Interview: DOWN HOME MUSIC – The Stories and Photographs of Chris Strachwitz


The Stories and Photographs of Chris Strachwitz
By Joel Selvin with Chris Strachwitz

Lightnin' Hopkins

It’s 1959 in Houston and the summer is beyond hot. Around Dowling Street the blues feels like it’s everywhere. But the king of Dowling, even then, was playing on the corner sidewalk sitting in a kitchen chair, with a big can of Schlitz beer next to him. He’s entered the Lightnin’ Zone, that place only he can get to with a voice like razor wire and a guitar he plays like a hammer. Watching him go deep into his soul is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Even if I am only nine-years-old.

There are others in Houston living in the glow of Lightnin’ Hopkins, even if the bluesman isn’t really famous. Still, he cuts a wide trail when he stands up and walks down the street towards his home, carrying his guitar by the neck. Hopkins has had semi-successful records, and is someone who knows exactly how to carry himself to stay out of trouble. Sometimes it involves a small pistol in one boot, and a half-pint of gin in the other. That’s what blues people do to stay safe and satisfied. In 1959 he is getting ready to have company, someone that will help him take his blues around the world.

The man who founded Arhoolie Records in 1959 when he went to Texas looking for Lightnin’ Hopkins was a true-blue monument to American roots music. Chris Strachwitz was clearly possessed by what he heard as a child growing up in Europe, and once he made it to American shores there was no turning back. On that bus trip to Houston where he did indeed find Hopkins, along with a life’s calling to share his passion for blues, country, conjunto, jazz and so much more, the man with the tape recorder and camera began a journey into greatness.

Strachwitz knew where he was meant to be and what to do, and did just that: recording hundreds of artists over the next six decades, as well as making photo images to illustrate just what a unique pilgrimage he was on. His new book, written with journalist surpreme Joel Selvin, DOWN HOME MUSIC, is a mind-riveting collection of photographs and memories that has never really been seen, not in this scope, and surely won’t be seen again. That’s because Chris Strachwitz was there to help start America’s education in itself for its rich musical heritage, and the record label he started to capture it all went beyond what anyone else did, or has done since. Arhoolie Records wrote the book about recording roots music, and now Strachwitz and his running buddy Selvin have created a book which captures it all.

Unfortunately Chris Strachwitz did not live long enough to see it published, but even that is the blues. There is nothing like it which has ever been done, just like there’s never been a man like Strachwitz who devoted his life to the thing he loved the most: American roots music in all its amazing configurations. DOWN HOME MUSIC is not only his life story. In so many ways it is also ours. Without this music, we would not be the country or people we are. This book is the roadmap to where it started and how it got here. Seeing is believing.

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Joel Selvin: In 2016, Arhoolie records was sold to the Smithsonian, and at that point a lot of the assets were transferred over to something called the Arhoolie Foundation, which Chris had been using to run his non-profit stuff. So among them were these photographs. Chris’s partner, a guy named Tom Diamant, supervised the scanning of Chris’s entire photo library and in the end, they had 17,000 images.

And the idea of a book comes up. One day he picks up the phone and calls me. And I think he was just looking for some advice, but he started spelling this out. And I just fucking highjacked the project right there. I said why would you want to pay for this Chris, let’s get paid to do this.

Chris and I had been friends since I was like 19 years old, even before the Chronicle. And the opportunity for me to do something like this with Chris was just overwhelming. I had I made it my practice my entire life to spend as much time with Chris Strachwitz as I could. And this meant that I would talk to him on the phone every day. I would see him two or three times a week over the period of a year. It was just a great opportunity to exercise my friendship and do something really valuable and by the way get my thing said about Arhoolie.

And I swear to God, Bill, in all the time that we spent together over the last year and a half, it never fucking entered my mind that Chris would die. I knew how old he was. He was wobbly and he was slow to do things. But the upstairs was 110 percent as always. His recollections were sharp, you know, his opinions were razer honed. He was all there. He was just a little wobbly and then he had this fall and the heart disease. He just didn’t have the reserves to come back from the surgery. But he saw the book. He saw the pages, we were done. But he should be here, not me.

