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‘I’m a song catcher’: 60 years of Arhoolie Records, the label for a lost America

on December 9, 2020 No comments
Garth Cartwright

Now 89, one-time refugee Chris Strachwitz presides over one of the greatest US labels, having removed the stigma from working-class music like blues and zydeco to give a voice to the ignored.

The ripple effect of Chris Strachwitz in the world is immeasurable in preserving this music. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not have heard those records. This music that without his care and watering would have withered probably. It didn’t matter what country he was from. This is somebody that was born to do this for the music that he loves.

– Bonnie Raitt
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Bonnie Raitt – Write Me a Few of Your Lines/Kokomo Blues (Fred McDowell)
SIXTY YEARS OF ARHOOLIE AN ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION – December 10, 2020

Ross Lahey – video/audio recording / Ryan Freeland – audio mixing / Derek Williams – video editing

Arhoolie website
Arhoolie YT channel

This year, 3 November saw two momentous events take place in the US: American voters chose Joe Biden for president and Arhoolie Records turned 60. I put this conjunction to Arhoolie’s founder, Chris Strachwitz, who laughs. “Well, that may have been the day of the invoice from the pressing plant when they shipped the first albums,” he says, underplaying quite how seminal the release of Mance Lipscomb’s 1960 LP Texas Sharecropper and Songster would prove to be. He pressed only 500 copies of Lipscomb’s album to begin with, but one of America’s greatest record labels has grown from those humble beginnings.

The recording of Lipscomb, who had rarely sung beyond the cotton plantation he lived on, came about after Strachwitz, a San Francisco Bay Area high-school teacher (“I was lousy”), had spent his 1960 summer vacation in Texas failing to record Lightnin’ Hopkins. The blues musician insisted on being paid upfront for every song recorded, rejecting Strachwitz’s offer of a small advance plus future royalties. Strachwitz was directed towards Lipscomb instead, and while initially reluctant – Lipscomb was a “songster”, his music far gentler than Hopkins’ razor-sharp blues – he agreed to make the recording.

Fortuitously, the album’s release rode a wave of interest in folk music then under way across North America and Strachwitz found that by booking concerts for Lipscomb and selling the album (alongside trading in rare 78s) he could earn enough to quit teaching. Now aged 89 “and a half”, he has never retired and Arhoolie Records (named after the sound of a field holler) stands as the world’s foremost repository of American vernacular music: alongside blues, Strachwitz would record Cajun, zydeco, all manner of Mexican American music, New Orleans jazz and brass bands, klezmer, polka, hillbilly, gospel, street and outsider musicians, free jazz, bluegrass, sacred steel and more. Arhoolie captured the sound of myriad American communities and, in doing so, has preserved a remarkable kaleidoscope of music.

‘Songster’ … Mance Lipscomb with Chris Strachwitz at Ann Arbor blues festival, 1971. Photograph: Tom Copi

“I don’t see myself as a producer, more a song catcher,” says Strachwitz when I inquire as to his recording technique. “When I heard Lightnin’ in that Houston tavern in 1960, he was playing electric guitar, backed by a drummer, and he kept up these stream-of-consciousness raps, singing anything that passed through his mind. It was so exciting, and that’s what I wanted to record. Folklorists had recorded him playing acoustic guitar as they disdained electric, but I wanted to capture what I experienced in his neighbourhood bar.”

He adds: “I’ve always been very attracted to what you might call ‘honky tonk’ type music; I just find so much value in what gets called ‘low class’. There’s always been this stigma attached to it and people try and make it ‘respectable’, but I don’t see any value in that.”

Arhoolie’s albums, then, are “snapshots”. “It’s nothing permanent. Classical musicians can play the same way every day, but this vernacular music can change so quickly. And this is what we like about it – it’s so quirky!”

Quirky is an appropriate description of Strachwitz himself, a friendly, happy man who is also restless and extremely opinionated. Ain’t No Mouse Music, Maureen Gosling’s 2013 feature documentary about Strachwitz, captures his idiosyncrasies – at a festival he berates a lemonade vendor for not using enough lemons – and enthusiasms. “Mouse music” is, in Strachwitz parlance, anything he dislikes, ie almost all popular music across the spectrum. As for the music he does like, he’s devoted his life to ensuring it gets heard.

Age has slowed him of late. He’s now in an assisted living home, the pandemic having stopped him from commuting to Arhoolie’s El Cerrito headquarters (and then off to hear live music), but remains mentally sharp. “We had a great ride,” says Strachwitz of Arhoolie. “Kids these days don’t value music like we once did and have so many other things to spend their money on. I hope we can last a few more years because I’m uninterested in golf.”

