Sound Check

For decades, America has been described as a melting pot; lately, some dissenters have begun describing it as more of a tossed salad. Ammunition for both sides of that argument can be found in our roots-music heritage. Sounds from around the world have found a home in the U.S., and varying styles have simultaneously retained their own traditional structures and melded with other ethnic elements to create strange new hybrids and syntheses. In Texas alone, the myriad of styles is broad -- everything from country, blues and zydeco to Polish, German and Mexican folk music. Some Texas styles were homegrown; some were imported and naturalized along with the immigrants who carried them here. No genealogical research is more relevant than studying the links between long-dead itinerant troubadours and the hot "new" sounds blasting from nightclub stages. And there's a funny, almost predictable, irony accompanying the realization that a person whose life has been devoted to preserving the multitude of Texan -- and American -- folk styles was born in Germany.

Chris Strachwitz, founder of Arhoolie Records, understands that irony, and on a strong new batch of reissues, his label continues to revel in it. The first Arhoolie artist was legendary Navasota songster Mance Lipscomb. Strachwitz and music historian Mack McCormick were roaming around Washington County asking field hands if they knew any guitar pickers; their search ended with Lipscomb, who was mowing grass by the highway. That evening's single-mike session became the original Arhoolie recording, and it's part of the new Texas Songster CD. Lipscomb was a powerful, agile picker and shrewd lyricist, with a versatile repertoire that owed as much to the reels and ballads that became country music as it did to the field hollers that formed the foundation for the blues. After being "discovered" by Arhoolie, Lipscomb performed frequently across America on the folk music festival circuit, where he was rather genially surprised to find that such artists as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez considered him a major inspiration. Tap your toes to such classics as "Ella Speed" and "Mama Don't Allow," and you'll realize why every "unplugged" session on the market is, ultimately, a footnote to Lipscomb. (*****)

Strachwitz estimates that "at least half" of the hundreds of other sessions he has produced since Lipscomb were in Texas. "My whole scene started down in Texas," he says, "and I just keep getting drawn back. It's been a crazy life."

One of the crazier, and luckier, days in that life resulted in The Hopkins Brothers: Lightning, Joel & John Henry. Sam "Lightning" Hopkins was as well-known for his disparagement of other musicians as he was for his skills as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. But he freely admitted that there was one Hopkins who was a better "songster" than he: his older brother John Henry Hopkins, a guest of the Texas Department of Corrections for most of his life. Strachwitz was in Houston in 1964 when word came that John Henry had been released from prison. He journeyed to Waxahachie with Lightning and Joel Hopkins (who had served a lengthy apprenticeship with the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson) and recorded a reunion that, 32 years later, remains a powerful example of country blues. Cuts such as "See About John Henry" and "I Got a Brother in Waxahachie" provide further proof of Lightning's improvisational skills, while John Henry's "Hot Blooded Woman" and "Hey, Baby, Hey" give credence to his brother's praise. Joel, more bound to a traditional country-blues style than either of his brothers, chimes in with an early sounding variant of "Black Cat Bone" called "I Walked from Dallas." This is a standout among the bewildering assortment of Lightning Hopkins recordings. (****)

Another Arhoolie artist with strong ties to Houston is George Coleman, whose fortes -- as shown on Bongo Joe -- were social commentary and steel drum. If steel drums automatically bring to mind calypso, you've obviously never been exposed to Coleman. Think 1968-era industrial rap; think very, very weird. Coleman played the 55-gallon oil drum in a way the steel drum had never been played before, all the while whistling, ranting and shouting witty and insightful diatribes about what real fools we mortals be. Coleman has performed as a street musician around Houston, Galveston and San Antonio's Alamo Plaza since the early 1950s. This 1969 effort, which became a cult classic upon its debut and has now been reissued in expanded form on CD, is Coleman's sole recording. While the need of more than one is debatable, the world would be a grimmer place without the one we have -- and if you listen to "Innocent Little Doggie" first thing in the morning, you can be sure that you will encounter nothing stranger all day long. (*****)

Lately, with the supply of traditional folk musicians waning, Arhoolie has begun directing its focus toward digital releases from both Strachwitz's impressive archives and his extensive collection of rare 78 rpm shellac discs. In the zydeco realm, the label offers ten CDs that resulted from Strachwitz's lengthy association with Clifton Chenier. But more experienced enthusiasts, curious about the roots of Gulf Coast music, should veer toward I'm Never Coming Back by Amede Ardoin.  