Bill Bentley (Americana Highways): We’ll make do. Go back to when you met Chris what year was that, and what were your first impressions and how did your friendship get started?

Joel: So in Berkeley, the Arhoolie records thing had a kind of a presence, right. It was in the record stores. We all knew about the label and all of us, you know, young hippies had an Arhoolie record or two in our catalog. And I was — I started a kind of underground newspaper in 1970, and covered a lot of that stuff. I covered Lightnin’, I covered Mance, I covered Clifton. I used to go to those French dances at Saint Marks in Richmond that they did the live album of, and those remain in my top 10, maybe 5 musical experiences.

So that starts back then. And then when my newspaper went out of business, I still had all the light tables and Chris asked me to do his Arhoolie Occasional Number 2. So I edited and pasted up and caused to have published this tabloid promotional sheet. And I think that was in 1971. Then I started making contributions to the Chronicle, I had been a copy boy there and somebody was on vacation and they asked me to cover a show. And get this, Sergio Franco and Myron Cohen.

That was my first review for the Chronicle, so like having my foot in the door, I believe the first article I pitched them was an interview with Chris. And that was one of my very first articles there. And sometime in the 21st century, I did a magazine article in the Sunday magazine on Chris who’d won an award so he was part of my journalistic diet all through the Chronicle.

Bill: What was his presence like during those early years? Was he a big guy? I never got to meet him. I talked to him once but –

Joel: He was huge. He was this 6 foot 3, 6 foot 4, ambling guy that sort of shifted on his feet, and had the German language on his tongue, so he always sort of sounded a little foreign and a little shy. And he was the most unpretentious of people in the world. Keep in mind he is by birth titled nobility. He was Count Christian von Strachwitz. But he says it doesn’t count over here.

The Nazis brought him here. He grew up in what is now east Germany, or Poland, Silesia. His father was the count, the town aristocrat, they lived on a farm. He had an idyllic childhood, and then the war happened, and at the end of the war, he was catapulted out of east Germany into, get this, Reno, Nevada. And, oh, did he hate that. He had an inferiority complex, he didn’t speak English that well. He fucking hated cowboys and he picked up on Hunter Hancock. And heard the blues records. And he realized those guys felt the same way he did.

He went to the Cate School and he got the full upbringing. I believe he went to Claremont for college and then finished up at Cal Berkeley where he got a teaching credential and was teaching German in a public school in Los Gatos. Which is it now sort of south of Silicon Valley, but in those days was orchards. And that is when he got the postcard from Mack McCormick in 1959 saying they found Lightnin’ Hopkins. So he went down there, as soon as school went out, he went down and saw Lightnin’, and Lightnin’ was on stage singing about how the rain got him in trouble with his car getting to the club that night, and things weren’t going so well. And it turns out this was the night the guy came from California to hear poor Lightnin’ play. And that was Chris’s road to Damascus moment right there. As soon as school was up, that next year he packed up the tape recorder and headed back to Texas. They wanted to record Lil’ Son Jackson, but Lil’ Son Jackson wanted money. Can you imagine such a thing?

And so they bounced around. And they went looking for Tom Moore because they knew the Lightnin’ Hopkins song “Tom Moore’s Farm.” And they asked Tom Moore, if he knew any blues singers. He didn’t know any blues singers. But he knew some guy named Peg Leg at the railroad station. And Peg Leg sent him out to Navasota to meet Mance Lipscomb, who had never in his life left Navasota. That was sort of a magical era where there were like 12 white guys interested in this music. And here is Chris, this tall, goofy German who can’t conceal his enthusiasm. He was child-like in his enthusiasm. So it’s not hard to imagine that he can go into those really peculiar areas of our country, and they would hold him harmless.

I saw him around those guys. I saw him with Lightnin’, and with Clifton, and with Mance. And the affection was genuine, absolutely, the respect went both ways. It was — a truly remarkable guy.