Strachwitz was born into an aristocratic family in Lower Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland), and, as the advancing Soviet troops drew near, they fled to allied-controlled Germany. Here they lived as refugees in a ruined mansion until prominent American relatives enabled the Strachwitzes to enter the US in 1947. Chris, a lanky, lonely teenager who spoke fumbling English with a strong accent, found solace in music.

I ask whether being a teenage refugee led to his embracing music from marginalised communities, but Strachwitz dismisses the suggestion. It was, he says, simply the power of the music he heard on the radio: jazz and blues on a Los Angeles station with black DJs while “border blasters” – radio stations situated just across the Mexican border – played the music of the southern working class, be they black, white or brown.

Strachwitz tried to play some of his 78s to his classmates “and they called me ‘a damn hillbilly’!” He laughs, then adds: “I remember when I was listening to Bunk Johnson, my father said in German, ‘They are playing off key.’ And I said, ‘Doesn’t matter to me – it’s got soul, it’s got feeling.’ So I was always going against the mainstream.”

An avid record collector, he became part of a loose network that included Harry Smith, John Fahey, Robert Crumb and others. These young white men shared a huge passion for blues, jazz and hillbilly records of the 20s and 30s and, in doing so, helped open ears to the remarkable, largely ignored vernacular musical culture. While his contemporaries were happy to collect, reissue (in Smith’s case his celebrated Anthology of American Folk Music) and even attempt to play this “lost” music, Strachwitz knew from visiting the south that the music remained alive there. So off he went, at the height of the civil rights struggle, a blond man with a reel-to-reel tape recorder, heading into African American neighbourhoods.

Inevitably, he ran into problems with racist police in Texas and Mississippi who suspected Strachwitz to be either an activist or a junkie. Strachwitz laughs about such encounters now, but they must have been terrifying at the time. He survived unscathed and says the hassle was worth it because he found musical treasure.

Arguably, the greatest of all was Clifton Chenier, a Louisiana Creole (French-speaking African American) who played accordion and sang. In 1964, Lightnin’ Hopkins took Strachwitz to hear Chenier in a Houston bar where he was playing “this very pure Creole French blues. It almost sounded like Haitian music.” Strachwitz arranged to record Chenier only to find he wanted to cut R&B, believing no one would be interested in Creole music. Eventually Strachwitz recorded Chenier performing what is now known as zydeco for the 1965 album Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. The record stunned listeners – almost no one other than habitués of the bayou bars of Texas and Louisiana had heard this powerhouse sound – and Chenier would go on to tour the world and win a Grammy.

Powerhouse sound … Strachwitz with Clifton Chenier.

Around the same time, Strachwitz began recording the music of Chenier’s white neighbours, the Cajuns. “When I initially went down there, asking for Cajuns was like asking for Gypsies in Europe – the response I’d get was along the lines of, ‘What do you want those people for?’ They were considered just the scum of the earth. I finally found a Cajun band playing. One guy was singing in English and one guy was singing French verses; people were dancing around in circles, counter clockwise; the men were tiny and the women were huge. The first time you encounter something like that it really hits you.”

Strachwitz never stayed still, always seeking out new artists to record and, having long collected Mexican American border records, in 1970 he began championing corrido and norteno musicians (alongside reissuing, as he did for every genre that engaged him, the 78-era recordings, and paying royalties). Through his efforts both Lydia Mendoza – the 12-string guitarist who had first recorded in the 20s – and accordionist Flaco Jiménez would win audiences beyond their core, Spanish-speaking communities. Ry Cooder, who accompanied Strachwitz and film-maker Les Blank to Texas when they were filming Chulas Fronteras (a documentary on the Mexican musicians of the US south west), would go on to work closely with Jiménez. Blank and Strachwitz’s documentaries stand as some of the finest music films ever made.

“Mexicans in the US live a totally backwater existence,” says Strachwitz. “People see them as cheap labour and little else.”

Mexican culture tends to get looked down upon, treated as a joke. People like their food and nothing else. It’s sad as their culture is very rich, but there’s almost no recognition of it here.

