Arhoolie Records laid the foundation for the appreciation of American roots music.
Chris Strachwitz, folklorist, musicologist and founder of Arhoolie Records died on 7th May from heart failure. There is no way of knowing how many Americana UK readers have heard of Chris Strachwitz, but what is much clearer is the debt that any lover of American roots music owes him, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and Bonnie Raitt, amongst many others, certainly thought so. Through his Arhoolie Records, Chris Strachwitz became one of the most prolific field recordists since Alan Lomax, preserving music covering folk, blues Tejano, norteña, zydeco, gospel, country, jazz and other roots music in his field trips around Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Ry Cooder decided to become a musician after hearing Arhoolie’s 1962 release, ‘Mississippi Big Joe Williams and His Nine String Guitar’, and Cooder nicknamed Strachwitz “El Fanatico” because of his dogged determination to record then unknown but culturally significant artists.
Arhoolie Records, named after a local name for a field holler, was founded in 1960 after Chris Strachwitz’s family emigrated to America in 1947 from their Lower Silesia home following the turmoil of Germany’s defeat in the Second World War. His interest in jazz and rhythm & blues was piqued as a student in Los Angeles. Arhoolie was also influential on the British blues boom of the sixties, bringing Mississippi Fred McDowell’s ‘You Gotta Move’ to the attention of the Rolling Stones, and when they recorded a version for ‘Sticky Fingers’, Chris Strachwitz made sure Mississippi Fred McDowell got all the royalties that he was due. As well as making his own field recordings, he also re-issued records by bluesmen Lowell Fulson and Big Joe Turner and old-time country and bluegrass records amongst others. Bonnie Raitt has said that Chris Strachwitz is a key reason why much of the music that inspired her survived long enough for her to hear it.
In many interviews, his dislike of modern pop music was clear, and he even coined the term “mouse music” to describe it. However, Arhoolie Records did have some significant commercial successes, the profits from which were ploughed back into the label. One such success resulted from a 1965 session with a local San Francisco folk musician called Joe McDonald. Arhoolie was given the publishing for the tracks recorded at the session, which just happen to include the first recorded version of the counter-culture anthem ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag’ and a big hit at the Woodstock festival for Country Joe and the Fish. Chris Strachwitz himself received numerous awards during his life including being a non-playing member of the Blues Hall of Fame, and a Grammy Trustees Award for his contribution to recording music other than performance. In 1995 he founded the Arhoolie Foundation “to document, preserve, present and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music.” with Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt as advisors. In 2016 Chris Strachwitz sold his interest in Arhoolie Records to Smithsonian Folkways.
It is impossible to list the artists that recorded or were reissued by Arhoolie Records, but our ability to enjoy and appreciate cajun and zydeco artists of the calibre of Clifton Chenier and Amédé Ardoin, together with Tejano music by Flaco Jimenez and country music by Rose Maddox as well as the blues of Big Joe Williams is all down to Chris Strachwitz, and without these, and many similar artists, the music of artists like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Ry Cooder would not have had such productive roots to draw on. It is possible we would all have been forced to listen to “mouse music” without Chris Strachwitz’s influence.