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HomeU.S.A'I am a music catcher': 60 years of Arhoolie Information, the label...

‘I am a music catcher’: 60 years of Arhoolie Information, the label for a misplaced America

This 12 months, 3 Novembernoticed two momentous occasions happen within the US: American voters selected Joe Biden for president and Arhoolie Information turned 60. I put this conjunction to Arhoolie’s founder, Chris Strachwitz, who laughs. “Properly, which will have been the day of the bill from the urgent plant once they shipped the primary albums,” he says, underplaying fairly how seminal the discharge of Mance Lipscomb’s 1960 LP Texas Sharecropper and Songster would show to be. He pressed solely 500 copies of Lipscomb’s album to start with, however certainly one of America’s biggest file labels has grown from these humble beginnings.

The recording of Lipscomb, who had not often sung past the cotton plantation he lived on, happened after Strachwitz, a San Francisco Bay Space high-school trainer (“I used to be awful”), had spent his 1960 summer season trip in Texas failing to file Lightnin’ Hopkins. The blues musician insisted on being paid upfront for each music recorded, rejecting Strachwitz’s provide of a small advance plus future royalties. Strachwitz was directed in direction of Lipscomb as an alternative, and whereas 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 launch rode a wave of curiosity in folks music then beneath method throughout North America and Strachwitz discovered that by reserving concert events for Lipscomb and promoting the album (alongside buying and selling in uncommon 78s) he might earn sufficient to give up educating. Now aged 89 “and a half”, he has by no means retired and Arhoolie Information (named after the sound of a discipline holler) stands because the world’s foremost repository of American vernacular music: alongside blues, Strachwitz would file Cajun, zydeco, all method of Mexican American music, New Orleans jazz and brass bands, klezmer, polka, hillbilly, gospel, avenue and outsider musicians, free jazz, bluegrass, sacred metal and extra. Arhoolie captured the sound of myriad American communities and, in doing so, has preserved a outstanding kaleidoscope of music.

‘Songster’ … Mance Lipscomb with Chris Strachwitz at Ann Arbor blues competition, 1971. {Photograph}: Tom Copi

“I don’t see myself as a producer, extra a music catcher,” says Strachwitz after I inquire as to his recording method. “After I heard Lightnin’ in that Houston tavern in 1960, he was taking part in electrical guitar, backed by a drummer, and he saved up these stream-of-consciousness raps, singing something that handed by means of his thoughts. It was so thrilling, and that’s what I wished to file. Folklorists had recorded him taking part in acoustic guitar as they disdained electrical, however I wished to seize what I skilled in his neighbourhood bar.”

He provides: “I’ve all the time been very interested in what you would possibly name ‘honky tonk’ sort music; I simply discover a lot worth in what will get known as ‘low class’. There’s all the time been this stigma connected to it and other people attempt to make it ‘respectable’, however I don’t see any worth in that.”

Arhoolie’s albums, then, are “snapshots”. “It’s nothing everlasting. Classical musicians can play the identical method every single day, however this vernacular music can change so shortly. And that is what we like about it – it’s so quirky!”

Quirky is an acceptable description of Strachwitz himself, a pleasant, glad man who can also be stressed and intensely opinionated. Ain’t No Mouse Music, Maureen Gosling’s 2013 function documentary about Strachwitz, captures his idiosyncrasies – at a competition he berates a lemonade vendor for not utilizing sufficient lemons – and enthusiasms. “Mouse music” is, in Strachwitz parlance, something he dislikes, ie virtually all widespread music throughout the spectrum. As for the music he does like, he’s devoted his life to making sure it will get heard.

Age has slowed him of late. He’s now in an assisted dwelling house, the pandemic having stopped him from commuting to Arhoolie’s El Cerrito headquarters (after which off to listen to reside music), however stays mentally sharp. “We had an important trip,” says Strachwitz of Arhoolie. “Youngsters nowadays don’t worth music like we as soon as did and have so many different issues to spend their cash on. I hope we will final a number of extra years as a result of I’m tired of golf.”

