Chasing History

For 40 years, Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz has worked to make unknown roots music (almost) famous

The last time Chris Strachwitz was caught without recording equipment, it was 1959. Then a 27-year-old devotee of jazz, blues, and hillbilly music, he headed out on a road trip from Berkeley to Texas with a single mission: to meet Lightnin' Hopkins, the legendary but lost blues man whose world-weary voice and stinging guitar work were like no one else's. Strachwitz drove his sister's car to Albuquerque, N.M., hopped on a southbound Greyhound, and bumped along to Houston. He shacked up at the local YMCA, started asking around in the black parts of town, and quickly found his way to Lightnin'.

"Meeting Lightnin' was like meeting the pope for a good Catholic," says Strachwitz. "He was just the Holy Ghost himself."

After seeing Hopkins cast his spell in a local beer joint, Strachwitz was a convert. "That's what turned me on," he recalls. "I said, 'I've got to record this.' "

In the offices of Arhoolie Records, Strachwitz is surrounded by the fruits of his 40 years as a recording maniac. Copies of Arhoolie's 250-plus releases line the walls and aisles in the back of the drab El Cerrito building that also houses Strachwitz's record store, Down Home Music.

Down Home itself is a roots lover's dream, a paradise to which the lucky country, blues, or world music fan will surely go in the afterlife. Colorful old concert posters cover the walls, and the CD bins are heavy with rarities, oddities, essential collections, and esoterica. If the names Montana and Rice mean anything at Down Home, it's that Patsy Montana was the first female million-seller in country music (1936's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart") and that blues harmonica player Rice Miller's works can be found under his stage name, Sonny Boy Williamson.

Down-home sounds -- sometimes as sweet as a high country stream but usually as rough and raw as bootleg liquor -- are what Strachwitz has been living for all these years. He's rambled through Texas, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Mexico, rooting out blues, folk, gospel, zydeco, and conjunto musicians and recordings. Many of his discoveries have ended up on Arhoolie.

Traveling the musical back roads is for Strachwitz the upside of running an independent label that moves a mere 20,000 copies of its most popular titles at a time when industry heavyweights expect a new Alanis or Garth release to move a million units in its first week. But then, not that many people are clamoring for the latest from Brian Marshall & His Tex-Slavik Playboys, which features Texas polkas sung in Polish, or Strachwitz's current pet project, the Hungarian string trio Csókolom, whom he recorded at Memphis' legendary Sun Studios. "Frankenstein meets Elvis," he jokes.

Most of the releases put out by Strachwitz and his five-person crew sell in the four figures, though even that number has dropped with the recent shrinking of the European and Japanese collectors' markets. Recent industry reports suggest that the average independent label has fared well when a title sells between 10,000 and 20,000 copies. The biggest and best-distributed independents may break 100,000 with their superstars, such as Ani DiFranco. But Strachwitz doesn't care much for industry standards, either in sales or sounds. "Chris has tried really hard to do anything he can to ignore the business end of this business," observes Bruce Iglauer, founder of Chicago's Alligator Records, one of the largest blues indies in the country. He calls Strachwitz one of his heroes.

Arhoolie has turned listeners on to legendary performers such as Hopkins and zydeco king Clifton Chenier, as well as Tex-Mex accordion titan Flaco Jiminez and folk guitarist Elizabeth Cotten, both of whom have earned Grammys for their Arhoolie releases.

Strachwitz recalls the first time he heard Chenier in Louisiana, singing in the French patois indigenous to the region and playing accordion with just a washboard for accompaniment. "I couldn't understand a word," marvels Strachwitz, "but, man, it was the toughest shit I ever heard in my life." He recorded Chenier the next day.

Strachwitz has also "liberated," as he puts it, works by early blues performers such as Memphis Minnie and Blind Boy Fuller, who recorded for labels like Vocalion and Columbia, ancestors of today's major labels. "I've tried to pay the artists," he says. "I've really felt no obligation to send the [record companies] any funds. ... If they feel it's competition, why don't they issue it themselves? They have all the clout in the world."

But his liberating experiences are not what has kept the tall, easygoing native of Germany flush. Rather, it's stemmed from advice he received many years ago from another label owner: Get the copyrights to the little-known tunes by little-known artists he puts on tape. Thirty years ago, he recorded (in his living room, with a single omnidirectional mike) and then retained publishing rights to Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." That song helped pay the bills after it became an anthem at Woodstock and a high point of the movie and soundtrack LP.

Money also came in when the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt recorded songs by the plaintive blues singer Mississippi Fred McDowell. And the largest chunk of Strachwitz's income for the last four years has come thanks to the Ford Motor Co. and country megastar Alan Jackson. Jackson polished up Oakland-by-way-of-Mississippi guitarist K.C. Douglas' "Mercury Blues" and took it to the top of the country chart in 1995. Two years later, Ford got wise and wrapped a commercial around the song; part of the resulting royalties go to Strachwitz, who co-owns the song's copyright.

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