The last night of SXSW found me longing for the opportunity of discovery. Toss the official schedule, walk off the beaten path, and let the smell of Texas barbecue and the sound of new music guide me to euphoria. Problem with that was I was about two thousand miles away from Austin, the only path I could find was along the tracks of the Harlem Line of Metro North, and it was too cold and too early in the season for even the birds to sing their sweet songs. After a day on my feet and with no live music in the neighborhood, I opted for my default audio-visual excursion into the wilds of on-demand cable and Netflix streaming.
Options seemed slim at first, as I’ve caught up on most of my guilty pleasures. The HBO show Vice has been my latest vice, but there’s only so much international death and despair I can take in one sitting. Sonic Highways, which documents the Foo Fighters’ continental traverse of eight cities to record the album of the same name, looked like a good possibility. One of the producers is an old friend of mine, and I really liked the episode in DC featuring Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugazi. But it just didn’t speak to my mood.
Lacking any new content from any of the various Kardashian clan members, and with no interest in Larry King’s infomercial on fish oil, I swapped remotes and decided to scan the Netflix menu. I’m not sure if they offer the same library of films and television shows internationally, but in America they actually have a decent selection of music documentaries. (Ed’s Pick: If you haven’t watched The Punk Singer about Bikini Kill and specifically Kathleen Hanna, do check it out.)
Whatever algorithm Netflix uses for recommendations, they hit it out of the park when on my list I found This Ain’t No Mouse Music!, the story of songcatcher Chris Strachwitz. And while music takes center stage, the leading man is this most extraordinary German-born folklorist, archivist, fanatical record collector and founder of Arhoolie Records who has spent over 50 years preserving American roots music. Produced and directed by Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling, who each previously worked with the world-renowned documentarian Les Blank, the film uses both archival and new footage for a look into Chris’ world.
The stories come alive when you hear them straight from the man who traveled to Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana in the early ’60s to record blues musicians such as Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Big Mama Thornton, and Fred McDowell. Hopkins introduced Strachwitz to his wife’s cousin Clifton Chenier, and in 1965 Strachwitz recorded Chenier in Houston. This led Strachwitz to make dozens of Cajun and Creole recordings from New Orleans with musicians such as Beausoleil, Autin Pitre, Amede Ardoin, Canray Fontenot, and others.
Over the years, Strachwitz loaded the car with his tape recorder and microphones to cruise throughout the countryside, and he’d set up on porches, in the fields, at beer joints, and local festivals. In addition to the blues, he added country, bluegrass, old time, Mexican regional, Tejano, world, jazz, gospel, folk, and polka to the Arhoolie catalog. He recorded and released Country Joe and The Fish’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” in exchange for the publishing rights, which earned him quite a bit of money after Joe got thrown on the stage at Woodstock a few years later and the moment was preserved on film and soundtrack. The cash infusion helped finance Strachwitz’s field recordings and fueled his record consumer passion. (He gave the publishing back to Joe after 20 years.)
Along with Strachwitz’s recollections and stories, interviews in This Ain’t No Mouse Music! are woven together to present an oral history of this man and his work. Some of the people you’ll see and hear are Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Flaco Jimenez, Michael Doucet, Richard Thompson, Santiago Jimenez Jr., The Pine Leaf Boys, the Treme Brass Band, No Speed Limit, and various friends, colleagues, folklorists, and the staff from the label and store.
Another aspect to Strachwitz’s story is that he is a fanatical collector of 78s, many of which he has released on compilations. In 1995 he founded the Arhoolie Foundation to document, preserve, present, and disseminate authentic traditional and regional music. So far he has donated over 17,000 78s, 23,000 45s, and 4,000 albums of Mexican-American and Mexican vernacular music that are being digitized. The foundation also has financed films and educational programs.
This film has been kicking around the festival circuit off and on for almost two years, and it’s now available on DVD as well as being screened at select theaters and universities. There’s also a companion soundtrack available, and you can find it and the entire amazing music catalog on the Arhoolie Records website. Here’s a few tunes to get you in the mood …
This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.