Arhoolie Records - A Conversation with Founder Chris Strachwitz
By Leslie Michele Derrough
February 21, 2013
It is the little label that could, Arhoolie Records, and all because one man had a passion for music that was rich and soulful, the kind of music that you feel deep down inside and that causes an uproar in your equilibrium. Whether it was coming from the Deep South or the Texas border, if it intrigued Chris Strachwitz, then he was off and running to the source – even when he didn’t have a nickel to his name. It was that kind of absorbing passion that led the German transplant to record musicians like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Clifton Chenier while others were busy rocking and rolling to Buddy Holly and The Beatles.
Now one of the most respected record companies in music, Strachwitz continues to promote the music he loves best while preserving the thousands of recordings in his collection for future generations to enjoy. To celebrate their 50th anniversary, Arhoolie Records threw a great big fundraising shindig featuring the likes of Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, the Treme Brass Band, Country Joe McDonald, the Campbell Brothers and many others, and it’s captured beautifully in They All Played For Us, a coffee table thick book of photos and four enchanting CDs.
Glide recently spent an afternoon speaking with Mr Strachwitz about his love of music, tracking down old bluesmen and zydeco pioneers, and how he cultivated a tiny seed of a dream into a grand old oak called Arhoolie Records. As he told me, “I guess I’ve been lucky to be able to follow my passions all my life.”
Tell us your story, Mr Strachwitz. How did you take your love for something and build this record company from the ground up?
Oh boy, that’s very hard to answer because I just simply fell in love with so many of these regional music styles I heard of on the radio, and some of it live, when I got here from Germany; mostly on the radio and I just had never heard music like that before. At first I fell in love with New Orleans jazz when I went to see the film called New Orleans and it featured Louis Armstrong with the Kid Ory Band and also Billie Holiday and Meade Lux Lewis, boogie pianist. I’ll never forget, I asked my friend, “What do you call the kind of music we just heard?” “Well, that’s New Orleans jazz.” It just totally knocked me out because the band was so well-recorded. So much of so-called Dixieland in those days was just sort of tinny. All you hear is the horns and no rhythm. This was just the other way around. Black jazz was basically rhythm. They all played rhythm and of course the horns on top of it. It was so well recorded in that film, it just absolutely blew me away.
Then I heard on the radio, I heard hillbilly music, as we called it then, over a radio station in Baja, California, and lower California and Mexico, XERB, and they were playing nothing but hillbilly music because you could buy time on these stations and the producers of hillbilly records, especially 4 Star Records in Los Angeles, they discovered this station reached up and down the whole west coast. So they bought time and plugged their artists, like the Maddox Brothers and Rose and T. Texas Tyler and Floyd and Lloyd Armstrong. I mean, it goes on and on. They also played other stuff like Bob Wills and Roy Acuff and so on and I just fell in love with that stuff. It was just so powerful, you know. It wasn’t wimpy like so much pop music, like “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” (laughs). That was just awful, what my classmates were listening to.
Then I heard over a Los Angeles station called KFVD, again you could buy time and this fellow Hunter Hancock, who came from Texas apparently, and he was a white guy but he played nothing but black music. That was really the first black radio programming in that area. This was in 1949, probably, I heard that. The program was in the afternoon and it was called Harlem Matinee and he would introduce it: “From bebop to blues, from jazz to rhythm, from vocal groups to here and there. And it’s Harlem Matinee.” And off he went. It was this fantastic stuff. At first, it was primarily black orchestras like the Basie Band and so on but then very quickly all of a sudden these low down blues appeared, like Lightnin’ Hopkins and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson. I said, my God, what is this music? (laughs) It’s unbelievable. It was so rhythmic, you know, and yet this wonderful singing on top of it and house rocking piano and guitars. I just totally fell in love with American vernacular music.
I started collecting records. I didn’t have a pot to piss in but I tried every way I could to find cheap ones from here and there, in my spare time I guess; I didn’t do too well in school (laughs). That was actually due to the fact I almost flunked out of Pomona College because we went almost every night. My friend Frank Demond, he had a car. He’s been playing trombone with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band actually for many years and he and I just went almost every night to hear the George Lewis Ragtime Band. That was a black New Orleans band that was this powerhouse rhythm machine and wonderful singing clarinet. Oh God, we were in Heaven every night (laughs).