Chris S. with Big Joe Williams & family

Bill: Do you think they started trusting him immediately, when they met him?

Joel: Hell no. They were black people who grew up in America. They knew better. And I think the same goes for the hillbillies, like the Hodges Brothers. Isn’t that a photograph, oh my God. That is that same first trip south too. And he always had the camera. Had the camera since he was in the Army in Germany.

Hodges Brothers
Hodges Brothers

He didn’t have a plan, he was just caught up in it and as far as the photographs go, get this Bill, he never thought of himself as a photographer. Of course, he never thought of himself as record producer either. And the photographs were there for the album cover and for publicity photos, and they were strictly utilitarian. And I will give you an example, there is a Sonny Boy Williams photo, he took outside the radio station in Helena. Could be the single most famous blues photograph, but until we published it in this book, nobody has ever seen the full frame because he always cropped it down to the musicians.

Sonny Boy Williamson

And the right-hand side of the photo is an overgrown field and dilapidated house, it looks like a gosh darn Walker Evans. It’s brilliant. But to Chris, he was like, huh, he knew what mattered to him was the guys playing music. And this would be a debate we would have, going through these photos. And I would run across some fantastic photo of a colored juke in Mississippi, I was like that is fantastic. Why do you want to run that? I go, Chris, they can’t all be pictures of guys with guitars and accordions. But that was just a note book thing for him. He would take a picture, he had no sense of himself as an esthetician. This was all just documenting his work.

It’s fantastic because he was a great photographer. He knew what to take the photo of. He knew what to include in the frame, he knew what was happening, and he knew what the story was his photo needed to tell. And those photos, man, you can hear the music in them. It’s the story of our country and those guys, they are poor white people, poor black people, who — poor Mexican Americans, Latinos and they have the story of America written in their songs. And Chris knew that.

Bill: And you can tell from the photos, the artists didn’t think they were any big deal. They were just kind of there to play music. But it wasn’t like, hey, we are the musicians.

Joel: Clifton wanted to be a star. That is where the crown comes from. But yeah you are right and they were all there as folk musicians in the generic sense of folk musicians, not in folk music like — Chris always used the term vernacular music. And I think that avoids the confusion. Didn’t Big Bill Broonzy say something about it’s all folk music, it’s made by folks.
But vernacular music sort of says it more practically. This is music made to be used in the culture from what it came.

Bill: When do you think he got the idea; I should record this, was it right at the start when he started going south?

Joel: 1960 he took the tape recorder with him. He had done some previous recordings just goofing around in Berkeley, test recordings. I think he took his recorder over to Jesse Fuller’s house. I think he recorded some musicians at parties. So he goofed around a little bit but as far as like making a record, that summer 1960, Navasota, Texas — Mance Lipscomb, he went to Texas with the express intent of recording these musicians. And like I said, he went back and cut a deal, and didn’t do Lil’ Son Jackson. But the first contact was $500.

Chris was so open and such a gusher of enthusiasm for things he loved that he couldn’t restrain himself. And you couldn’t fail to recognize the integrity of and authenticity of his emotion and his character. God, really, I loved the guy so much, and just spent as much time as with him as I could, and I could tell you a lot about him. And but I want to say this thing; of all the guys that I have met in the record business, Chris over and above all the others has my respect. And I will tell you why is because he never lost touch with his original bliss.

He never did a thing to make an extra nickel, never did a thing to sell an extra record. It was all about making a record. He wanted to hear for himself, making it the way he wanted it and sharing it if anybody else was interested. And the money was a byproduct. You know Ahmet Ertegun was the same way when he started out, but it didn’t last long, did it?

So the first one, they hand pasted on the album covers and carried them to Berkeley record stores. But it picked up speed kind of quickly, because of the folk music world, 1961, ’62. And so he got some traction. And he was selling 78s to European record collectors to make a living. And his whole sort of operation was in the basement. I think Chris was even sleeping there for a while. But it wasn’t until 1969 that he had any dough and that was because of “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.” He published that.

Bill: From Country Joe’s band?