If Chenier was the king of zydeco, then Ardoin, whose recording career lasted from 1929 to 1934, holds strong claim to the role of its father. This selection of 26 songs, all in Creole and remastered from 78s, shows Ardoin as a forceful accordionist equally skilled at waltzes, two-steps and ballads. There is a cockiness and a wistfulness to his singing that make these songs eminently listenable, and serious students of zydeco will be amazed to learn how much post-WWII artists such as Austin Pitre and Dewy Balfa owe to the creator of "Les Blues De La Prison." This rather primitive recording will probably not get as much play as your favorite Beausoleil or Chenier disc, but it'll add immeasurably to your understanding of Ardoin's musical descendants. (***)

Just as Arhoolie's zydeco releases bridge the gap between early and modern styles, the label's many reissues of classic Tex-Mex sides link traditional sounds and rhythms with modern Tejano. Driven by the commercial success of Selena, La Diferenzia and others, the Big Boys are jumping on the Tejano bandwagon. But thanks to Strachwitz, who was captivated from the first by the music's breadth and vitality, Arhoolie's been there for years.

For the enterprising ear, two gateway Arhoolie anthologies are perfect places to tap the Tejano wellspring, Tejano Roots and Tejano Roots: The Women. Both span the years 1946-1970 and are culled from the vaults of Ideal Records of San Benito, one of the more prominent Tejano labels that dotted the Lone Star landscape. Both mix superstar pioneers such as Tony De La Rosa and Houston's Lydia Mendoza with names that will mean little to those not steeped in the tradition. Both include a range of tempos and textures, stripped-down accordion-based conjuntos giving way to richer orquestas. And, as a bonus, both feature incredible instrumental work by anonymous session men and band members who surface with eyebrow-raising runs on the 12-string bajo sexto, squeeze box or clarinet, then settle into backup perfection. (*****, both CDs)

Even Tejano rookies know the name Flaco Jimenez, whose power and presence have earned "El Rey de Tejas" both an international reputation and a solid presence on music-store shelves. Jimenez earned his accolades with 30 years of working the Tex-Mex cantina grind, building his rep dusty mile by dusty mile. Un Mojado Sin Licencia showcases 24 of Jimenez's jukebox hits, recorded from 1955-1967 on the Norteno and Sombrero labels. While not as polished as his later work, the material has a raw, sweaty appeal that no amount of studio tweaking can reproduce. Jimenez's mastery of the accordion is omnipresent, though he eschews the hog-wild in favor of a more considered attack. It's not his playing that sends this one over the top, however, but his nonpareil duet singing with bajo sexto whiz Toby Torres, as penetrating and combustible a pairing as you'll find on either side of the border. (****)

Innovative accordionist Valerio Longoria may not be as technically proficient as Jimenez, but his insatiable thirst for new sounds has had an equally significant impact on modern Tejano. One of the first musicians to add drums to the conjunto repertoire, Longoria has vacuumed and adapted influences from all corners of his extensive road map. On his 1989 recording, Caballo Viejo, Longoria added such unusual styles as Colombian cumbias and a Peruviano to the standard mix. Backed by two sons and a grandson, Longoria fused these diverse elements into a tight package that never feels repetitive. (***)

In contrast to Longoria's global vision, Chelo Silva made her name on a narrower track as the premier interpreter of the bolero. Silva broke new ground in her area of music in the same way that Billie Holiday reinvented jazz singing or Patsy Cline took country into another dimension. With an earthy passion and resonant voice worthy of Marlene Dietrich, Silva rebelled against cultural norms by singing her songs of life's dark underside from a woman's point of view, which only enhanced her immense popularity. On Chelo Silva -- La Reina Tejana del Bolero, she breaks the language barrier through sheer emotion 24 times in a row. (****)

Finding these Arhoolie recordings in Houston is at best a hit-and-miss affair. Unfortunately, the city's record shops aren't always as concerned as one might wish with stocking historic Houston sounds. Those with eclectic tastes and/or an undying curiosity about Texas roots music should send $2 to Arhoolie Catalog, 10341 San Pablo Avenue, El Cerrito, CA 94530 for 114 pages of fascinating musical history cleverly designed as a mail-order booklet. -- Bob Burtman, Jim Sherman  

***** Roots of a mighty tree
**** Planks of heartwood
*** Polished veneer
** Send it to the chipper
* Mulch

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