Arhoolie Records Marks 40 Years of Groundbreaking Musical Archeology, From Texas and Beyond
Back in the early days of Rolling Stone, circa 1968 when it was still considered an underground paper and pretty hard to find, a small ad for Arhoolie Records ran in almost every issue. Pushing a two-LP package of blues, country, and gospel music, some 30 selections from as many artists -- and all for just $2 plus postage -- that ad promised a lot: "The Roots of America's Music." But who the hell was Arhoolie Records, and would they really deliver?
For those of us that took the risk, boy did they ever. That collection opened up an entire universe of new music -- music that surprised and delighted knowing folkies and green, suburban white kids alike. There was blues from Texas, from 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 jackhammer drive of Big Joe Williams; and Southern mountain music, from the very old-time sounds of North Carolinan J. E. Mainer's Mountaineers to a more modern bluegrass spearheaded by Del McCoury.
Other big surprises included a scorcher from Big Mama Thornton backed by Buddy Guy and his fellow Muddy Waters bandmates, the delightfully anachronistic Texas barrelhouse piano of Austin's Robert Shaw, and the chink-a-chink sounds of some Louisiana accordion player named Nathan Abshire backed by a hillbilly Southern string band. Wow! Another Louisiana squeezebox man, Clifton Chenier, playing something called "zydeco." Back then, that was a headscratcher: Zyde-what?
Upon closer inspection, there were two unifying factors underlying the project. One was that all the recordings were 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.
Strachwitz edited and produced the set, personally recorded almost every track, and in the end, probably glued the record jackets together. Arhoolie Records was 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, with Strachwitz bringing 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. Even when they didn't get credit where credit was due, however, Arhoolie was a trendsetter.
Several musical generations later, Arhoolie marks four decades of documenting what Strachwitz calls "vernacular music," a project he started thanks to his lifelong passion for collecting old 78s, with a 5-CD box set. And while it's awkwardly titled (favoring instead the descriptive), Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection 1960-2000: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, delivers. Big time. In fact, like its 32-year-old predecessor, this box opens so many doors that the temptation to fill out one's record collection looms large after listening to all the satisfying and inspiring material it contains.
Given that Arhoolie's catalog boasts nearly 400 titles, Strachwitz and co-producer Elijah Wald limited the new box set's selections to recording sessions personally conducted or supervised by Strachwitz, offering a special perspective on how the record company began and evolved over time. What is left out -- amazing reissues of old country music, historic música Norteña (or Tex-Mex), spicy New Orleans jazz, and other priceless gems -- is hardly missed, since these 107 tracks comprise one of the most amazing musical portraits ever assembled. If that wasn't enough, Strachwitz now 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." One can only hope.
"I started out combing the South, especially Texas, for people who made the old records I collected," says Strachwitz. "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, 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."
But that was not meant to be; recording his idol would come later. Instead, while on a trek across Texas and Mississippi the following summer, Hopkins' song "Tom Moore Blues" led Strachwitz to Mance Lipscomb near Navasota.
"I had to learn to become a detective," says Strachwitz of 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 cut what would become Arhoolie's first batch of critically acclaimed discs, recordings that paved 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 caught what others had missed: the anima of the performer. Sometimes he stumbled into recording opportunities, like the time he coaxed the queen of Mexican-American song Lydia Mendoza to record 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. "I've been lucky. I've been at the right place at the right time."
Taken together, The 40th Anniversary Collection and its accompanying 68-page book are an account of Strachwitz being at the right place at the right time, mostly in the South and south of the border. On disc A, the listener follows his trail through Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana, as he captures electrifying moments from the likes of Lipscomb in the East Texas woods; Alex Moore and Black Ace on the streets of Dallas; the powerful voice of Mississippi's Big Joe Williams; and the gumbo-boilin' recordings of Clifton Chenier. Why was so much of his early work centered on Houston and the Gulf Coast?
"Well, all those country people ended up in Houston after World War II," replies Strachwitz after a moment's thought. "Lots of folks from Louisiana settled around the Ship Channel. [Plus], 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 disc B, Strachwitz is all over the map charting new territory, even taking us to Europe where he recorded Big Mama Thornton and Buddy Guy. Highlights include the urban-country blues of Houston's Juke Boy Bonner, 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 former Arhoolie box-packer Charlie Musslewhite, backed by a young Robben Ford. Also on this disc, we experience Arhoolie's first flirtation with Texas-Mexican border music, the cantina-recorded Los Pinguinos Del Norte.