But anyway, UC Berkeley accepted me with all these terrible grades from Pomona, so I went up to Berkeley and I didn’t do too much better (laughs). Finally within a year of going to hear nothing but music, the Army finally caught me and I was drafted. So the next two years I was in the American Army from 1954 to 1956, but I was lucky, they sent me to Austria. It was just at the end of the Allied occupation and it was just amazing. There I heard sort of regional music in Austria and I loved that kind of yodeling and playing so I got into that too (laughs)
You just love everything, don’t you?
Well, anything that has kind of a swing to it or a feeling to it or emotional. Not this fabricated overdubbed under-dubbed ten million takes of something, you know. People, once they do something they do it right, like Clifton Chenier for example. He never would do a second take on a recording: “Chris, that’s it, that’s it, it’s got it.” He would put in everything he had and that was it. So I really fell in love with how to make records and met some guy here in Oakland and he taught me how to put an amplifier simply on top of a chair and put a microphone in front of it. So I had to use two mics, one on the singer and one on the amp of the guitar. I didn’t know how to do that at first but you live and learn (laughs). It was the most exciting thing I could think of. And you met all these interesting people that I would have never met otherwise. Whether they were black, brown or white or whatever, they were all these intriguing, unique singers and performers and they played the music I totally loved.
I was very, very lucky. When I came out of the army, they actually paid for my attending UC Berkeley on the GI Bill. I lived with some people who wanted me as a foreign student and since I spoke German, since I was born there, I was lucky to meet people everywhere that just pulled me through and had a great Aunt who also encouraged me to follow my passion rather than go into some kind of legitimate business, so to speak, like being a doctor, lawyer or whatever. You were a teacher, though, for a little while, weren’t you?
I became a teacher. I finally graduated from UC Berkeley after many attempts (laughs) of changing majors constantly. I finally decided I got to do something. I can’t just sit on my ass because there was no money in starting all these funny little recordings that I was making. So my sister, my younger sister, she had also been a teacher so I got my credentials and taught for three years at Los Gatos High School. But they basically wanted me for my German because it was the time of Sputnik and every kid who is in a family of scientists or professionals, even pilots wanted them to take German. That was the scientific language, so I taught German there for three years. Plus I also had to teach Social Studies. I will never forget there was a kid that came up to me in a restaurant here in Oakland when I was having lunch and he said, “Aren’t you Mr Strachwitz?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Well, you were a terrible teacher but we heard the best damn music in your class I’ve ever heard.” (laughs)
It’s everybody’s dream to be able to take something they love and then make a career out of it.
Correct, correct. I had a friend of mine, he thought it was fantastic what I was doing and he tried it too but he just didn’t have any sense about it. He would spend so much on the artists and on trying to get this single out there to this baseball thing, pressed a hundred thousand and they wouldn’t even let him sell it at the ballgame. So he went broke. You know, you got to have some sense about business in a way and I guess I learned from all these people around me, from the distributors, from the record shops, from other guys who were in the business and I learned a lot.
One of the best things I ever learned was from this fellow in Louisiana. You know I used to go almost every year to southwest Louisiana and Eddie Schuler, I played him a tape of a fellow I recorded just down the street, this black guy who played accordion, and he said, “Did you get his copyright?” I said, “What are you talking about? I got it right here on the tape.” “No, that ain’t what I’m talking about. Did you get the copyright? Like if somebody like Frank Sinatra, ha-ha, wants to make a recording of that song, you ain’t going to get nothing unless you get the copyright.” So I learned that you really had to protect these people that you dealt with, their original compositions, which a lot of them had. The blues guys always make up their own songs. So one day in 1963, I guess it was, or 1964, my friend Ed Denson called me and said, “Do you have your tape recorder ready?” And I said, “Well, I’m going tomorrow with Lightnin’ Hopkins to Europe.” “Oh no, we got to make this recording for this march, this peace march, that is going on against the Vietnam War.” I said, “Alright, bring him over” and this motley looking crew came in my living room and I hung one of the directional mics from my lamp ceiling and put them around in a circle and “1-2-3, what are we fighting for, next stop is Vietnam, I don’t give a damn” (laughs) And there was Country Joe making his historic record “Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”
As he walked out he said, “Chris, what do we owe you for making the tape?” and I said, “You don’t owe me nothing but do you have a publisher for this stuff?” He said, “No, what’s that?” I said, “Can I be the publisher?” and he said, “Ok” and it was an oral agreement but his agent, his manager, overheard it so we split whatever came in the first check. $70,000 came in after Woodstock made it famous and I put my money down on my building and I sent him his $35,000. At first, he was really kind of pissed that he did this, you see, because he kind of knew what publishing was and on and on.
