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Remembering Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records


This is FRESH AIR. As a teenager, Chris Strachwitz heard a recording of Lightnin' Hopkins and fell in love with the blues, leading him to a lifelong devotion to regional American music - blues, Cajun, hillbilly, zydeco, Tex-Mex and gospel. In 1960, he founded the Arhoolie record label. Strachwitz died May 5 at the age of 91. Bonnie Raitt said of him, the ripple effect of Chris Strachwitz in the world is immeasurable in preserving this music. I can't even imagine what it would be like to not have heard those recordings.

Chris Strachwitz traveled the country looking for little-known performers, recording them in their homes, front porches, beer joints and churches. He recorded "You Got To Move" by the then-undiscovered bluesman Fred McDowell. Guitarist Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones heard it, and later, the Stones covered the tune. Strachwitz also recorded Flaco Jimenez, Big Mama Thornton, Clifton Chenier, Mance Lipscomb and many more. In 2016, Smithsonian Folkways acquired Arhoolie Records. But Strachwitz continued his nonprofit Arhoolie Foundation, which promotes and preserves American roots music.

We're going to listen to Terry's 1990 interview with Chris Strachwitz. Though he devoted his life to recording the Indigenous music of the U.S., Strachwitz was born in Germany and came to California as a teenager in 1947. He told Terry he first heard the music of the American South on the radio.


CHRIS STRACHWITZ: I think that was my first exposure to all of it, and I was absolutely wiped out by it. I guess I had a lot of insecure feelings. I couldn't speak the language. I was real skinny. And somehow the blues that I heard, I think, spoke to me the strongest. I'll never forget that first record by Lightnin' Hopkins I heard. Hello, Central, please give me 209. I want to talk to my baby. She's way on down the line. And it just blew me away. And I also loved hillbilly music. I heard T. Texas Tyler, the Maddox Brothers and Rose. And gospel music - I heard the St. Paul Baptist Church Choir over a station out of Los Angeles. All of that, you know, it was just - the radio was my ear to the world, so to speak. And I think part of my love affair with this music has been my love affair with meeting these other cultures.

TERRY GROSS: When you started collecting records, where did you go to get them? I mean, I think a lot of people thought of 78s as junk that they'd just sell in flea markets or give them away.

STRACHWITZ: Well, that was, at that time, the only kind of record. That was the only one in existence. It was a marvelous medium. And it turned out almost every kind of vernacular music was recorded. And I found out it slowly. I didn't have any money, but I would save my allowances. And once in a while, I could splurge and buy myself a 78. And I would wear them out. I can tell you that.

GROSS: What made you decide to try to record people and meet the people whose record you were listening to and record new records by them?

STRACHWITZ: Well, since I was so enamored with this whole idea of records and what's on them - you know, I always collected things and stamps before that. But records, you could hear what's in those grooves. And I guess I was simply amazed by it all. And when I came up here to Northern California, I met people like Bob Geddins, a Black man originally from Texas who has recording here in the Bay Area. And then I met a man named Jackson (ph). He lived on 7th Street in West Oakland. He was recording literally in his back room with one microphone and a disc cutter, you know, where you cut directly to disc. Those early 78s were all done that way. And I simply was amazed that this is all it takes. I first thought, to make a record, you go into one side of a factory of a huge place. An artist goes in, and out on the other side come the records. But I had no idea what the in-between process was. And sort of meeting all these people taught me.

GROSS: Some of the early music that you recorded was zydeco music in Louisiana, in - at house parties, in bars. I want to play one of those early sessions, but before I play it, tell us what zydeco is and how it's distinguished from, say, Cajun music.

STRACHWITZ: Yeah. I didn't know what zydeco music was, either, when I first went down there in 1960 or '59. So I simply asked people, what does zydeco mean? And some of them said, well, it means snap beans, not salty. It's an old tune that everybody knew. Others said, oh, it's just going out in the country and having a party, going to the zydeco, going to party and having a good time playing music, push and pull, you know, that accordion music. And so that's basically what it is. It's the music of the French-speaking Creoles, Blacks in southwest Louisiana, in contrast to the white Cajun music.

