The Roots of America’s Music, Revisted

Posted on by Mike Quinn

Back in the early days of Rolling Stone, circa 1968 when that iconic publication was considered an underground paper and pretty hard to find, a small ad for Arhoolie Records pushing a two-LP package of blues, country and gospel music ran in just about every issue. The ad offered a collection of something like 30 songs from about as many artists, all for just two bucks, plus postage. That ad promised a lot: The Roots of America’s Music. Sounds tempting, but we had to ask back then: “Who the hell is Arhoolie Records and could they possibly really deliver?”

Well, some of us took that risk, sent off the two bucks and change, and DAMN! Did Arhoolie ever deliver! That special offering opened up an entire universe, maybe two or three, of new music—music that surprised and delighted knowing folkies and green suburban white kids alike.

Arhoolie Records Logo

There was blues from Texas, ranging through the softer approach of Mance Lipscomb to the devil-may-care wildness of his cousin, Lightnin’ Hopkins; a different blues from Mississippi in the form of Fred McDowell’s droning Delta poetry, to the jack hammer drive of Big Joe Williams. Southern mountain music was there too, from the very old time sounds of North Carolina’s J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers to a more modern bluegrass formation led by Del McCoury. Then, hell, these guys at Arhoolie threw a big curve by linking the chink-a-chink sounds of some Louisiana accordion player named Nathan Abshire to some fine representatives of the hillbilly southern string band tradition. Wow! that was an eye opener, but oh so obvious if you just listened.

Big surprises included a scorcher from Big Mama Thornton backed by Buddy Guy and his then-Muddy Waters’ bandmates, the delightful anachronistic Texas barrelhouse piano of Austin’s Robert Shaw and another Louisiana squeeze box man named Clifton Chenier playing something called Zydeco. Back then we scratched our collective heads: Zyde-what? Clifton who?

Chris Strachwitz founder and heart of Arhoolie Records

There were two unifying factors underlying this entire project. One was that all the recordings were very real—soul-piercingly real—with none of the commercial pretensions or sweetenings that many other so-called folk discs had. The second thread was someone named Chris Strachwitz who edited and produced the set, personally recorded just about every one of the tracks and probably glued the record jackets together. Arhoolie Records was not only his baby, Chris Strachwitz, it turned out, was Arhoolie Records. Over time, Arhoolie established itself as a mover and shaker, if not a sales leader, as Strachwitz brought a number of genres, Texas blues, Zydeco, Texas-Mexican border music, and most recently, “Sacred Steel” African-American gospel traditions, into the spotlight, often letting other, larger companies reap the commercial benefits.

Arhoolie's 50th Birthday Collection, Hear Me Howling!

Fast forward a bit. This year, Arhoolie marks five decades of documenting what Strachwitz calls “vernacular music,” a project he started as an adjunct to his lifelong passion for collecting old 78s. To celebrate the occasion, Arhoolie has assembled Hear Me Howling! 4-CD set including a 136 page book which documents the recordings Strachwitz made over the years in the San Francisco Bay Area. We’ll look at that collection in depth in a future review.

To mark Arhoolie’s 40th birthday documenting, for the most part, Strachwitz’s work on the road, the company released a five-CD box with the awkward but descriptive title Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000, The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, and, DAMN! did it deliver! Just like its 42-year-old predecessor, this box opens so many doors it can be dangerous to the budget. The temptation to fill out one’s record collection looms large after a listening or two to all the satisfying and inspiring material it contains.

Arhoolie Record’s 40th Anniversary CD Collection

From a catalog of nearly 400 titles, Strachwitz and co-producer Elijah Wald limited the selections to recording sessions conducted or supervised by Strachwitz personally, so we are offered a special perspective on how the record company began and evolved over time. What is left out, the amazing reissues of old country music, historic música norteña or Tex-Mex, yummy jazz from New Orleans and other priceless gems, is hardly missed since these 107 tracks comprise one of the most amazing musical portraits ever assembled. And as though that were not enough, Mr. Arhoolie says, perhaps only half seriously, “Maybe we should do another set of just the reissues. Hell, we could crank out a new CD a week of that stuff and never run out.” We can only hope.

“I started out combing the South, especially Texas, for people who made the old records I collected,” said Strachwitz on the occasion of the 40th birthday. “I liked music I heard on the radio. I was not a true folklorist like [Alan] Lomax. I was simply a fan. When I first met Lightnin’ Hopkins in 1959, I was like a puppy dog following him around. I thought he lived a neat existence. He got paid for singing, then had lots of women around him. He gambled when he wanted and went fishing when he wanted. I was envious of his lifestyle. And I decided to start a record company so I could capture Lightnin’s raucous live performances.”

