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Digging Up Roots 

How Chris Strachwitz sparked a music revolution by releasing obscure, vernacular music

Wednesday, Oct 11 2000
Back in 1960, when he put out the first record on his tiny Arhoolie record label, Chris Strachwitz didn't set out to change the way the world thinks about folk music -- it just sort of happened that way. Last month, the National Endowment for the Arts presented the Bay Area resident with the prestigious Bess Lomax Hawes Award, honoring 40 years of work as one of America's most influential folklorists and independent record producers. Fans of blues, bluegrass, and world music all owe a debt of gratitude to Strachwitz, who plunged into some of the most obscure and neglected corners of musical history, and set an example for the many independent record labels that sprang up in his wake. As one of the granddaddies of today's roots music scene, Strachwitz followed a strange muse, introducing generations of new listeners to the regional cultures that he fell in love with when he came to America.

In 1947, Strachwitz emigrated from the German-occupied region of Lower Silesia, winding up in Los Angeles at the peak of a music boom sparked by the lifting of the wartime recording ban. Every kind of popular music was exploding -- hillbilly artists like Merle Travis and Joe Maphis performed weekly on radio and TV shows, bebop jazz and pop vocal performers were at their peak, and the West Coast blues scene was in full swing.

A young Strachwitz soaked it all up but, strangely enough, found himself drawn to an even older, funkier kind of music -- the turn-of-the-century, traditional jazz that he saw performed in New Orleans, a hokey Hollywood film with Billie Holiday playing a maid in love with Louis Armstrong.

Corny as it was, the film turned Strachwitz onto old-fashioned jazz and blues. Suddenly, he became an obsessive collector, hunting down 78 rpm records in L.A. music shops, department stores, and flea markets. In the mid-'50s, when the music industry shifted toward long-player albums, 78s fell out of fashion, and Strachwitz was able to pick them up for nickels and dimes (instead of their old price of 80 cents each). While going to college at Pomona and later at Cal, Strachwitz made ends meet by reselling his extra records to collectors in Europe for a buck apiece -- not a huge profit, but enough to keep his vinyl habit alive.

Strachwitz became part of a small group of roots music buffs who pieced together the histories of obscure musicians almost by osmosis. One day a friend told Strachwitz that he'd found the then-forgotten blues singer Lightnin' Hopkins playing at some dive in Houston. Strachwitz hustled himself down south and stood in an audience at Pop's Place with about a dozen locals, blown away by what he heard.

"I was just totally impressed by how this man was improvising these lyrics about how the rain was filling the chuckholes that night when he was trying to get to the show, and [how] his car would hit the holes ... about how his shoulder was aching because it was so humid and his arthritis was bothering him," Strachwitz says. "The whole night long it was like that, Lightnin' improvising all these lyrics, and I just thought, "God, somebody should capture this.'"

Although he was never able to capture exactly what he heard that night, Strachwitz did get Hopkins to cut some recordings, and thus the Arhoolie label was born. Strachwitz recorded him and other bluesmen such as Jesse Fuller, Mance Lipscomb, and K.C. Douglas during the height of the '60s folk scene. Retired blues pickers who had been working as sharecroppers and day laborers found themselves performing in front of thousands of college kids at the Greek Theater. Gradually, as the Bay Area music scene expanded outward from its rock and pop base, the fledgling Arhoolie label became the center of a booming roots music revival.

What set Strachwitz and his label apart from other folk and blues labels was his interest in what he now calls "vernacular" culture -- music played by regular people as part of their everyday lives. While urban blues fans valued flashy electric solos and folkies approached old-time music with academic reverence, Strachwitz recorded acoustic country blues artists and scrappy string bands. When he brought his unplugged blues acts to town, he was surprised to find that the rough-and-tumble clubs of Oakland and Richmond considered them too mellow while the on-campus folk scene went gaga over them.

