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.

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Bob Burtman
Jim Sherman