"A lot of people, Mexican-Americans along the border, didn't want me to record Norteño 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?'"
But record it he did. Along the way, he collected nearly 14,000 78s, plus thousands of 45s and LPs 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 act, 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 type of material, 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," he says. "The contents of the warehouse were 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 2,300 releases there, about 5,000 titles. And one of those, 'Mi Unico Camino' by Conjunto Bernal, was featured in the film Lone Star."
A pair of Austinites are featured on disc C: Bill Neely, a Jimmie Rodgers protege who was visible on the local scene until his death in 1990, and Robert Shaw, one of the best Texas barrelhouse ivory-ticklers, who once ran a grocery store on Manor Road not far from the East Side Cafe.
"Austin did not produce that much music in the old days," says Strachwitz. "But I have been guided to new sources of music by a number of Austin people. Archie Green, [late, renowned folklorist and UT professor Dr.] Américo Paredes, and the folks at the library in the Institute of Latin American Studies have been very helpful in researching border music. Nick Spitzer [first host of KUT's Folkways program in the Seventies] got his folklore degree at UT and really helped me find my way in Louisiana when he was the State Folklorist there. And Alan Lomax's brother introduced me to the Bohemian music from the settlements east of Austin around Shiner and Fayetteville."
Disc C also finds Strachwitz firmly entrenched in Tex-Mex mode, even offering music from interior Mexico with grito-inspiring recordings by Veracruz's Conjunto Alma Jarocha, and some música huasteca, a Mexican-style high lonesome sound as performed by Tampico's Los Caporales de Pánuco. Historic appearances by the likes of Dewey 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 revival, a rousing excerpt included here by pioneer group the Klezmorim.
"I remember once when Mississippi Fred McDowell was out in the middle of a field playing for a party," recounts Strachwitz. "As soon as the music started, women just started shaking their booties. They just wanted that drone to go on and on. It was a real primitive sound, fewer 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.
"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 stand out on disc D. Rose Maddox's rowdy and piercing "Single Girl" harks back to an old style of country music Garth Brooks has possibly never heard, and the recording of Katie Webster's rousing Louisiana swamp-rocker "I Know That's Right" helped revive her career. What else? Try everything on this disc -- it all stands out: the first recordings by the Rebirth Jazz Band and Beausoleil, a Grammy winner by Flaco Jiménez, and a brown bagful of deep-fried Cajun nuggets by John Delafose, the Savoy-Doucet Band, and Canray Fontenot, among others.
The final disc is a potpourri of world music, from Belize and Colombia, over to Eastern Europe, and back to Southeast Louisiana. Also on this last disc, we're finally introduced to Sacred Steel, Strachwitz's current passion. 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 aren't familiar with Sacred Steel, get ready for a jolt.
Combining 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, Sacred Steel is like nothing you've heard before. After listening to the best of the bunch, the Campbell Brothers and their blasting version of "What's His Name? Jesus!" with singer Katie Jackson, you might just feel the need to get up and get baptized. The soon-to-be-released Sacred Steel video, produced by the Arhoolie Foundation, captures the energy and spirit of this uplifting, driving music. If you can find it, it's not to be missed.
"It's good to see the Campbell Brothers so successful," says Strachwitz. "It must be strange for them, because usually this music is not heard outside the church. They all say they're playing in the church just to help the service, but they're doing a great job of spreading this amazing sound. They were just great at our 40th birthday party!"
He's right. No one had a better time at the party than Strachwitz. Which is no doubt the secret to the longevity of Arhoolie and the fact that most of their releases are still in the catalog: Strachwitz records what he likes. He's blessed with the insight and intuition (though he might say luck) to appreciate and record honest, timeless music that's as fresh today as when he rolled the tape; music that has deep meaning and purpose for its intended audience.
We the audience should consider it our good fortune that Arhoolie allows us to witness this music, to peek at these wonderful "audio snapshots," as Strachwitz calls them. We should hope for many more birthdays of this most truly American of American record companies.
After hearing the Los Pinguinos Del Norte LP, author Mike Quinn was convinced 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 led to 10 years of hosting KUT's Horizontes and 23 years producing Carnaval Brasileiro.