Mance Lipscomb on Arhoolie Records

But that was not meant to be; recording his idol would come later. Instead, the following summer, while on a trek across Texas and Mississippi, some lyrics in one of Hopkins’ songs, Tom Moore Blues, led Strachwitz to discover Mance Lipscomb near Navasota. “I had to learn to become a detective,” Strachwitz explained his technique for uncovering talent. “We met Mance as he was getting off his tractor and we recorded him that night. That was our first release. Mance made me realize there were still unrecorded and unspoiled musicians out there.” During that fateful trip of 1960, Strachwitz recorded what would become Arhoolie’s first batch of critically acclaimed discs, discs that would pave the way for previously obscure songsters like Lipscomb to hit the folk festival circuit and gain well-deserved recognition.

Initially recording with only one microphone, usually suspended above the performer, Strachwitz managed to catch what others missed: the heart, the anima of the performer. Sometimes he would practically stumble into recording opportunities like the time he coaxed the queen of Mexican-American song, Lydia Mendoza, to record, on the spur of the moment, more than a disc’s worth of material in her daughter’s house in San Antonio following an afternoon gig. “She had just gotten warmed up,” he remembers. It’s a good thing he rarely travels without his recording gear. “I’ve been lucky,” he explains, “I’ve just been at the right place at the right time.”

The 40th Anniversary Collection and the accompanying 68-page book  serve as a veritable diary of Strachwitz’s many forays into the field, of being at the right place at the right time, mostly in the South and south of the border.

On CD “A” we can follow his trail through Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana capturing electrifying moments from the likes of Lipscomb in the East Texas woods, Alex Moore and Black Ace from the streets of Dallas, the powerful voice of Mississippi’s Big Joe Williams and the gumbo-boilin’ recordings of early Zydeco by Clifton Chenier.

Lightnin' Hopkins on Arhoolie

Asked why so much of his early work was centered around Houston and the Gulf Coast, Strachwitz pondered and responded, “Well, all those country people ended up in Houston after World War Two, lots of folks from Louisiana settled around the Ship Channel. And I heard lots of great stuff in Galveston with all that humidity. Seems like all this shit goes together: heat, humidity and music. In hot climates, people live outdoors most of the time. When the cool of the evening comes, they let loose the energy they saved up during the day. I think air conditioning killed all that old music. That, and electric bass which obliterates everything around it. But real passion comes from all that heat. Up north, they dance polkas really fast, but it’s just to keep warm. In the South, the dances are slow even if the music is fast. They get that slow belly rub in there whenever they can.”

By the time we get to CD “B”, Strachwitz is all over the map and charting new territory at every turn. He even takes us to Europe where he recorded that riveting session by Big Mama Thornton and Muddy’s sidemen. Highlights include the urban-country blues of Juke Boy Bonner from Houston, Chicago’s rumbling Earl Hooker, Fred McDowell with Johnny Woods, San Antonio’s favorite street philosopher Bongo Joe, and one of the first recordings by a former Arhoolie box packer named Charlie Musslewhite, backed by a young Robben Ford. On this disc, we experience Arhoolie’s first flirtation with Texas-Mexican border music, the cantina-recorded Los Pinguinos Del Norte. (It was the LP of this very session that convinced your intrepid reporter to leave the wild and wooly ways of New York City and return to Austin to study folklore and border music with UT professor Dr. Américo Paredes, a path that would later lead to 10 years of hosting an NPR station’s Latin American music program, and to a career in working with the music of Brazil.)

“A lot of people—Mexican-Americans—along the border didn’t want me to record norteña stuff,” recalls Strachwitz, “they considered it lower class and didn’t want it out there. Many came to me and said, ‘We have this beautiful orchestra here, why do you want to record that conjunto?’”

Los Pinguinos del Norte on Arhoolie

But record it he did. Along the way he collected nearly 14,000 78s, and thousands more 45s and LPs of music from south Texas and northern Mexico. These discs have been donated to the Arhoolie Foundation and are methodically being cataloged and digitized thanks to grants from UCLA, NEA, NARAS, and special underwriting by the border’s hottest, longest-lived conjunto, Los Tigres del Norte, who want to see the roots of their tradition preserved. Though not included in the Anniversary box, Arhoolie has released many outstanding collections of this music, including the definitive look at historical border ballads from 1928-37, Corridos Y Tragédias de la Frontera, all culled from Strachwitz’s unique treasury.

“A few years ago I bought all the masters from Ideal Records in San Benito. The contents of the warehouse was included in the sale and I discovered really clean test pressings of just about everything they ever recorded from 1947 through ’67. Since 78s were recorded directly to the disc, not to tape, this was an invaluable discovery. I got about 2300 releases there, about 5000 titles. And one of those, Mi Unico Camino by Conjunto Bernal, was featured in the film Lone Star.”