Joel: Yeah, they needed a quick recording of it from the Vietnam Day Teach In. I think they were still the Instant Action Jug band. They were about to become Country Joe and the Fish, but they needed an instant recording and they went up to Chris’s house, and he recorded them in his living room and they asked them what his fee was for recording. And he goes, oh, just give me the publishing.

It was on 3 million selling albums, the Woodstock movie and all that kind of shit. And that put him in real estate and got him, you know, the folk music empire down on San Pablo Avenue, where Down Home Music is the retail store and he got his 78 library in a an earth quake proof building.

Mississippi Fred McDowell
Mississippi Fred McDowell

The Stones cut “You Got to Move” and credited on Sticky Fingers to Mississippi Fred McDowell but did not bother to pay him or license the song from this publisher, Tradition Music. And eventually they ended up splitting the money with Reverend Gary Davis. And truth is Chris was able to deliver a very large check to Fred while he was dying of cancer.
Chris was an aristocrat. He wasn’t in this for nickels or dimes. He was in this because he loved the music, and couldn’t think of anything else to do with his life. He was a monk about this stuff. He didn’t have a family, he didn’t have girlfriends he, didn’t have bad habits. He didn’t care about publicity, and he also didn’t see what he had done as significant as you and I do. You and I understand that this is like Alan Lomax on steroids. And nobody else is going to get to do this because the time is over. And this is the guy who did it. 400 albums, Bentley, good golly miss molly. And the depth of that catalogue is just unreal. You know whether we are talking about the Tex Mex stuff or the country blues stuff or the Zydeco stuff.

I mean, Del McCoury, the biggest blue grass musician in the world today, right. First record on Arhoolie. Flaco Jimenez, you know. That is an Arhoolie discovery. BeauSoleil, Beau Soleil was paying the rent for a long time because of the Lake Wobegone radio show.

You can see it all in what he did with Lightnin’. He knew what Lightnin’ was about. And he wasn’t trying to sell Lightnin’ records. He was trying to make Lightnin’ records. Everybody else that ever took Lightnin in the studio wanted to sell records. Chris let him think out loud on the guitar, beautiful, beautiful, pure stuff that only Chris would have captured. I came around to my thinking on Chris as a record producer, because I used to be real snobby about it and you know, I’m a pop music guy. And you know where that is at. I like compression, I like echos, I like reverb, all that kind of shit and I used to think Chris was like, you know, not serving the music. And doing this book I listened to a lot of it, again, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Those records needed to be that flat, and that dry, and you needed to feel like you were in Fred McDowell’s living room and you do.

Chris’s life was about music and about being with musicians and about making what they call empowering music. And this book seems to me the definitive history because of the photos, just the breadth of everything. And it’s all there. I intended it to be definitive. We consulted with his diaries, with his record logs, with his own extensive memory and recollection over every detail I wanted to know. And I intend it to be a definitive account of his career in recording.

I did not intend it to be a biography. And Chris and I had the same vision for this book. He wanted to tell his stories of the photos, and so that is where that is all cast in first person. I felt there needed to be an overarching context that created the reason for this. So literally every trip he took that he made records on, you know, it’s in that book. By the time I showed up, there was a stack of photos that had been culled with this in mind. The cut lines were recorded and then I wrote them. And Chris was super scrupulous about going back over this and changing little words. He says, I would never use this word okay.

Bill: And those captions are like a complete history on their own as well. His memories of it are very unique, the way he did it.

Joel: It’s so good to have that first person thing in there. You can really feel Chris and you really feel the moment of creation with the photo with a lot of those. And that is so — that lights up the book in a way that any essay I wrote just couldn’t match. But the essay has its own purpose. This thing needed context and needs details.

Like I said, I opened up the package from the publisher, and was just suffused with grief. It was a physical experience. And I don’t know how to frame that in any sort of like positive way, because Chris was a dear friend and — I will miss him for the rest of my life. To not have Chris at the other end of the phone, means that there is going to be a thousand questions I’m not going to have the answers to. It means there is hundreds of tacos I’m not going to eat.

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