Long before phrases like "roots music" and "world music" became standard terminology in the pop music lexicon, scrappy little Arhoolie Records was playing a key role in giving voice to musicians and styles of music that had been largely unheard.
The story of Arhoolie, which started in 1960, and label founder Chris Strachwitz are the subject of "This Ain't No Mouse Music!," a new documentary by filmmakers Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling that's screening in Los Angeles for nine days starting Wednesday at the Downtown Independent theater.
Like Alan Lomax before him, Strachwitz, who was born in Germany and came to the U.S. as a teenager shortly after World War II, sought out little-circulated recordings from rural Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, the Caribbean and even Los Angeles to try to expand the audience for Cajun music, zydeco, corridos, folk, blues and other strains that existed well outside the mainstream of the music business.
After unearthing various historical recordings, he expanded into the business of bringing many artists into the studio himself and issuing singles and albums with the likes of zydeco accordionist Clifton Chenier, bluesman Mance Lipscomb, norteño accordion great Flaco Jimenez (and his lesser-known brother Santiago Jimenez Jr.), R&B singer Big Mama Thornton and scores of others.
As Strachwitz puts it in the film's vibrant trailer, "This stuff's got some guts to it. It ain't wimpy, that's for sure. It ain't no mouse music," his phrase for much of commercial pop music that leaves him cold.
"Most record companies try to record everything that they think is commercial," Strachwitz says. "I didn't want to record stuff I don't like."
The 92-minute film includes testimonials to Strachwitz and El Cerrito, Calif.-based Arhoolie from such artists as Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Richard Thompson. Arhoolie is releasing a companion two-CD album on Oct. 21 with tracks spanning the label's history.
"He's a classic record man — not corporate," Cooder says. "Not about to take orders or fit into any kind of system. Those are the kind of people that started the record business in this country."
The Downtown Independent theater is at 251 S. Main St. "This Ain't No Mouse Music!" screens at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday; 8 p.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday; and 11 a.m. Sunday. Check the Independent's website for additional screening times.