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Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records, and Traditional Blues Field Recordings

By Matthew Block

In the twenties and thirties commercial recording companies such as Columbia, Paramount and the General Phonograph Corporation sent `field units' into the American South to record traditional black vernacular music. They were sent in answer to a growing demand for phonograph records within the black community. Rural blues singers, preachers, guitar evangelists and jazz bands were recorded in Memphis, Atlanta, Dallas, New Orleans and other Southern cities after the success of Mamie Smith's breakthrough Okeh release, `Crazy Blues.' Record executives had little idea of the important role they played to preserve such an important body of American music. Their efforts preserved vital works by such musicians as Bessie Smith, Charlie Patton, Blind Blake, Son House, Bill Broonzy, Blind Boy Fuller, Robert Johnson and countless others.

The blues revival of the sixties, though, provided different reasons for the documentation and purveyance of black folk music. Black music was no longer being made for strictly a black audience: The folk boom of the sixties created an awareness of the music within the white community. And the documentation was no longer instigated by large record companies, but rather by small independents headed by enthusiasts and collectors. These blues enthusiasts and researchers were embarking on field trips to locate and rediscover musicians who had last recorded in the twenties and thirties. Many black folk musicians had fallen into obscurity before the second World War due to war-time shellac rationing and the Petrillo Recording Ban. In the late forties and fifties race-recording had been critically impaired and many promising careers fell by the wayside.

One of the most important and successful blues enthusiasts to emerge in the sixties folk renaissance was Polish-born immigrant Chris Strachwitz; owner of Arhoolie Records. At one time a one-man field recording operation, Arhoolie has gone on to become one of the most important roots-based labels in the world. Their catalog reaches far beyond traditional blues to include tex-mex, cajun, jazz, hillbilly, and other folk traditions. Strachwitz is known for running his label as a hobby; recording music for its intrinsic value rather than its simple selling devices.

In 1947, at the age of sixteen, Chris emigrated to the United States and settled on the West Coast. During his early years in the U.S. he developed varied tastes in music, forming an appreciation for Traditional Jazz, Hillbilly music, gospel, cajun, blues and R&B. His idea of making records grew out of a hobby of collecting 78 rpm recordings of various vernacular traditions. Bob Groom states in his book, `The Blues Revival'(Studio Vista,1971), "In the `50s Chris built up an impressive record collection, including many blues 78s, and helped pioneer the discography and research of post-war blues." Groom goes on to postulate that Stratchwitz eventually formed The International Blues Record Club as a way of "promoting the buying and selling of blues records and exhausting his personal surplus."

Chris Strachwitz started dabbling in independent recording during his years at Pomona College where he recorded the school jazz band led by Preservation Hall trombonist Frank Demond. Later, as Chris states, "When I moved north and attended UC Berkeley, I visited Oakland, California record producer Bob Geddins on many occasions and he, more than anyone else, showed me how to make recordings." It was Bob Geddins who introduced Chris to the itinerant bluesman, Big Joe Williams. Big Joe had made his way west in hopes of finding more lucrative work, but ironically, his luck turned sour when he was arrested in Oakland for pulling a knife during an argument. After Joe's release, Stratchwitz set up a series of sessions at his house and the recordings that resulted were remarkably honest accounts of Joe's emotional difficulties and hard times. These recordings, aptly titled "Tough Times," were some of Big Joes' best. Basically field sessions done in the intimate setting of Chris' home, they later became Arhoolie's second LP release.

Two important field trips into Texas and the South in 1960 produced a large amount of recorded material, biographical documentation, interviews, and wonderfully candid photographs. These historic trips unearthed both established and unknown blues and folk artists; many of whom went on to become integral parts of the blues revival movement. Chris' plans to document and record traditional rural blues in the South was spawned out of a passion for Lightning Hopkins, to whom he was introduced a year earlier in Houston by Texas folklorist and blues researcher Mack McCormick. McCormick was instrumental in Strachwitz' success in the field: as a schooled folklorist, he provided vital history of Texas and its musicians. The Stratchwitz-McCormick combination's thoroughness and passion for the music and its history created the first of a series of recordings by some of the most important artists of the blues revival. Stratchwitz was like an A&R man from the `20s and `30s; calculating in his method and planning, commercially-driven though scientifically-minded. The brilliant songster Mance Lipscomb was discovered in Navasota, Texas and his vast repertoire of blues, barrelhouse, reels, breakdowns and religious tunes were carefully recorded by Strachwitz and McCormick. Insightful interviews were conducted that exposed Mance's brutal upbringing and his years under the control of a harsh sharecropping system.The first Arhoolie release, Mance Lipscomb's Texas Songster, was a view into the history of a vital American musician. It not only showcased Mance's wonderful playing, but explained the origins of the music as well.

