Digging Up Roots

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

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.

Akim Aginsky

Details

Arhoolie celebrates its 40th anniversary with a series of shows this week. Free-jazz saxophonist Sonny Simmons performs on Friday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage, 1111 Addison (at University), Berkeley. Tickets are $13.50-14.50; call (510) 548-1761.

Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band performs Saturday, Oct. 14, at 9:30 p.m. at Ashkenaz, 1317 San Pablo (at Gilman), Berkeley. Also on Sunday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage. Saturday tickets are $16 and Sunday tickets are $17.50; call (510) 525-5054 on Saturday.

The Campbell Brothers perform on Friday, Oct. 20, at 8 p.m. at the Freight & Salvage. Tickets are $15.50. Santiago Jiménez Jr. plays on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 8 p.m. at Ashkenaz. Tickets are $15.

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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."

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