Just recently, just before this concert that is on this record, he says, “I’m really glad I gave it to you.” Although I had given it back to him; this is a very convoluted story but one day he came to me about fifteen years ago, ten years ago, and said, “Chris, don’t you think you’ve made enough money off of me?” And I said, “Yeah, and you’re a good socialist, if you want your copyright back I’ll give it back to you.” Well, what happened was that Kid Ory’s daughter, I don’t know if you know who Kid Ory was but he was a famous New Orleans trombone player who wrote the “Muskrat Ramble;” but she sued him out of the blue, forty years after. And if I had still been the owner of that copyright, they would have probably thought I had pretty deep pockets and really tried to go to town on me. But since it was his, he got some civil liberties lawyers on his side and a really nice lady judge and she just threw it out and said this was a hateful attempt to sue somebody over nothing. So it was lucky I gave that back to him because usually you’re not supposed to ever give a copyright back.
Then he told us, “You know, I’m glad I gave it to you because all the other songs that Country Joe & The Fish recorded, I had to split the copyright with all the other guys in the band. But on ‘Fixin’-To-Die Rag’ it was just him and me and I’m really grateful cause I made a hell of a lot more money that way.” (laughs) So sometimes if you live right, you do good, it comes back to you (laughs) How did you come across Lightnin’ Hopkins?
That was a friend of mine, Sam Charters, who wrote one of the first books about blues. He was in Berkeley, I think it was when I came out of the Army, in 1956, maybe it was. Or maybe it was before I went in the Army, I forgot. But anyway, he was really keen to listen to all kinds of blues and I had all these Lightnin’ Hopkins records. At first he wasn’t too keen about it. He said, “This guy is pretty commercial,” that’s what he thought, but then he really began to like him and all of a sudden I got a postcard from Houston saying, “Chris, I found Lightnin’ Hopkins and he lives here in Houston, Texas.”
See, nobody knew where any of these people lived. And he made a recording for Folkways then and to me that was just an ear opener. I drove my sister’s car to New Mexico, who wanted it driven there, and from there I took a bus down to Houston, just to visit Po Lightnin’ (laughs). That’s how I met him, I guess. I was really his only fan and I don’t think he’d ever met such a person. I knew all his records and when we met that afternoon, he was just really nice to me and he said, “Come on, I’m playing in this little beer joint tonight. Come on over and see me play.” I kind of wish I had a machine to record that. Anyway, shortly after we walked in there, he was singing about how his shoulder was hurting that day because it had been raining so hard and he had rheumatism and then how the water was so deep on the road coming to the beer joint the wheels would go into these holes cause he couldn’t see them and he pointed at me, “Whoa, man, this man came all the way from California just to hear Po Lightnin’ sing.”
I mean, all the other white guys, they had been there to make records, they were all white guys who made his records, but he’d never met anybody who just simply liked his music. Except for the crowd he played for but it was a very different scene in those days. There were also people from the Piney Woods area of central Texas who had come to the city and they shared this, I don’t know what to call it, it was almost like a church thing, you know, except he would talk to them and they would yell back at him, they would talk back to him. It was just an amazing thing. I’ve never heard anything quite like it. It was a call and respond that black people have in church sometimes. But it was just amazing. Were you ever shocked by any of the blues performers that you saw? Back then some of the lyrics and sounds that they were making were kind of wild and risqué.