Strachwitz has a special connection with Austin, Texas, the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital”, and a couple of Austinites are featured on CD “C”: Bill Neely, a Jimmie Rodgers protege who was visible on the local scene until his death in the ’70s, and Robert Shaw, one of the best Texas barrelhouse ivory ticklers who once ran a grocery store on old Manor Road, east of the University of Texas.

“Austin did not produce that much music in the old days,” according to Strachwitz. “But I have been guided to new sources of music by a number of Austin people. Archie Green, Américo Paredes and the folks at the library in the Institute of Latin American Studies have been very helpful in researching border music. And Nick Spitzer [host of NPR’s American Routes] got his folklore degree at the University of Texas, and really helped me find my way in Louisiana when he was the State Folklorist there. Plus, Alan Lomax’s brother introduced me to the Bohemian music from the settlements east of Austin around Shiner and Fayetteville.”

This disc also shows Strachwitz firmly entrenched in the Tex-Mex mode and he even managed to dip into music from the interior of Mexico with grito-inspiring recordings by a harp conjunto in Veracruz, Conjunto Alma Jarocha, and some música huasteca, the high lonesome sound, Mexican-style, as performed by Los Caporales de Pánuco from Tampico. Historic appearances by the likes of Dewy Balfa, Lydia Mendoza and Don Santiago Jiménez (Flaco’s father) make this disc that much more valuable. Ever the tireless explorer, Strachwitz, made one of the first recordings of the modern klezmer music revival and a rousing excerpt is included by that pioneer group, The Klezmorim, which definitely makes you want to dance, shimmy, stomp…something.

Mississippi Fred McDowell on Arhoolie Records

Recalling an earlier dance, Strachwitz reminisced, “I remember once when Mississippi Fred McDowell was out in the middle of a field playing for a party. As soon as the music started, those women just started shaking their booties. They just wanted that drone to go on and on. It was a real primitive sound, few changes, and very simple. In the contexts where most of this music happens, the audiences are much less demanding. They just want a groove. To them it’s functional music. They can dance to it, and they can dance to it all night long.

Clifton Chenier on Arhoolie Records

Lightnin’ was like that, but when he introduced me to his cousin, Clifton Chenier, I thought he was almost too sophisticated, especially in terms of his band. I just wanted to keep it simple, his wailing accordion and drums like he used to do in bars around Houston’s Ship Channel.”

Selections by two women from two totally different cultures standout on CD “D”. Rose Maddox’s rowdy and piercing Single Girl harkens back to an old style of country music Garth Brooks has probably never heard, and a recording of Katie Webster’s rousing Louisiana swamp-rocking on I Know That’s Right which helped revive her career. What else? Hell, everything on this disc is a standout: the first recordings by the ReBirth Jazz Band and BeauSoleil, a Grammy-winner by Flaco Jiménez, and a brown bag full of deep fried Cajun nuggets by John Delafose, the Savoy-Doucet Band and Canray Fontenot, among others.

The last disc is a potpourri of world music styles from Belize and Colombia to Eastern Europe, and back to southeast Louisiana. But here we are finally introduced to Strachwitz’s current passion: Sacred Steel. Sacred Steel is the tradition of utilizing steel guitars to lead “praise music” in certain African-American churches, primarily the House of God Church, a form of the Holiness Pentecostal Church. If you have not already heard any Sacred Steel, get ready for a jolt: this stuff combines the energy and phrasing of Jimi Hendrix with the slide guitar embellishments of Ry Cooder, all punctuating the jumpin’-est gospel singing you can imagine. The best of the bunch is the band composed of the Campbell Brothers, and after listening to them blast on What’s His Name? Jesus!, with singer Katie Jackson, you might just feel the need to get up and get baptized. A video produced by the Arhoolie Foundation called Sacred Steel faithfully captures the energy and spirit of this uplifting, driving music. It is not to be missed if you can find it.

The Campbell Brothers

Strachwitz comments, “It’s good to see the Campbell Brothers so successful. It must be strange for them because usually this music is not heard outside the church. They all say they are playing in the church just to help the service. But they are doing a great job of spreading this amazing sound. They were just great at our 40th birthday party!” He’s right. I was there and no one enjoyed themselves at that show more than Strachwitz.

That just might be, no—that IS the secret to the longevity of Arhoolie, and the fact that most of their releases are still in the catalog. Strachwitz really gets into the music and records what he likes. He is blessed with the insight and intuition, he might say luck, to appreciate and record honest, timeless music that is as fresh today as it was when he rolled the tape—music that has deep meaning and purpose for its intended audience—nothing more, nothing less. We should consider it our good fortune that we are able to witness these musics, that we are given a chance to peek at these wonderful “audio snapshots” as Strachwitz calls them. We should pray for many more birthdays for this most truly American of American record companies.

Happy Fiftieth, Chris and Arhoolie!

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