GROSS: Now, I want to play something that you made in the early 1960s. This is called "Tap Dance." It's by a group, McZiel & Gernger. Tell us where you recorded this, who they are.

STRACHWITZ: Well, I'm really not too sure who they were. At that time, I was just wandering around and just asking people, you know? I was driving, and they said, oh, yeah - I met them somehow through someone else. And they said, we're playing a little house party. Come on over and join us, you know? And so I did. I simply went to this little house in Lafayette, I believe it was. And they played for me, and there was a bunch of people having a good time at the house. And they were very typical of the little zydeco groups that were all over the place, usually just accordion and rub board. In Houston...

GROSS: Rub board is like washboard?

STRACHWITZ: Yeah, like a washboard. And at that time, they were still pretty much looked like a washboard. I later found out that some of them would take pieces out of an old icebox where there was corrugated steel in them, and they would cut out a piece that they can scrape on because the regular, old washboard - see, that metal is much too soft. It just wears through in no time when you're scraping away on it with beer can openers and all that sort of stuff. So they were using corrugated metal - steel metal - right off the bat. And now it's become a real fashionable instrument that was sort of invented by Clifton Chenier or by his brother, Cleveland Chenier, who was really one of the giants of the whole genre. And they went down to a guy once, they - Clifton told me - he said, I went down to the steel company and told them, can you make me one like this? And he said he drew it in the sand as to how he wanted it, with this collar on it that would fold back over his shoulders - you know? - and then hanging in front of his chest. And they said, sure, we can make that. And that's how these rub boards were made that you see now being worn by almost all the rub board players.

GROSS: Well, let's go to this 1961 recording that you made at a house party in Lafayette, La.


BIANCULLI: That was recorded in 1961 by Chris Strachwitz. He spoke to Terry Gross in 1990. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's return to Terry's 1990 interview with Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records, who died earlier this month at age 91.

GROSS: Let's play something by Fred McDowell. Now, this is also one of the early recordings that you made. He was a Mississippi blues guitarist and singer. And probably the most famous record that you recorded of his is "You Got To Move," which was later covered by the Rolling Stones.

STRACHWITZ: Well, I guess that's the one that became famous because they did it, you know? And he was an extraordinary person. I was wiped away when I heard the Alan Lomax collection from Mississippi. And I remember I wrote to Alan Lomax, where is this man from? And he gave me an address in Clarksdale, Miss., and I went to the post office. Where's route so-and-so? They said, oh, it's out there, north of Highway 61. Go out there. I met him just getting off a tractor, and I recorded that record there the same night. Not this particular one but that first album. I don't think he sang "You Got To Move" on that first night we recorded. But what a wonderful person, Fred McDowell. He loved his music, and he was just as passionate about it as anybody I've ever encountered. And he would play on. If you meet him, he didn't care if he's getting paid or not. He loved what he was doing. It was just a sheer joy, that man.

GROSS: Let me play something that you recorded by him in 1965. This is "You Got To Move."


FRED MCDOWELL: (Singing) You got to move. You got to move. You got to move, child. You got to move. But when the Lord gets ready, you got to move. You may be high. You may be low...

GROSS: Fred McDowell singing "You've Got To Move." Now, this is a song attributed to Fred McDowell. Is it ever hard to tell who actually wrote a song - a blues song...


GROSS: ...'Cause there seems to be so many permutations of more or less the same song. And I found in books that I read that, sometimes, songs are attributed to different people depending...

STRACHWITZ: Oh, yes...

GROSS: ...On who you're reading.

STRACHWITZ: ...It's a real problem. That's - in that particular instance, it's a traditional song, but the arrangement is by Fred McDowell. Reverend Gary Davis also had a very distinctive arrangement of it. But yeah, you sort of remind me of the fact that, you know, as I got into this whole music thing, one slowly begins to realize what responsibilities one has. And that was one of the early ones I think I encountered, this whole business of copyrighting, because when you're recording someone, well, you're really capturing some of their talent or you're capturing some of their ideas. People who write books, you know, OK, they go to a publisher, and they have their books written and copywrote and all that. But these vernacular musicians don't.