Strachwitz was born into an aristocratic household in Decrease Silesia, Germany (now a part of Poland), and, because the advancing Soviet troops drew close to, they fled to allied-controlled Germany. Right here they lived as refugees in a ruined mansion till distinguished American kinfolk enabled the Strachwitzes to enter the US in 1947. Chris, a lanky, lonely teenager who spoke fumbling English with a powerful accent, discovered solace in music.

I ask whether or not being a teenage refugee led to his embracing music from marginalised communities, however Strachwitz dismisses the suggestion. It was, he says, merely the facility of the music he heard on the radio: jazz and blues on a Los Angeles station with black DJs whereas “border blasters” – radio stations located simply throughout the Mexican border – performed the music of the southern working class, be they black, white or brown.

Strachwitz tried to play a few of his 78s to his classmates “and so they known as me ‘a rattling hillbilly’!” He laughs, then provides: “I bear in mind after I was listening to Bunk Johnson, my father stated in German, ‘They’re taking part in off key.’ And I stated, ‘Doesn’t matter to me – it’s bought soul, it’s bought feeling.’ So I used to be all the time going in opposition to the mainstream.”

An avid file collector, he turned a part of a free community that included Harry Smith, John Fahey, Robert Crumb and others. These younger white males shared an enormous ardour for blues, jazz and hillbilly information of the 20s and 30s and, in doing so, helped open ears to the outstanding, largely ignored vernacular musical tradition. Whereas his contemporaries had been glad to gather, reissue (in Smith’s case his celebrated Anthology of American Folks Music) and even try to play this “misplaced” music, Strachwitz knew from visiting the south that the music remained alive there. So off he went, on the peak of the civil rights battle, a blond man with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, heading into African American neighbourhoods.

Inevitably, he bumped into issues with racist police in Texas and Mississippi who suspected Strachwitz to be both an activist or a junkie. Strachwitz laughs about such encounters now, however they should have been terrifying on the time. He survived unscathed and says the effort was price it as a result of he discovered musical treasure.

Arguably, the best of all was Clifton Chenier, a Louisiana Creole (French-speaking African American) who performed accordion and sang. In 1964, Lightnin’ Hopkins took Strachwitz to listen to Chenier in a Houston bar the place he was taking part in “this very pure Creole French blues. It virtually gave the impression of Haitian music.” Strachwitz organized to file Chenier solely to search out he wished to chop R&B, believing nobody could be thinking about Creole music. Ultimately Strachwitz recorded Chenier performing what’s now often called zydeco for the 1965 album Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. The file surprised listeners – virtually nobody apart from 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.

Powerhouse sound … Strachwitz with Clifton Chenier.
Powerhouse sound … Strachwitz with Clifton Chenier.

Across the identical time, Strachwitz started recording the music of Chenier’s white neighbours, the Cajuns. “After I initially went down there, asking for Cajuns was like asking for Gypsies in Europe – the response I’d get was alongside the strains of, ‘What would you like these folks for?’ They had been thought of simply the scum of the earth. I lastly discovered a Cajun band taking part in. One man was singing in English and one man was singing French verses; folks had been dancing round in circles, counter clockwise; the boys had been tiny and the ladies had been big. The primary time you encounter one thing like that it actually hits you.”

Strachwitz by no means stayed nonetheless, all the time in search of out new artists to file and, having lengthy collected Mexican American border information, in 1970 he started championing corrido and norteno musicians (alongside reissuing, as he did for each style that engaged him, the 78-era recordings, and paying royalties). By way of his efforts each Lydia Mendoza – the 12-string guitarist who had first recorded within the 20s – and accordionist Flaco Jiménez would win audiences past their core, Spanish-speaking communities. Ry Cooder, who accompanied Strachwitz and film-maker Les Clean to Texas once they had been filming Chulas Fronteras (a documentary on the Mexican musicians of the US south west), would go on to work carefully with Jiménez. Clean and Strachwitz’s documentaries stand as among the most interesting music movies ever made.

“Mexicans within the US reside a very backwater existence,” says Strachwitz. “Individuals see them as low cost labour and little else. Mexican tradition tends to get appeared down upon, handled as a joke. Individuals like their meals and nothing else. It’s unhappy as their tradition could be very wealthy, however there’s virtually no recognition of it right here.”

