Mance Lipscomb, left, played in Navasota when Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz met him. They’re shown in 1964.
Photo: Chris Simon & Maureen Gosling
Chris Strachwitz showed up in Texas without much of a plan. He knew he wanted to record the storied blues player Lightnin’ Hopkins, and that was about the extent of his endeavor as an aspiring musicologist. Strachwitz instead found himself following a trail to Navasota trying to track down another musician noted for singing a song about Tom Moore, a plantation owner. He found Mance Lipscomb, who played some songs. Strachwitz recorded them, and upon his return to California he set about putting those recordings into the world on his new label, Arhoolie.
“I had no clue what I was doing, and I had no clue where I was going,” Strachwitz said when we talked a few years ago. “To me, it was an adventure. The whole thing. Some people like to go to Africa and hunt animals. For me, I got that sense of adventure in Texas and the American South looking for extraordinary music. And I didn’t have to kill anything.”
That was 60 years ago. Strachwitz is now 89, and several years ago he sold Arhoolie and its vast archive of recordings to the Smithsonian’s Folkways Recordings, ensuring that Strachwitz’s life’s work documenting folk-music forms from the United States and beyond will be in good hands.
And this past week, that life’s work was the subject of a celebration, a virtual 60th anniversary party in which noted Arhoolie enthusiasts such as ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Los Tigres del Norte, Ry Cooder, Cedric Watson, the Del McCoury Band and BeauSoleil honored the incredible music documented by Strachwitz on his little label. Among the proceedings is a series of honors including a legacy award presented to Texas music great Flaco Jiménez.
Gibbons described the event as “a celebration of six decades of passion, a way into these entertaining forms of American art. American sonic art.”
Strachwitz assigned Gibbons Hopkins’ “Hello Central,” connecting two Houston performers through one song.
“I learned it with the support of the Strachwitz aegis,” Gibbons said. “I had to sort of unlearn the chord changes. Chris told me not to worry about learning the changes. Just to proceed with the unlearning and give it all you got. The good news is I followed Lightnin’s directive: ‘Lightnin’ changes when Lightnin’ wants to change.’”
More information on Arhoolie Foundation projects can be found at arhoolie.org.
Strachwitz’s story is an immigrant’s story, informed by good fortune and dogged determination. He was born in Bogaczów — then part of Germany, now part of Poland — and moved with his family to California in 1947. He loved the music in the States, particularly jazz and R&B. After a stint in the Army, he decided to try to turn a hobby making recordings into something more formal. He befriended the great musicologist Samuel Charters, who urged Strachwitz in 1959 to come to Texas.
He connected with Robert “Mack” McCormick, a historian and folklorist, whose work documenting African-American music forms ran deep. McCormick helped put Strachwitz on the trail of Lipscomb, a sharecropper who played weekends in Navasota.
Strachwitz pointed out a difference between himself and others dedicated to documenting music. He said he “wasn’t concerned about preserving much of anything, I just wanted to record things I liked.”
Texas proved a goldmine for Arhoolie. Strachwitz released “Texas Sharecropper and Songster,” the first of several recordings by Lipscomb. He recorded numerous albums by Clifton Chenier, the King of Zydeco. He captured the musical reportage of Houston treasure Weldon “Juke Boy” Bonner. And, eventually, he finally got to record Hopkins, the artist who initiated his journey to Texas. Strachwitz also acquired previously existing recordings and ensured they continued to circulate through Arhoolie. His “First Queen of Tejano Music” is a wonderful document to the genius of Lydia Mendoza. And he reissued two sets of crucial Hopkins recordings on Houston’s Gold Star label, “The Gold Star Sessions Vol. 1 and 2.”
Arhoolie looked east to music traditions in Louisiana. And it looked south to Mexico. Sometimes the gaze would fall even further away as with “Tamburitza!” — an anthology of string-band music rooted in the Balkans that was recorded between 1910 and 1950.
The anniversary concert included Arhoolie albums such as the Cajun band BeauSoleil and bluegrass great Del McCoury. And it featured those like Gibbons, Taj Mahal, Raitt and Cooder: artists who were drawn to the music Strachwitz recorded and released on his label.
The anniversary show represents just one part of the effort by the Arhoolie Foundation to carry Strachwitz’s work into the future.
“I wasn’t there in 1960 with Chris, but the core of what we’re trying to do as a foundation is the same,” said Adam Machado, executive director of the Arhoolie Foundation, which defines its work as such: “documents, preserves, presents, disseminates and celebrates regional roots music and its makers.” “It’s driven by a love of the music.”
With the Smithsonian handling the actual recorded music, the Arhoolie Foundation has been working to digitize parts of Strachwitz’s vast archive and find ways to present it to new audiences.
Machado said Strachwitz’s work has helped preserve aspects of communities that might otherwise have been lost. He recalled a conversation with Wilson Savoy of the Cajun band Pine Leaf Boys. “He talked about how sometimes you can better see your own culture through the eyes of an outsider,” Machado said. “Chris played that role. And he came to it from a place of loving music. In an industry that can be cruel and untrustworthy and self-serving, he was and continues to be one of the good guys in that world.”
The Arhoolie Foundation also makes the case that the music recorded and released by Arhoolie wasn’t documented for the sake of being filed away.
“He didn’t consider himself a typical scholar,” Machado said. “He wanted to make records that made people want to get up and dance. And that’s what we’re trying to do now. The digitizing isn’t just for a dust bin of an archive. It’s an act of celebration.”
One vast part of the archive is the Frontera Collection, which contains more than 160,000 recordings of Mexican and Mexican-American music. Machado says Arhoolie engineer Antonio Cuellar has been working through those recordings for more than 20 years. And though that work is fairly insular, Cuellar has been finding new ways to share it, doing a biweekly DJ set, Frontera Collection en Vivo.
“We’re always looking for ways to share what we have,” Machado said, “and not to just file things away.”