And so you're really responsible for protecting them. And I learned this really primarily from a good, old buddy down in south Louisiana, Eddie Shuler. He once heard my tapes. You know, I played them to him. And he says, Chris, what do you want that stuff for? Get their songs. I said, what do you mean, get their songs? I got them right there on the tape. No, man. That ain't what I'm talking about. Copyrights, get their copyrights. If Frank Sinatra or the Beatles want to make a big hit out of it, you know, then if you got the copyright, that's where you make the money. And you share that with the composer. So I kind of learned that, you know? You don't read that in books, but you begin to realize what responsibilities you have in life.

GROSS: So how did you handle it on "You Got To Move?"

STRACHWITZ: Well, there, that was - (laughter) you opened a can of worms. OK. Mr. Klein, who was the manager of the Rolling Stones, he insisted, of course, that everything the Stones recorded was theirs. However, Mick Jagger was good enough to put on the first recording of that particular version that they did the name of Fred McDowell. He listed that as the composer on the Atlantic label. OK, all hell broke loose. I said, Fred, where did you learn this song? He said, Chris, I learned it out of a book. And then Manny Greenhill...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STRACHWITZ: ...Who represented Reverend Gary Davis, called me. And he said, Chris, you know, Reverend Gary Davis wrote that song, not Fred McDowell. I says, Manny, you and everybody else knows it's a traditional song. There are various arrangements that may be worth copyrighting here, you know? And so we finally had it out. And we agreed that as long as somebody would record Fred McDowell's version, which had that slide guitar, very eerie sort of thing, it would be mostly going to Fred McDowell. If they were recording the very fingerpicked guitar style of Reverend Gary Davis' version, he would get most of the copyrights. But it is a traditional song. And I think all you can do is handle the arrangement of it. And Fred McDowell was - before he died, he was absolutely amazed. I handed him a check for over $7,000. He says, Chris, I can't believe it. But I'm glad somebody out there likes my music.

GROSS: Well, let's get to the border region and play some music of the Southwest. You have a film that you did along with Les Blank. It's called "Chulas Fronteras."

STRACHWITZ: "Chulas Fronteras," yeah.

GROSS: And...

STRACHWITZ: We did that - oh, that's almost over 10 years, 15 years ago. But it's still a classic.

GROSS: Now, what kind of music are you playing on here?

STRACHWITZ: This is what most people down there call conjunto music. But of course, the Spanish word conjunto simply means group. In Cuba, they call groups conjuntos, etc. But down there in south Texas, it means a group that consists of button accordion, a bajo sexto, which is a big, fat 12-string guitar, a bass and drums, usually. And that was the popular music at the time in the '60s. It still is pretty strong. But, you know, tastes do change. And the kids go for something a little bit more modern, sort of schmaltzy nowadays. But conjunto music at its best was this absolutely powerful, powerful - what shall I say? - vernacular music of that time and the place, you know? It still goes on strong. Yeah.

GROSS: Well, this is the accordionist Flaco Jimenez. And the song is "Un Mojado Sin Licencia."

STRACHWITZ: "Un Mojado Sin Licencia" - "A Wetback Without A License." That was written by his father, the late Santiago Jimenez. Yeah.

GROSS: OK, let's give it a listen.


FLACO JIMENEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

BIANCULLI: Chris Strachwitz spoke to Terry Gross in 1990. The founder of Arhoolie Records died earlier this month. He was 91 years old. The book "Arhoolie Records Down Home Music: The Photographs And Stories Of Chris Strachwitz" will be published in October. On Monday's show, Wanda Sykes. In her new Netflix comedy special, called "I'm An Entertainer," she talks about raising teenagers with her French wife and what it's like to live in the world after a pandemic, an insurrection and George Floyd. She also stars in Mel Brooks' "History Of The World, Part II." Her last comedy special was the 2019 Emmy-nominated "Not Normal." Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram at @nprfreshair.


BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) Feeling alright this morning because my baby's coming home. Hey, I feel alright this morning, my baby's coming home.

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. For Terry Gross and co-host Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli.


BIG MAMA THORNTON: (Singing) Oh, I love my baby, child, better than I do myself. I got to let the whole world know about it because I don't want nobody else. Well, all right.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.