No, I loved it (laughs). I mean, at that time rhythm & blues, the records that were being played on the radio were pretty risqué, like “The Sixty Minute Man” or “It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion.” I remember Piano Red had a huge hit with “Rockin’ With Red” and he sang, “She rocks me in, she rocks me out, she knows what it’s all about.” (laughs) They didn’t beat around the bush, they just let it all hang out and I thought that was kind of neat in a way. It also happened in the churches that way. That’s what really grabbed me. When I first heard the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples was the lead singer, and this was in the early fifties when they had these hits on Vee-Jay, and one of them was called “Let It Ride” or something. And she started out her little preaching thing with, “Well, there was this lady and she didn’t have no husband but every morning the milkman came and he didn’t leave until he was satisfied … and then the breadman came and he didn’t leave until he was satisfied but it was Jesus who rocked me.” It was just amazing, they don’t make a difference between this world and the next and that really amazed me. I’ll never forget that, I was at the Oakland Auditorium and of course the women were all falling out (laughs)
You sound like you were kind of wild too.
I don’t think I led that kind of wild life but I was an observer (laughs)
What would you say was the difference between what you were doing and what Alan Lomax was doing? Because you were both going to the music, not vice versa.
Yeah, well, Lomax was very determined from an almost academic way to find the earliest forms still in existence of various musical traditions. That was really never my intention or desire. I simply wanted to record things I liked or that I heard somebody talk about and the whole adventure of finding people was just great. For example, in Ft Worth, the blues researcher Paul Oliver had sent me this huge list of blues players who had recorded there in the twenties and one of the names was Black Ace. I stopped people literally on the street corners. They were playing cards or dominoes and I’d go up to them and in this case I’d ask if anyone knew of a fellow named Little Brother because I had a 78 by a guitar player named Little Brother and the record label came out of Ft Worth, Texas. One guy goes, “What you want with him?” I said, “Well, I like his music.” (laughs) So he comes up to me and he says, “Yeah, he hangs out with Black Ace every afternoon. He comes to this tavern and you can’t miss Ace because he has a black ace on his white shirt.” And that’s literally how I found Black Ace, one of those steel guitar playing blues singers in Texas. “I am the black ace, I’m the boss card in your hand.” He used to be on the radio in the thirties in Ft Worth. It was just these adventures really and trying to find out what the mojo hand was (laughs)
Let’s talk about They All Played For Us. It’s a wonderful book that includes four CDs of music from the anniversary concert and you can tell from looking through these photographs and listening to the music how much fun everybody is having.
Yes, I never realized how my crazy hunting for musicians impressed other up & coming guys like Ry Cooder, who was so impressed by the Big Joe Williams LP that I made in Los Gatos where I was teaching in my one room country shack there. It just knocked him out. I never realized that until a couple of years ago when he did one of our benefits for us. Oh God, I just couldn’t believe it, you know, but then I thought about it: this young kid coming from a middle class family in Santa Monica and somebody puts this record on this player and here’s this Big Joe “I’m sloppy drunk, Baby,” (laughs) Big Joe just belting it out and his mother said, “What is that awful noise?” But Ry Cooder’s been one of our strongest friends and biggest supporters. I didn’t really realize how many friends we had out there. I was sad after fifty years, since most of these guys I recorded were elderly when I caught up with them, they’re all gone, the old reeper just doesn’t quit and I’m just glad he ain’t got me yet (laughs)
The CDs feature some wonderful musicians like Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.
There’s all kinds of good stuff. Yeah, I listen to all that weird stuff. That’s Wayne Pope playing the washboard. He did all of the cover designs for all of my LPs, just about all of them. Then there’s Toni Brown, she was always with a little string band, what I remember her. The Treme Brass Band was a real lucky deal because they all played for us with no money but I knew I couldn’t get a brass band out of New Orleans without paying for it. I just knew that. But coincidentally, I met a fellow here in Berkeley through a professor at UNC, the University of North Carolina, and we were having a nice talk about what Arhoolie was going to do in the future and I told him right now we have this festival coming up and the benefit for the Arhoolie Foundation. And he said, “Is there anything I can do?” And I said, “You know, I’ve been hoping I could somehow figure out how to bring the Treme Brass Band to Berkeley.” And he said, “Well, ask them what they want.” So he paid for the whole noodle, all of their air fare and hotel bills and their fee and everything. It was extraordinary.