– Chris Strachwitz

Inevitably, such albums didn’t sell in large quantities and Arhoolie survived largely through Strachwitz’s good fortune in music publishing.
In 1965, he recorded Country Joe McDonald’s song I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag, unexpectedly cashing in when it was used in the Woodstock documentary.
Then the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers featured You Got to Move, a gospel blues tunes they (eventually) credited to Mississippi Fred McDowell, an Arhoolie artist. “We got in contact and said, ‘Pay us the royalties’, and their lawyer said, ‘The Rolling Stones only perform their own songs.’ So this went on for a while until they finally agreed to pay. This meant I got to give Fred the biggest cheque he had ever seen in his life. When I did so he said, ‘I’m glad them boys liked my music!’ He was a wonderful human being.”

Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label run by the Smithsonian Institution, acquired Arhoolie in 2016 from Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant – they continue to oversee the label, but no longer have to concern themselves with its finances. The Smithsonian has made more than 300 standout titles from the roughly 650-album catalogue available digitally (with some on CD and vinyl) and is focused on ensuring the remaining titles become available. Strachwitz notes, “Arhoolie never sold a lot of albums and, once people stopped buying CDs, things got rough.”

Strachwitz in 2001. Photograph: © Alain McLaughlin/courtesy Arhoolie Productions

Now Arhoolie Records is safely ensconced in the Smithsonian, Strachwitz’s great passion is the Arhoolie Foundation, whose board of advisers includes Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Tom Waits. He established it a quarter of a century ago, initially to document his collection – the world’s largest – of Mexican and Mexican American recordings, photos and more. This and other material relating to vernacular music are now part of UCLA’s online archive. Los Tigres del Norte, one of Mexico’s most popular bands, were so impressed by the material that they donated $500,000 to protect it. Strachwitz proudly notes that the National Endowment of the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities have also helped, “as they agree this is really significant stuff that has never been documented”.

The Arhoolie Foundation is active on several fronts: it gives grants to educators and artists, digitises hundreds of hours of recordings and interviews, puts on concerts and does its best to continue Strachwitz’s mission of ensuring people get to hear beautiful music. On 10 December, a prerecorded livestream concert will celebrate both Arhoolie’s 60th and the foundation’s 25th anniversaries. Alongside noted Cajun, sacred steel, bluegrass and norteno artists, such marquee names as Bonnie Raitt, Billy Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Charlie Musselwhite are also appearing.

“I’ve always admired the complete honesty of Chris and honesty in the music of Arhoolie,” says Musselwhite, a Memphis blues musician who recorded for Arhoolie in the early 70s. “Chris is a great fellow, and I love it when he don’t mix his words telling you what he thinks. He’s always correct, so I always listen.”

“Without Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records I probably never would have found Cajun music,” says Ann Savoy, matriarch of the Savoy Family Cajun Band, also performing at the concert. “One of his Old Timey series of Cajun 78s won my heart, and led me to a life of mystery and awe on the Cajun prairie. Chris has always done what he wants with no concern for fame or commercial success. It is his passion and hard work that saved much of the American rural songbook.”

Strachwitz chuckles when I relay the compliments to him but shrugs them off. “Lady Luck has always been with me,” he says. “I’ve dealt with a lot of people who have had very little luck in their lives and my philosophy has always been, ‘The world will never be fair but you can try and help by being nice.’ I hope I have helped some people.”

He laughs, and his joy is infectious. “It’s been an amazing journey and a never-ending lesson – I learned so much!”

60 Years of Arhoolie: An Anniversary Celebration streams online on Thursday 10 December, 8pm EST / 5pm PST (1am GMT on Friday 11 December).


Source: © Copyright The Guardian
See also:
Arhoolie website
The Mercury News
The Kitchen Sisters Present – The Passion of Chris Strachwitz or The Goethe Institute’s Big Pond series – The Passion of Chris Strachwitz

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Southern Documentary Project ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’ focuses on Fred McDowell’s bottleneck blues with Bonnie Raitt

on April 18, 2017 No comments
By Anna McCollum
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Shake ‘Em On Down: The Blues According to Fred McDowell


A Documentary Film by Joe York & Scott Barretta

Documentary filmmakers Scott Barretta, left, and Joe York, right, with musician Bonnie Raitt. Raitt was featured in “Shake ‘Em On Down,” a film about bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell.

B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf. When it comes to Delta blues, there’s no shortage of well-known names to cite. But there’s another region — and other musicians — to credit for Mississippi’s state-line-road-sign claim, “Birthplace of America’s Music.” One such example: North Mississippi’s Fred McDowell.