Other important musicians would be discovered and re-discovered by Strachwitz in Texas during his second 1960 trip there accompanied by British blues scholar Paul Oliver and his wife Valerie. Paul and his wife were in the U.S. researching blues musicians through a grant from the British government when they met up with Strachwitz at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis. This group was essentially a research team; carefully planning out strategies from a list Paul had compiled of previously-recorded blues singers. Chris accurately and unobtrusively captured musicians in their own element and Paul Oliver added an element of scholarly diligence and historic knowledge to the projects. Wonderfully original artists such as the lap-steel guitarist B.K. Turner, who originally recorded as `The Black Ace' in the '30s, and Texas pianist-poet Alexander Moore were recorded in depth; doing both familiar and new material. Melvin Lil' Son Jackson, who originally recorded for the Gold Star and Imperial labels, was rediscovered in Dallas, and, although his repertoire was limited, his guitar style and haunting vocals were quite stunning.

The Strachwitz-Oliver team did further recordings and research in Mississippi and Louisiana. While in Hollandale, Mississippi, Sam Chatmon - an original member of the Mississippi Sheiks, was recorded doing very honest and poignant themes such as "I Have to Paint My Face" and "God Don't Like Ugly"; songs usually done for a purely black audience. Following a lead from pioneer field researcher Alan Lomax, Strachwitz paid a visit to Fred McDowell in Como, Mississippi. Fred, a wonderfully adept exponent of the Northern Mississippi hill country tradition, was in fine form when Strachwitz recorded his traditional material and personal improvisations between `64 and `65. Fred's brilliant musicianship and wailing vocals were a favorite with the `60s folk audience; his travel in Europe gained him world-wide appreciation and respect. It was Strachwitz' keen insights into song publishing that provided Fred with a little money when the Rolling Stones covered "You Gotta Move" on the Sticky Fingers album. In the same trip, many other unknown musicians such as pianist Jasper Love and Louisiana musicians Butch Cage and Willie Thomas were documented and researched. The result of these early trips in the South is a body of work as important as anything in modern musical history.

Arhoolie went on to record and document blues musicians as far afield as Virginia and as close to home as the Bay Area. Strachwitz continued recording musicians `in the field' as much as possible, but also used recording studios when necessary. Many musicians he worked with became very important players in the blues revival, including: John Jackson, K.C.Douglas, Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Dr.Ross, and Alexander Moore.

Strachwitz accepted other researchers' material on his label as well: Folklorists Harry Oster and George Mitchell contributed seminal collections of field work, photos, and liner notes of terrific artists such as Robert Pete Williams, Joe Callicott, Smoky Babe, Othar Turner, and R.L. Burnside.

Stratchwitz' technique and rapport with artists created honest and often moving performances which captured the essence of the folk-artist. From the appealing, vivid photography of their covers, to the insightful commentary of the liner notes, the Arhoolie records' importance in the history of blues recording and documentation is unparalleled.

Bob Groom, "The Blues Revival," Studio Vista, 1971.
Lawrence Cohn, editor. "Nothing But the Blues," Abbeville Press, 1993.
R.M.Dixon and John Godrich, "Recording the Blues," Stein and Day, 1970.
Paul Oliver, liner notes to Arhoolie CD 374, Black Ace- "The Boss Card in Your Hand."
Mack McCormick, liner notes to Arhoolie CD 306, Mance Lipscomb- "Texas Songster."
Chris Strachwitz, liner notes to Arhoolie CD 432, Various Artists- "I Have to Paint My Face," and Arhoolie CD304, Fred McDowell- "Mississippi Delta Blues."