Society for American Music
2004 Honorary Member

Chris Strachwitz

 

What shall we say about a handsome self-made man from California

who speaks with a German accent

who rose to power in the media world

who at first seemed an unlikely candidate for the status he enjoys today

who achieved this status with the support of ordinary folk from many
backgrounds

and who has developed a magnificent body of films and recordings that document traditional musicians from this country and beyond?

Rest assured, we are not talking about the current governor of California.

Since the late 1950s Chris Strachwitz has sought out, recorded, and shared with the rest of us a treasure trove of vernacular music, at first traditions from the United States and later those from Mexico and other parts of the world as well. He has embraced this music, and the people who make it, with respect and intelligence, impeccable taste, a superb aesthetic, cheerful persistence, high standards of scholarship, and remarkable honesty. In 1960 he founded Arhoolie Records and produced his first LP, a 250-copy pressing of Manse Lipscomb's Texas Sharecropper and Songster. This is still available, now on CD with additional material. Many more recordings followed, some three
hundred on Arhoolie and subsidiary labels, and they continue to appear. The five-CD set published in 2000, Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection, 1960-2000: The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, with its Grammy-winning liner notes (by Elijah Wald), samples this catalog and will provide the best starting point for those who have yet to discover Chris and his amazing achievement. Here we find blues, bluegrass, country, Cajun, zydeco, Tex-Mex, jazz, gospel, klezmer, sacred steel-forms that began "under the national radar" and have, to varying extent, found a mainstream audience. If these artists and sounds seem like old friends today, we should remember that it was often Chris who made the first introduction.

What prepared Chris to become a one-man institution who could command the whole process--go into backwaters and hidden corners of the country with an uncanny knack for finding exceptional musicians, interview and photograph them, record them, edit those tapes, remaster recordings others had made, reproduce the sounds on LP or CD, write the notes, design the jackets, and market and promote everything so effectively? He seemed to come out of nowhere, tackling the tedious chores while relishing the romance of it all.

The folklife Chris might have been aware of as a boy in Germany would have been peasant life in the classic sense. Facing a different scene as a teenager in 1947, when he and his family came to America, he found refuge in the intensity of rhythm and blues, hillbilly, gospel, jazz, and Mexican ranchera music and bought as many records as he could. He spent a couple years in the army, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, and taught high school German near San Jose for three years. But an academic career was not in his future, and just as well. Had it been, he would surely have been frustrated by the lack of freedom to simply follow his heart and curiosity and work with the music he loves. He is not a man to be confined.

In those years Chris had gotten to know Bob Pinson and other record collectors. He also met Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, who gave him entrée to blues singers in Texas. One thing led to another. After putting out a few blues LPs on Arhoolie, Chris reissued some of the hillbilly 78s from Bob Pinson's collection, having made the linkage very early between those two realms. When Lightning Hopkins introduced Chris to his cousin-by-marriage Clifton Chenier in 1964, he moved easily to the French traditions of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

His grandest venture came in the early 1970s, when he immersed himself in Tex-Mex and tejano music, amassing a huge collection, probably the world's largest, of commercial recordings of vernacular music from both sides of the Border. His Frontera Collection, including many one-of-a-kind items, consists of approximately 15,000 78 rpm discs (dating from ca. 1906 to 1960), ca. 17,000 45 rpm discs (ca. 1953 to 1995), and ca. 3500 33 rpm LP albums (1950s to 1990s). He made the film Chulas Fronteras in 1976 (with Les Blank), and in 1994 published a wonderful book (with Jim Nicolopulos) about the legendary singer known as the Lark of the Border, Lydia Mendoza.

Chris's most recent gift to us, through CDs and video, is sacred steel, the dynamic worship music of the House of God Keith Dominion
Holiness-Pentecostal Church, featuring electric steel guitars and spirit beyond belief. While House of God members have developed this tradition since the 1930s, it remained within the church until just a few years ago. (SAM members will remember the powerful sacred steel evening during our Charleston meeting.)

In 1976 Chris started the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, California, true heaven for anyone interested in records, books, and other materials dealing with vernacular and world music. Two years later he started a distribution company for his own recordings and those of other firms. Those businesses, now spun off, continue to thrive and serve an international audience.

Chris is known for his forthright opinions, instinctively reached and freely shared. We can have no doubt about what he thinks. Vernacular music,
regional music, the music of local communities is what turns him on. He vibrates, he glows. Think rough, raw, intense, lowdown, unmediated,
unprocessed, unapologetic. Think Fred McDowell, Lightning Hopkins, Country Joe and the Fish, the Hodges Brothers, Mainer's Mountaineers, Hazel Dickens, Rose Maddox, Del McCoury, Clifton Chenier, BeauSoleil, Flaco and Santiago Jimenez, Lydia Mendoza, the Campbell Brothers and Katie Jackson. Secondhand interpreters, such as those folk revivalists who are still household names, and their descendants, qualify as "Mickey Mouse" pablum, their groups as "mouse bands."

In recent years, Chris has reflected more on the concept of vernacular music and on organizations that share his commitment to the traditions he values. He established the Arhoolie Foundation in 1995 "for the purpose of helping to document, present, and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music." Its primary asset is his Frontera Collection. In this new role as elder statesman, he continues to serve the cause of American music, and vernacular music everywhere, from the ground up.

Honors have come his way, and not just Grammy nominations and awards. In 1994 his Lydia Mendoza book earned the ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research. The next year brought NAIRD's Hall of Fame Award. In 2000 he became the very first recipient of the NEA's Bess Lomax Hawes National Heritage Fellowship for his major contributions to "the excellence, vitality, and public appreciation of traditional arts and artists."

Chris's resourcefulness and scholarship, his productivity and incredible energy, even after so many decades, and most of all his personal commitment and integrity and the sheer joy he brings to this enterprise continue to inspire us all. With great respect, admiration, and affection we welcome the Society for American Music's new honorary member, Chris Strachwitz.

Citation by Judith McCulloh