Inevitably, such albums didn’t promote in massive portions and Arhoolie survived largely by means of Strachwitz’s luck in music publishing. In 1965, he recorded Nation Joe McDonald’s music I-Really feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag, unexpectedly cashing in when it was used within the Woodstock documentary. Then the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers featured You Obtained to Transfer, a gospel blues tunes they (ultimately) credited to Mississippi Fred McDowell, an Arhoolie artist. “We bought in touch and stated, ‘Pay us the royalties’, and their lawyer stated, ‘The Rolling Stones solely carry out their very own songs.’ So this went on for some time till they lastly agreed to pay. This meant I bought to provide Fred the most important cheque he had ever seen in his life. After I did so he stated, ‘I’m glad them boys appreciated my music!’ He was a beautiful human being.”

Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit file label run by the Smithsonian Establishment, acquired Arhoolie in 2016 from Strachwitz and his enterprise companion Tom Diamant – they proceed to supervise the label, however now not must concern themselves with its funds. The Smithsonian has made greater than 300 standout titles from the roughly 650-album catalogue obtainable digitally (with some on CD and vinyl) and is targeted on making certain the remaining titles turn out to be obtainable. Strachwitz notes, “Arhoolie by no means offered a whole lot of albums and, as soon as folks stopped shopping for CDs, issues bought tough.”

Strachwitz in 2001.
Strachwitz in 2001. {Photograph}: © Alain McLaughlin/courtesy Arhoolie Productions

Now Arhoolie Information is safely ensconced within the Smithsonian, Strachwitz’s nice ardour is the Arhoolie Basis, whose board of advisers contains Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits. He established it 1 / 4 of a century in the past, initially to doc his assortment – the world’s largest – of Mexican and Mexican American recordings, images and extra. This and different materials regarding vernacular music are actually a part of UCLA’s on-line archive. Los Tigres del Norte, certainly one of Mexico’s hottest bands, had been so impressed by the fabric that they donated $500,000 to guard it. Strachwitz proudly notes that the Nationwide Endowment of the Arts and the Nationwide Endowment for the Humanities have additionally helped, “as they agree that is actually vital stuff that has by no means been documented”.

The Arhoolie Basis is energetic on a number of fronts: it offers grants to educators and artists, digitises a whole lot of hours of recordings and interviews, places on concert events and does its finest to proceed Strachwitz’s mission of making certain folks get to listen to lovely music. On 10 December, a prerecorded livestream live performance will rejoice each Arhoolie’s sixtieth and the muse’s twenty fifth anniversaries. Alongside famous Cajun, sacred metal, bluegrass and norteno artists, such marquee names as Bonnie Raitt, Billy Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Charlie Musselwhite are additionally showing.

“I’ve all the time admired the whole honesty of Chris and honesty within the music of Arhoolie,” says Musselwhite, a Memphis blues musician who recorded for Arhoolie within the early 70s. “Chris is a superb fellow, and I find it irresistible when he don’t combine his phrases telling you what he thinks. He’s all the time appropriate, so I all the time hear.”

“With out Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Information I most likely by no means would have discovered Cajun music,” says Ann Savoy, matriarch of the Savoy Household Cajun Band, additionally performing on the live performance. “Considered one of his Previous Timey collection of Cajun 78s received my coronary heart, and led me to a lifetime of thriller and awe on the Cajun prairie. Chris has all the time achieved what he desires with no concern for fame or business success. It’s his ardour and onerous work that saved a lot of the American rural songbook.”

Strachwitz chuckles after I relay the compliments to him however shrugs them off. “Girl Luck has all the time been with me,” he says. “I’ve handled lots of people who’ve had little or no luck of their lives and my philosophy has all the time been, ‘The world won’t ever be honest however you may attempt to assist by being good.’ I hope I’ve helped some folks.”

He laughs, and his pleasure is infectious. “It’s been a tremendous journey and a endless lesson – I realized a lot!”

60 Years of Arhoolie: An Anniversary Celebration streams on-line on Thursday 10 December, 8pm EST / 5pm PST (1am GMT on Friday 11 December).

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