Benny Jones was a co-leader with the wonderful guy who passed away, the bass drummer, Uncle Lionel, and that was so sad. But they just blew people away here, I think. It was really, really neat. I never really recorded much in New Orleans, first of all because I didn’t have any money and there you had to have union scale. And also, everybody else was recording the same stuff. There were so many companies recording this music. So I said, how am I going to find something unique because the old guys that I had admired in the fifties, they were pretty much fading away. So I never did that much. Now, I recorded the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, which is under the leadership of my friend Lars Edegran. He’s a Swedish import like I’m a German one and a total fan and made a living playing music in New Orleans and leading bands there. So he recreated this wonderful old, very elegant, ragtime orchestra.
What all does the Arhoolie Foundation do?
It’s main task has been digitization of my enormous Mexican record collection. The whole thing started when the late professor Guillermo Hernandez, who had found out that I had this and most of it is from material recorded really on our border in San Antonio and El Paso and during the heyday of the early recording business in the late twenties and early thirties. That’s when so much of the most interesting corridos, which are narrative ballads that are generally true stories, were recorded about every kind of subject along the border. When he found out I had that he one day came to me in more recent times and said, “Chris, what you going to do with all this stuff?” And I said, “Ever since the late Moses Asch of Folkways Records, he asked the same question to me – Chris, what you going to do with all this stuff?” I said, “I don’t know, I just love to hear it.” (laughs) Mo Asch told me, “This is really valuable cultural stuff and it’s got to be preserved somehow.” At that time it was just developing of the whole system of digitizing things. Computers were really in. So that possibility became really very real and so I said, “I don’t want to give this collection to UCLA so it will sit in a little corner someplace and nobody will ever hear it. Why don’t we try to digitize it.”
Guillermo and I were involved in these corrido conferences; he did them almost every year. They are conferences dealing with these wonderful narrative ballads and people gave papers and all that kind of stuff. But I had always paid to get some musicians to come to it. And he called me up and said, “Chris, I want to do a corrido concert here at UCLA in California. Who do you think I can get as musicians?” I said, “Guillermo, you’re in the same state as the most famous conjunta, that means group, Los Tigres del Norte, and they live in San Jose. They are million sellers, as big as the Rolling Stones are in the gringo world. So he had them come over and play for his corrido concert and they got along really good. I think the leader of the Tigres realized that this institution is recognizing their music as cultural material that should be preserved and studied and analyzed and so on. All of a sudden here were professors who were spending time researching these stories and finding out why they are singing these songs that are dealing with the daily problems of people, like immigration. So they agreed and their record label Fonovisa decided to get together with the Tigres and they gave $500,000 to UCLA as a gift to, first of all, digitize all of my 78 Mexican stuff. There are roughly 17,000 78s, so that’s two sides per record so that means 34,000 songs or tunes or whatever. So their money helped us get started.
Then when it came to the 45s, we went to the national endowments, like the NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the NEA, the National Endowment of the Arts, and also the Grammy people gave us money. So now we’re almost finished with the 45s. We did all of the 78s and I have about 25,000 45s; that’s about 50,000 songs.
So the book and CDs go to help the Foundation, correct?
The series of concerts did and the money we made, I think about $60,000, that went to the Foundation. The book is basically, I don’t know if it will ever break even, but it is done by Arhoolie Records and if there are any profits, we share it with the musicians. We have contracts with the musicians. The only thing that went to the Foundation was the initial money that we made at the concerts. What are your plans for this year?
Well, if the good Lord is willing and the creeks don’t rise, I would love to continue doing what I’m doing and that is finish this digitization, including some of the LPs, which have material that was never put on singles. Then we have plans to do a book sort of similar to the one you have in your hands about Dr Harry Oster. He was an interesting tiny little professor. He was very short but he recorded some of the most amazing stuff at Angola Penitentiary [in Louisiana]. Then he also recorded some of the first Cajun music as far as LPs and put them on albums. They had been singles, 78s and so on, but he really started recording Cajun music and he was really interested in the old ballads and he hunted down old ladies that knew ballads from God knows when. So this is our next project. And that’s another music you love as well.