And thanks to a recent documentary by now-independent producer and director Joe York and Mississippi Blues Trail writer and researcher Scott Barretta, people across the world can learn to appreciate the bottleneck guitarist’s contributions. The celebrated, hour-long film gave even York and Barretta, longtime fans of McDowell, a newfound appreciation for Mississippians’ love of the arts, their native music and their hill country legend.

“Shake ‘Em On Down” was made for the Southern Documentary Project, a branch of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Since its premiere, the documentary has been played at multiple film festivals and on PBS as part of the Reel South series educating the country on the history of North Mississippi blues and McDowell’s crucial contribution to that vibrant tradition. The film’s name was taken from the title of a Bukka White song McDowell recorded several times.

Born around the turn of the 20th century, Mississippi Fred McDowell mastered the slide guitar-playing style by performing at house parties between weekdays working odd jobs or plowing fields. In the late 1950s as McDowell’s name and music gained traction in the area, folklorist Alan Lomax — along with assistant Shirley Collins — made it his mission to record McDowell in Como, where the Rossville, Tenn., native had settled.

The 1959 recording sparked a career that carried McDowell to the Newport Folk Festival in the mid-1960s, to meet and mentor a young female artist named Bonnie Raitt, and to have his song “You Gotta Move” recorded by the Rolling Stones on their 1971 Sticky Fingers album.

At the height of that career, a short film about McDowell titled Blues Maker was made. Half a century later, York was working for the Southern Documentary Project, directed by Andy Harper, as well as producing Highway 61, a Mississippi Public Broadcasting blues program hosted by Barretta.

Right around the time York and Barretta were investigating the unique musical traditions of the Mississippi hill country for Highway 61, York discovered Blues Maker. With newfound footage, he and Barretta had a basis upon which to build an in-depth film about an artist they had long admired and respected. Two years and countless interviews later, “Shake ‘Em On Down” was finished.

“It’s one of the finest documentary films ever made on blues,” said Dr. William Ferris of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Ferris, a Vicksburg native, founded the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and is one of many voices captured on film by York and Barretta.

“To me, the craft of it is to somehow make all the different voices come into a conversation with each other so they’re telling you, the viewer, a coherent story,” said York, who likened the filmmaking process to completing a puzzle after having to create the pieces.

In addition to Ferris, “Shake ‘Em On Down” includes an appearance by blues legend R.L. Boyce, as well as Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, Raitt and even Collins, the former assistant of folklorist Lomax.

Though Lomax died in 2002, Barretta and York knew that Collins was still living in England. They reached out to her and, she invited them to her hometown just south of London for an interview. And Collins became, in York’s opinion, one of the most important voices in the film.

“It was amazing to be sitting in this beautiful home in England listening to this person talking about someone we had loved and admired and listened to his music forever,” York said. “The first time Fred ever played into a microphone and it was recorded, she was sitting three feet away from him. Here we are halfway across the world, and this lady is bringing this moment to life.”

Mississippi Fred McDowell and Bonnie Raitt, 1970, Philadelphia Folk Festival © David Gahr

Other crucial pieces of the documentary didn’t come together as easily. Because McDowell died in 1972, Barretta and York had limited footage with which to work. But, they struck gold in New York, where they discovered never-before-seen footage — about 40 minutes’ worth — of McDowell performing at the Newport Folk Festival.

“We looked through it, and we said, ‘Okay, we want like eight minutes of this footage to use in the film,’” York said.

But the price tag on the footage was right around $25,000.

“So, all of a sudden, you’ve found this treasure trove of material of this guy that you’ve been literally following around the globe,” York said. “You’ve been working on this for a year, and now you have this thing that’s incredible that you know needs to be in the film, but it costs about the same as a new car.”

Baffled, York and Barretta made a trailer to present to a group at a blues symposium held at Ole Miss. The three-minute preview incorporated a short, watermarked piece of that crucial footage — enough to catch the eye of audience member Ron Feder.

Feder, an alumnus of the Ole Miss law school and a frequent benefactor of arts-related programs in Oxford, approached York afterwards and expressed his desire to contribute to the making of “Shake ‘Em On Down.”

“And, I kid you not, within a week, we had a check from Ron Feder for $25,000,” York said. “He and his wife Becky, who has sadly passed on in the last year, became executive producers on the film.”

That contribution, in Barretta’s opinion, made the documentary.

“There were no photos, to our knowledge, of McDowell and Lomax together,” said Barretta. “And the opening scene from Newport was wonderful for the underlying story of how Lomax’s discovery of McDowell led to his becoming a well-known blues artist.”

