living home, the pandemic having stopped him from commuting to Arhoolie’s El Cerrito headquarters (and then off to hear live music), but remains mentally sharp. “We had a great ride,” says Strachwitz of Arhoolie. “Kids these days don’t value music like we once did and have so many other things to spend their money on. I hope we can last a few more years because I’m uninterested in golf.”
Strachwitz was born into an aristocratic family in Lower Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland), and, as the advancing Soviet troops drew near, they fled to allied-controlled Germany. Here they lived as refugees in a ruined mansion until prominent American relatives enabled the Strachwitzes to enter the US in 1947. Chris, a lanky, lonely teenager who spoke fumbling English with a strong accent, found solace in music.
I ask whether being a teenage refugee led to his embracing music from marginalised communities, but Strachwitz dismisses the suggestion. It was, he says, simply the power of the music he heard on the radio: jazz and blues on a Los Angeles station with black DJs while “border blasters” – radio stations situated just across the Mexican border – played the music of the southern working class, be they black, white or brown.
Strachwitz tried to play some of his 78s to his classmates “and they called me ‘a damn hillbilly’!” He laughs, then adds: “I remember when I was listening to Bunk Johnson, my father said in German, ‘They are playing off key.’ And I said, ‘Doesn’t matter to me – it’s got soul, it’s got feeling.’ So I was always going against the mainstream.”
An avid record collector, he became part of a loose network that included Harry Smith, John Fahey, Robert Crumb and others. These young white men shared a huge passion for blues, jazz and hillbilly records of the 20s and 30s and, in doing so, helped open ears to the remarkable, largely ignored vernacular musical culture. While his contemporaries were happy to collect, reissue (in Smith’s case his celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music) and even attempt to play this “lost” music, Strachwitz knew from visiting the south that the music remained alive there. So off he went, at the height of the civil rights struggle, a blond man with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, heading into African American neighbourhoods.
Inevitably, he ran into problems with racist police in Texas and Mississippi who suspected Strachwitz to be either an activist or a junkie. Strachwitz laughs about such encounters now, but they must have been terrifying at the time. He survived unscathed and says the hassle was worth it because he found musical treasure.
Arguably, the greatest of all was Clifton Chenier, a Louisiana Creole (French-speaking African American) who played accordion and sang. In 1964, Lightnin’ Hopkins took Strachwitz to hear Chenier in a Houston bar where he was playing “this very pure Creole French blues. It almost sounded like Haitian music.” Strachwitz arranged to record Chenier only to find he wanted to cut R&B, believing no one would be interested in Creole music. Eventually Strachwitz recorded Chenier performing what is now known as zydeco for the 1965 album Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. The record stunned listeners – almost no one other than habitués of the bayou bars of Texas and Louisiana had heard this powerhouse sound – and Chenier would go on to tour the world and win a Grammy.
Around the same time, Strachwitz began recording the music of Chenier’s white neighbours, the Cajuns. “When I initially went down there, asking for Cajuns was like asking for Gypsies in Europe – the response I’d get was along the lines of, ‘What do you want those people for?’ They were considered just the scum of the earth. I finally found a Cajun band playing. One guy was singing in English and one guy was singing French verses; people were dancing around in circles, counter clockwise; the men were tiny and the women were huge. The first time you encounter something like that it really hits you.”
Strachwitz never stayed still, always seeking out new artists to record and, having long collected Mexican American border records, in 1970 he began championing corrido and norteno musicians (alongside reissuing, as he did for every genre that engaged him, the 78-era recordings, and paying royalties). Through his efforts both Lydia Mendoza – the 12-string guitarist who had first recorded in the 20s – and accordionist Flaco Jiménez would win audiences beyond their core, Spanish-speaking communities. Ry Cooder, who accompanied Strachwitz and film-maker Les Blank to Texas when they were filming Chulas Fronteras (a documentary on the Mexican musicians of the US south west), would go on to work closely with Jiménez. Blank and Strachwitz’s documentaries stand as some of the finest music films ever made.
“Mexicans in the US live a totally backwater existence,” says Strachwitz. “People see them as cheap labour and little else. Mexican culture tends to get looked down upon, treated as a joke. People like their food and nothing else. It’s sad as their culture is very rich, but there’s almost no recognition of it here.”
Inevitably, such albums didn’t sell in large quantities and Arhoolie survived largely through Strachwitz’s good fortune in music publishing. In 1965, he recorded Country Joe McDonald’s song I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag, unexpectedly cashing in when it was used in the Woodstock documentary. Then the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers featured You Got to Move, a gospel blues tunes they (eventually) credited to Mississippi Fred McDowell, an Arhoolie artist. “We got in contact and said, ‘Pay us the royalties’, and their lawyer said, ‘The Rolling Stones only perform their own songs.’ So this went on for a while until they finally agreed to pay. This meant I got to give Fred the biggest cheque he had ever seen in his life. When I did so he said, ‘I’m glad them boys liked my music!’ He was a wonderful human being.”
Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label run by the Smithsonian Institution, acquired Arhoolie in 2016 from Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant – they continue to oversee the label, but no longer have to concern themselves with its finances. The Smithsonian has made more than 300 standout titles from the roughly 650-album catalogue available digitally (with some on CD and vinyl) and is focused on ensuring the remaining titles become available. Strachwitz notes, “Arhoolie never sold a lot of albums and, once people stopped buying CDs, things got rough.”
Now Arhoolie Records is safely ensconced in the Smithsonian, Strachwitz’s great passion is the Arhoolie Foundation, whose board of advisers includes Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits. He established it a quarter of a century ago, initially to document his collection – the world’s largest – of Mexican and Mexican American recordings, photos and more. This and other material relating to vernacular music are now part of UCLA’s online archive. Los Tigres del Norte, one of Mexico’s most popular bands, were so impressed by the material that they donated $500,000 to protect it. Strachwitz proudly notes that the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have also helped, “as they agree this is really significant stuff that has never been documented”.
The Arhoolie Foundation is active on several fronts: it gives grants to educators and artists, digitises hundreds of hours of recordings and interviews, puts on concerts and does its best to continue Strachwitz’s mission of ensuring people get to hear beautiful music. On 10 December, a prerecorded livestream concert will celebrate both Arhoolie’s 60th and the foundation’s 25th anniversaries. Alongside noted Cajun, sacred steel, bluegrass and norteno artists, such marquee names as Bonnie Raitt, Billy Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Charlie Musselwhite are also appearing.
“I’ve always admired the complete honesty of Chris and honesty in the music of Arhoolie,” says Musselwhite, a Memphis blues musician who recorded for Arhoolie in the early 70s. “Chris is a great fellow, and I love it when he don’t mix his words telling you what he thinks. He’s always correct, so I always listen.”
“Without Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records I probably never would have found Cajun music,” says Ann Savoy, matriarch of the Savoy Family Cajun Band, also performing at the concert. “One of his Old Timey series of Cajun 78s won my heart, and led me to a life of mystery and awe on the Cajun prairie. Chris has always done what he wants with no concern for fame or commercial success. It is his passion and hard work that saved much of the American rural songbook.”
Strachwitz chuckles when I relay the compliments to him but shrugs them off. “Lady Luck has always been with me,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have had very little luck in their lives and my philosophy has always been, ‘The world will never be fair but you can try and help by being nice.’ I hope I have helped some people.”
He laughs, and his joy is infectious. “It’s been an amazing journey and a never-ending lesson – I learned so much!”