Probably the greatest contribution Arhoolie made to roots music was helping popularize Louisiana dance music such as Cajun and zydeco. The label began releasing zydeco records in the early 1960s, when the music was hardly known outside of the swamps, and "good folks" in the South scorned it as low-class trash. Strachwitz, of course, loved the stuff. He met accordionist Clifton Chenier through Hopkins -- the two were cousins -- and recorded several albums, which are all now classics of the genre. He also uncovered the music of the white swamp singers -- the Cajuns.

"At that time Cajuns were treated like Gypsies," Strachwitz recalls. "They were like a pest. You'd ask people if they knew any good Cajun music and they'd say, "What do you want with those people? They live down in the swamps, don't fool with them!' That's how it was -- you either love that music, or you hate it."

With persistence, Strachwitz searched out the hot Cajun dance halls, full of "great big women and little bitty men," and even tracked down the legendary Hackberry Ramblers, a band that had made the first Cajun records ever, back in the 1930s.

In the 1970s, Arhoolie turned its attention to country music, recording some of the best early albums by bluegrass singer Del McCoury, as well as local revivalists such as the Any Old Time String Band. Taking advantage of vague copyright laws, Strachwitz stealthily reissued some of the best old western swing records of the 1930s -- music that was impossible to find in any other form at the time. He also put out several LPs worth of classic, late-'40s hillbilly boogie hits by country singer Rose Maddox, whose rowdy, brazen style is often cited as the inspiration for the rockabilly craze that came a decade later.

Along the way, Strachwitz moved his business out of his apartment and into an actual storefront, using publishing royalties from an unexpected hit song -- Country Joe McDonald's "Fixin' to Die Rag" -- to purchase the El Cerrito building that now houses Arhoolie Records, and its sister store, Down Home Music.

As part of its 40th anniversary celebration, Arhoolie has just put out a stunning five-CD collection of the music its founder loves. The Journey of Chris Strachwitz is a lavish box set featuring dozens of the label's best recordings and including blues players, jazz bands of all description, New Orleans R&B, zydeco, brass band music, Jewish klezmer music, and ethnic European folk bands. It also highlights one of Arhoolie's most surprising recent discoveries, the "sacred steel" music of a small Pentecostal sect in Florida that uses wild steel guitar playing to lead its congregations in prayer. (A documentary about the music, Sacred Steel, has its world premiere at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley on Oct. 18.)

The box set also focuses heavily on Strachwitz's enduring passion for Tex-Mex conjunto music and Mexican corridos, two styles that are among the most neglected in the folkloric community.

Strachwitz first released the music in the late 1970s, with records by Tex-Mex legends like singer Lydia Mendoza and accordionists Santiago and Flaco Jiménez. The label has since issued dozens of albums worth of archival recordings from the '30s, '40s, and '50s, which are cherished by a tiny but devoted fan base. Still, the music is a hard sell to North American and European audiences who find it too stark or grating to listen to, and to Mexican fans who love the music but don't have enough income to afford historical reissues, even at Arhoolie's budget prices.

Although his Mexican releases sell poorly, Strachwitz is committed to keeping the music in print and preserving the recordings against the ravages of time. He has established the Arhoolie Foundation, a nonprofit that promotes vernacular music of all kinds, but focuses particularly on the massive archive of over 30,000 rare Mexican and Mexican-American recordings that Strachwitz has collected. The foundation was recently given a major boost when one of the most popular Mexican ranchera bands, Los Tigres del Norte, donated a half-million dollars to the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center to help digitize the collection. The foundation has also donated hundreds of copies of a sampler of corridos to public libraries throughout the Southwest.

"I probably have the world's largest collection of Mexican-American recordings," says Strachwitz. "It's not as sexy as collecting blues or jazz, but I figure that it's just as important for the culture that it represents. Here, the blues somehow crossed over and, from a totally disreputable genre, it became an artistically acclaimed music. This has not yet happened with the Mexican music. ... There's still that class difference, and the record labels treat it like something low-class."

But Chris Strachwitz is used to following his heart, instead of his bank book. He certainly never expected to be given a national award for what to him is a passion. After four decades of mining some of the world's best and most obscure music, there's just one thing to do: keep on digging.

About The Author

Lawrence Kay


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