“Mississippi” Fred McDowell and Bonnie Raitt performing together.

Another triumph came when Bonnie Raitt, who learned her guitar-playing style from McDowell, agreed to be a part of “Shake ‘Em On Down.” Raitt’s former manager, Dick Waterman, had worked with McDowell in the ’60s and early ’70s and introduced the two. Waterman was one of many contacts that Barretta had made working in the blues field, and better yet, he was in Oxford.

“That was huge,” York said. “We knew we couldn’t do the film seriously without her being a part of it, because their relationship was so strong and, obviously, what she’s gone on to do with some of what she learned with Fred goes without saying.”

Stories like that of Mississippi Fred McDowell — a “major figure in American music,” according to Ferris — not only inspire but also educate.

“Because the blues is often associated with the Mississippi Delta, it is important that the public knows that other parts of our state also produced a rich blues heritage,” Ferris said. “Generations of Northeast Mississippi blues artists have been strongly influenced by Fred McDowell’s bottleneck blues.”

But it was not just McDowell’s prominence that drew people to him, according to York. After all, people who didn’t have to give money or encouragement to Shake ‘Em On Down did so nevertheless.

“To me, it was the process building those relationships and working with those people and seeing how Mississippians are willing to come together to help tell inspiring stories about Mississippi,” York said. “It’s a testament to the incredible spirit and will that exists among the Feders and, really, of lots and lots of people in Mississippi who support the arts and one another.”

Source: © Copyright
The Oxford Eagle
The Southern Documentary Project
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Parting Shots: Bonnie Raitt

on February 26, 2016 No comments

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by Dean Budnick

Bonnie Raitt has just released her 20th album, the spirited, engaging Dig in Deep. Her follow-up to 2012’s Grammy-winning Slipstream, Dig in Deep captures the vibrant, joyous energy of Raitt’s touring band and directly reflects her outlook through five original songs, which is the most she has written for an album since 1998’s Fundamental. Raitt issued Dig in Deep on her independent Redwing label and has long maintained an active role in the business side of her career.

You contributed five songs to Dig in Deep. Can you talk about how your songwriting has evolved over the years?

I’m not naturally a songwriter. I come up with songs intermittently if I am inspired, usually for a kind of music that I’m missing in my show because I’m basically a touring artist, not a recording artist. Over the years, I have either been so moved by being loved—or by being hurt by love or some kind of inspiration— that I will sit at the piano. I tend to write more of the deep, personal songs on the piano, and the guitar ones tend to be a little more on the bluesy or reggae side, or a jam kind of thing.

I hadn’t written in a long time before this last set of five songs I contributed to Dig in Deep, primarily because I was dealing with illness and the loss of both of my parents, and the eight-year brain cancer fight of my brother, who eventually succumbed in 2009. I was just so depleted. I really needed to take a break and not think about my next record or supporting my band and crew, or what I was going to do next. So I took a muchneeded sabbatical in 2010. I still went to see music, but never to check out what the bass strings sounded like from a particular amp. I didn’t think about whether I would cover a song or not. It was really refreshing.

Then, after the two-year Slipstream tour, I was really excited about a couple of grooves that were missing in my set. The song that’s probably most important to me is “The Ones We Couldn’t Be.” It’s about someone in my family I had a rough time with, who is now gone. While I was writing it, I also knew it had something to do with some previous relationships as well. I looked back and realized that it takes two people to make a relationship work, and it’s often two people that make it fall apart. Ultimately, once you see the ways that you hurt each other or couldn’t be there for each other, it just becomes very sad, no matter how hard you tried. You just couldn’t be the ones that you each wanted the other to be.

Your version of “I Need You Tonight” on Dig in Deep is quite striking. How do you balance honoring a song and making it your own?

Sometimes, I’ll be playing something at a soundcheck or in the studio, and the chord changes will remind me of another song, or I will start singing another song and I will put my own spin on it. Other times, I will just do an out-and-out cover like “Burning Down the House” and, of course, it’s going to sound different than Talking Heads because I play slide guitar and I’m a woman and singing in a different key. Intrinsically, it’s going to sound different when I cover a song done by a male band, but because I am a blues-rock-influenced person, that is the window that I’m looking through.

I have thought about doing that INXS song ever since I first heard it. I knew it would be such a great tune to play slide on when there is that stop and it says, “You’re one of my kind…” I heard that whole arrangement that you hear on this record, and my guitar player, George Marinelli, came up with the killer slashing licks in the beginning.

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