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Treasure Hunter

Chris Strachwitz's 40-year journey through ethnic music deserves an arhoolie of its own

Musical heritage ranks high among the many things Texans like to brag about. They tout the notion that there's something exceptional about their traditional and ethnic music. And to many within -- as well as outside -- the state, there is. Yet the fact remains that what is probably the most comprehensive collection of Lone Star State roots music resides not between the Red and the Rio Grande, but in El Cerrito, California, in the vaults of Arhoolie Records and in the personal collection of its founder and guiding light, Chris Strachwitz.

For more than 40 years, Arhoolie has rather quietly been issuing down-home music from not just Texas but also Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, to name but a few. Virtually all of these recordings are significant documents of traditional music that creeping modernity threatens to erase from our collective memory. Even more significantly, the music issued by Arhoolie frequently shatters the folk-equals-staid stereotype. "I like the opposite of sleep music. I like shake-me-up music," says Strachwitz, describing his label's philosophy.

Last year saw Arhoolie reaping long-overdue acclaim with the release of the five-CD set The Journey of Chris Strachwitz: ArhoolieRecords 40th Anniversary Collection, 1960-2000. Composed of recordings made by Strachwitz himself (more often than not in the field) and some that the Arhoolie president has licensed from tiny Texas labels, this box is a revelation with a compelling vitality to every selection. It's music with which people celebrate, lament, praise and remember their heritage. It's music from a musician's heart to your heart, not from some bean counter's mind to your wallet.

Strachwitz's song-harvest began right here in Houston. Born in Germany and raised in Nevada and California, Strachwitz was a teacher and record collector when he set out in 1960 to capture some of what the box annotator calls "outsiders' music." Strachwitz was thrilled to learn from blues historian Sam Charters that Lightnin' Hopkins was living in Houston. Charters put Strachwitz in touch with Hopkins's on-again, off-again manager Mack McCormick, who, Strachwitz recalls, was "sort of a playwright/taxi driver/man of all kinds of talents."

McCormick introduced Strachwitz to the rough-and-tumble world of the Bayou City's African-American neighborhoods. "Mack was a wonderful host," recalls Strachwitz. "He told me all about how [Houston] was divided into all these wards, and how the black wards were all hidden among the white ones. To me, it was all eye-opening."

While Hopkins's fees were then too high for Strachwitz's tiny budget, other talents beckoned. McCormick suggested that they comb the Texas countryside for undiscovered bluesmen. "I was really only looking for that kind of nasty blues, real low-down stuff," says Strachwitz. What he got instead was the last and greatest of the "songsters."

Of that fateful day in Navasota, Strachwitz admits to some ambivalence. "When Mance [Lipscomb] came off the tractor that night and made those tapes for us, I wasn't really that keen about him," Strachwitz confesses. "Because to me, he sounded like a nice old man. And he was a wonderful person, but he didn't sound like Lightnin'. But on the way back to Houston, Mack said, 'Listen, Chris, this is the most important musician and singer you will probably ever find. This should be your first release.' " Strachwitz was duly persuaded, and on November 3, 1960, he received from the pressing plant 250 copies of Lipscomb's first album, Texas Sharecropper and Songster. Arhoolie, which took its name from a synonym for "field holler," was born.

Since then, the label has released a wealth of essential Texas blues, polka, Tex-Mex and western swing albums. The 26 pages in Arhoolie's latest catalog bannered "Mexican/Mexican-American/Tejano" attest to the prime role Strachwitz has played in bringing our regional ethnic music to the world beyond the Lone Star State. Conjunto is a Strachwitz favorite, and he has recorded all three of the accordion masters from the Jimenez family: Don Santiago and his sons, Flaco and Santiago Jr. But the label also boasts albums by Texas bluesmen Black Ace, Lil' Son Jackson, Whistlin' Alex Moore, Robert Shaw and Fifth Ward blues poet Juke Boy Bonner and -- eventually -- Lightnin' Hopkins.

Arhoolie also has issued compilations of Texas polka, recordings by Austin country-folk legend Bill Neely and San Antonio western swing pioneer Adolph Hofner. Perhaps the oddest item in the catalog is the eponymous offering by steel drummer and impromptu humorist Bongo Joe (né George Coleman), whose "Innocent Little Doggy" and "I Wish I Could Sing" once regaled passersby on the Galveston piers and in San Antonio's Alamo Plaza.

Arhoolie has been a major force in bringing zydeco, too, to international attention. This process also began in Houston. Hopkins, a cousin by marriage to Clifton Chenier, introduced Strachwitz to the man who would be king of zydeco. "Of course, I was like a puppy dog hanging around with Lightnin'. So anyplace he'd wanna go, I'd go," Strachwitz recalls. "And we came to this beer joint. It didn't sound anything like 'Eh, Petite Fille' that [Chenier had] put out on Specialty. It was just this amazing man with his accordion and a drummer, singing nothing but absolutely low-down blues, which I love, but all in this weird French. And so when he asked to make a record, I said, 'Yeah, sure, let's do it' -- just the way he had it."

But Chenier had a different agenda. "He showed up with a whole damn band the next day. And he said, 'Oh, Chris, this ain't where it's at, the French stuff. We've got to make rock and roll records.' The first records were a weird mixture. But thank goodness half the band blew up. The damn guitar player's amplifier started smoking, and the electric bass player that he brought, his damn speaker cone was literally disconnected" from the housing. "So nothing came out of it. So we were down to drums and accordion and piano, I think. Then he agreed finally to make the first album. He said, 'Okay, Chris. I'll make it half French, and half rock and roll.' "

Chenier was astonished to see his zydeco numbers outsell the rock and roll. "That really helped him regain his confidence in his Creole roots," says Strachwitz. "And eventually helped him become the king of zydeco."

Although Strachwitz urged Chenier to stay true to his roots, one salient characteristic of the Arhoolie catalog is that it doesn't conform to the stuffy notions of "purity" that all too frequently infect the folk world. It is obvious to anyone who listens to the boxed set, or to the label founder himself, that Strachwitz is no moldy fig. "People still ask me, 'How come you like Lightnin' even though he played an electric guitar?' " he says. "I didn't give a shit; he didn't give a shit. He had whatever guitar wasn't in hock. That's the only thing he cared about: Did he have one. Some of those [folk] people today are just totally out to lunch."

Strachwitz feels fortunate that he's not alone in treasuring music that falls outside folkie fussiness. "I think that there are enough people who are tired of the overarranged and slick music, who miss that aspect of rawness in our lives," he says. "I've always been captured by that rawness, yet [also] having it sweet at times. It's got to be both."

Though he's justly proud of what he's accomplished, Strachwitz worries about whether traditional music will survive as a living cultural entity. When asked if he thinks the pendulum might swing back to rawer sounds, he offers, "Yeah, who knows. It could come on back again. But it'll never be the same. There will be a different taste to it."

So even if youngish African-Americans like Corey Harris and Alvin Youngblood Hart continue to mine the blues tradition, there's a certain essence that has been lost forever. "The experience isn't the same as meeting Fred McDowell out in this damn field, playing for all his drinking buddies. It isn't the same thing."

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