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Arhoolie Records: In one ear and out to the world

A 50-year journey along the coiled contours of North American roots music can take some unexpected turns. But “The Beatles Are in Town” really strikes as an odd fit on a new box-set/book package. “Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads & Beyond” features previously unreleased or long-unavailable recordings celebrating that half-century trip that is Arhoolie Records.


FOR THE RECORD:
Arhoolie Records: An article in the Feb. 4 Calendar section on Arhoolie Records’ 50th anniversary said Santiago Jimenez was the son of Flaco Jimenez. The musicians are brothers. —


This song is a mere bit of Beatlemania ephemera credited to the Fondettes — three high school girls commemorating that the Mop Tops had, in fact, recently performed at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1964. So what’s it doing alongside tracks by such hallowed figures as blues greats Mance Lipscomb, Lightning Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton and Rev. Gary Davis, zydeco icon Clifton Chenier, Tex-Mex giant Flaco Jimenez and assorted other Cajun, gospel, bluegrass and jazz artists that Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz made his mission to dig out of our fertile cultural landscapes?

The Fondettes side trip was just a “custom job,” Strachwitz says, the teens introduced to him by a mutual musician friend. But a case could be made that this bit of pop fluff, in all its youthful exuberance, has the immediacy and honesty of folk music — every bit as much as the tracks surrounding it.

“It’s a hell of a lot more folk music than those folkie-dokies,” says Strachwitz, 79, a remnant of his childhood in Germany still accenting his words as he snaps off a snarky dismissal of the clean-scrubbed faux folk that was rampant when he started the label in 1960. “Oh, well! I was never concerned with the term ‘folk music.’ I didn’t know it existed until I met [promoter] Barry Olivier and brought Mance out to the Berkeley Folk Festival. I knew gospel, jazz, blues, Ukrainian music, polka music. I had never really heard of what is called folk music.”

Indeed, trying to sum up the music that spans the “Hear Me Howling” set’s four discs is futile, because it ranges from the earthiest Delta blues to spacey avant-garde jazz. Even three days of concerts and panels honoring the Arhoolie legacy, which take place Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, can’t cover all the musical ground Strachwitz has traversed.

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Benefiting the preservation and documentary-oriented Arhoolie Foundation, the event will spotlight not just artists with long Strachwitz associations, including “sacred steel” gospel stars the Campbell Brothers, Jimenez’s son Santiago, Cajun mainstays Michael Doucet and the Savoy Family and New Orleans’ second-lining Tremè Brass Band, but such younger artists as the Bay Area traditional Mexican American Los Cenzontles. Anchoring the bill will be two artists who never recorded for Strachwitz but credit Arhoolie for sparking their passions for some the earthier side of folk: Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

The label has helped define the modern era of American roots music. Part of the generation that followed such seminal musicologists and collectors as Alan Lomax, Strachwitz not only shined light on fading artists but brought whole genres into the sun. Until he recorded Louisiana accordionist Chenier and Texas counterpart Jimenez, for example, both were unknown outside their own small communities. More recently, the “sacred steel” phenomenon — a brand of gospel from small African American churches in which steel guitar stands in for an organ, with such stars as the Campbell Brothers and Robert Randolph — first gained wider exposure via Arhoolie.

Cooder was just 12 or 13 when on a visit to a tiny folk music store near downtown Los Angeles he first encountered Arhoolie albums amid the familiar Folkways and Chess releases. Even before he gave it a test spin on the store’s Webcor phonograph, he was drawn in. The covers alone signaled that this was not pop music, not sanitized folk, but something darker. A Big Joe Williams record in particular caught his fancy.

“I put it on, he had this electric nine-string guitar, very furious-sounding, and I thought, ‘This is not folk music,’” he says. “I thought, ‘This is what it ought to sound like.’ He attacked his instrument. Intense. I got back on the bus, went home, put this record on. Oh, my parents didn’t like that at all.”

Strachwitz’s passion for music of grit and rhythm was sparked as a teenager in Reno, Nev., where he and his mother settled after moving from Germany in 1946. There an aunt’s African American gardener tipped him off about a joint down by the tracks where he could experience some real blues piano playing. A few years later when he was a student at Pomona College in the late 1940s, he and a few friends anchored a slot on the campus radio station and began making pre-freeway pilgrimages to Los Angeles to see such acts as New Orleans clarinetist George Lewis. Frustrated that a lot of what he was hearing wasn’t available on recordings, he took matters into his own hands.

“I bought a cheap tape recorder and recorded the Storyville Stompers,” he says. “I was totally hooked on the idea of recording.”

After moving to Berkeley in ’53, he stepped up both the equipment and the efforts, recording aging bluesmen and young friends’ bands. But when he got a note from fellow collector and jazz historian Sam Charters tipping him off that Lightning Hopkins was living in Texas, Strachwitz headed to the Lone Star State on a mission. Hopkins seemed taken with the genial, gangly fan.

“He did a thing about his shoulder aching,” Strachwitz recalls of a performance he attended on the visit. “And then he pointed his finger and said, ‘This man came from California to see me!’ That’s when I decided to start a record label, just to record Lightning.”

The new box and book chronicle the first decade of Arhoolie with a personal touch in both the music and the anecdote-filled essays by writer Adam Machado. Among the previously unreleased selections are concert recordings of Big Mama Thornton from 1966 and 1970, club performances by Lipscomb and Davis, and sessions in Strachwitz’s Berkeley apartment living room by such artists as Delta bluesmen Bukka White and Skip James and bluegrass duo Vern & Ray.

Another track in this set proved a landmark for the Arhoolie enterprise. In 1965 Country Joe McDonald had a new Vietnam War protest song he wanted to record for giveaway with a local magazine. When he and his jug band finished their take of the “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” McDonald asked Strachwitz how much he owed for the time and tape.

“I said, ‘Nothing, but do you have a publisher?’” Strachwitz recalls.

McDonald gave Strachwitz the publishing rights to the song, which meant little until four years later when the singer played it at Woodstock and it became a centerpiece of the film and soundtrack album. That paid for Arhoolie’s offices, and through the years other fortuitous publishing rights have kept it going — most recently the K.C. Douglas song “Mercury Blues,” a huge country hit and subsequent car commercial by Alan Jackson. Strachwitz has also secured grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Recording Academy to fund the digitization of a massive collection of vintage Mexican recordings he acquired, and various film projects.

All this adds up to a life’s journey for, what? Authenticity?

“I don’t know what that means,” he says with a dismissive laugh. “Like the late Ralph Gleason told me: ‘Chris, you don’t have a record company. It’s your hobby.’ That’s right. I didn’t record stuff I didn’t like.”

calendar@latimes.com


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