The Cajun music, yeah, and why is a good question (laughs). I was sort of taken by it when a friend of mine played me a record by the Hackberry Ramblers. So when I first drove down there from Houston to New Orleans, I came off the highway and it had a sign to Hackberry. So I drove down to Hackberry, just a dinky little whistle stop with nothing but a café and a gas station. And I asked the lady at the café, “Do you know anything about the Hackberry Ramblers?” “Oh yeah, just go right back where you came from. You came from Sulphur. Go across the highway, go north on this highway you come down here on, then you make a right turn on Darbone Street and his is, I think, the second house on the right. And you can’t miss him.” And that’s how I met Luderin Darbone. And I recorded his record, I think, the next week in his house.
Then I went further and went to Lafayette and it took all of my guts to ask the guy at the service station, “Do you ever hear any Cajun music?” And he said, “No, I don’t but you can probably find out at four corners, which is an area where four streets come together and there’s a bunch of bars there.” So I walked in and here was this really attractive young lady behind the bar and I finally got my nerve and said, “Have you ever heard any Cajun music?” And she just started laughing, laughing like hell, and said, “Yeah, just last night me and my boyfriend got drunk and we were dancing all night. You can’t miss the damn place. It’s on the road to Breaux Bridge, on the left hand side, it’s a white club. And it’s called the Midway Club.” I thanked her and I went out there and here was this Cajun band playing away with one guy singing in English and another guy singing in French and they were singing one of my favorite country songs, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” And I said, oh my God, this is unbelievable.
Then the people dancing was the other trip. Thinking back on it, the men were all very small and the women were huge and they were dancing in this counter clockwise circle on and on. All of a sudden they were marching around. They didn’t really do much dancing stuff like they do now. They were doing their little two-step in a little circle. And I thought, oh my God, this is unbelievable stuff. Then I heard a radio program on the way back in Eunice, I guess; I must have driven through Eunice on a Saturday morning, and it sounded like a total drunk and wonderful event and it was broadcast live and the announcer was just north of Eunice. And sure enough these two Cajun guys, one playing the fiddle and one playing the accordion, just blasting away and singing their heads off. And a guy at the controls he was on a remote control on this radio station and had his mic there. Next to him was one of those toy toilets, he had a big bottle of whiskey sticking out of it (laughs) and they were all imbibing like there was no tomorrow. It was just a blast.
Then there was this really elegant gentleman standing next to them and I guess either he or I approached the other first, I don’t remember, because he must have thought I was from Mars or someplace, and he asked me, “Oh, you like this Cajun music?” And I said, “Oh yeah, I love it.” “Who do you like?” “I’ve heard Nathan Abshire and I think I just heard,” not Lawrence Walker but I forgot the name of the band. “Oh, you like the authentic music. We try to feature the traditional.” I didn’t know the damn difference. What he meant by that was that the authentic stuff is what you hear in the dancehalls and the traditional is these old-timers that he brings out of the woods and has them featured on his Saturday program. Then this man in the white suit, he looked like he had one of them big plantation suits on, those white suits, and he said, “Well, if you’re interested in this kind of music you ought to meet Marc Savoy.” He wrote a number down and I called the number and this woman says, “No, he ain’t here but try this number.” So I called the other number, this was all before cell phones, you had to find a damn pay phone. And they said, “Who do you want?” “I’m supposed to talk to Marc Savoy.” “He’s right here, hang on a minute.” “Yeah, who is this?” I said, “I’m Chris from California.” “Well, come on over, I just ran over two chickens and we killed another one so we’re having a big gumbo.” So that’s how I met Marc Savoy (laughs) who has been my best friend ever since. Yeah, I wouldn’t trade this for nothing. Are you dissatisfied with a lot of the modern music?
Yeah, I can’t stand it, I can’t stand this modern shit (laughs). It’s all this screeching. They all screech and over-arranged and it’s awful. Most of it. There is still some good music around, oh yeah, but you got to dig for it. They All Played For Us is available through the Arhoolie Records website.