“I never recorded a music that I didn’t like.”
These are the words of the late Chris Strachwitz (July 1, 1931–May 5, 2023), a beloved and respected giant of American roots music, who left us at the age of ninety-one. But Chris is not gone. He is still with us in the millions of lives he touched through his work, the thousands of regional Americana recordings he collected, the hundreds of albums he published on his Arhoolie Records label, and the many dozens of deep and enduring friendships he made with music makers, producers, and collectors.
Chris seamlessly melded his personal passions with his lifetime projects of recording music and safeguarding regional and ethnic music recordings made by others. He leaves us a living legacy in Arhoolie Records (made available for future generations as part of the Smithsonian Folkways collections), in the Strachwitz Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings housed at UCLA, and in a treasure trove of photographs, film, other documentation, and ephemera parlayed into public programming by the Arhoolie Foundation.
Chris’s life was a work of art. Over more than six decades, he created a major masterpiece of recordings embodying his own intrinsic nature, his personal tastes in music, and his uncompromising championing of “down home music.” He had zero patience for dollar-driven pop music distanced from people’s daily lives, as witnessed in Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon’s 2013 film This Ain’t No Mouse Music! The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records. He spent his life’s time, talent, and treasure recording the musicians that he did like, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Cajun accordionist Mark Savoy, zydeco bandleader Clifton Chenier, bluegrass pillar Del McCoury, and, in the Latin world, Tejana singer-guitarist Lydia Mendoza, Tejano accordionist Flaco Jiménez, Flaco’s father and brother Santiago Jiménez and Santiago Jiménez, Jr., Los Alegres de Terán, and many more.
I met Chris Strachwitz right on the cusp of 1977 moving into 1978, in Boca del Río, Veracruz, Mexico. I was there on a Fulbright-Hays fellowship researching the regional traditional music called son jarocho. Chris, fifteen years my senior and by then a lauded record producer of folk music, had launched Arhoolie’s Music of Mexico series, documenting son jarocho among many of the country’s other rich and unique musical traditions. Through mutual acquaintances, he knew enough about me to know that our musical tastes likely coincided, and he contacted me to see if I would work with him to record local musicians.
Chris drove from the San Francisco Bay Area to Veracruz in his sedan filled with recording equipment. I watched his muse and mastery at work, figuring out who, what, and where to record. In the open restaurant area of the classy Hotel Mocambo, he set up his Nagra reel-to-reel recorder and microphone configurations to get just the right acoustic sound. But what impressed me the most was his rapport with the musicians. Despite his nearly nonexistent Spanish, his unabashed interest in the musicians and their music, combined with the seriousness and obvious technical skill he brought to the occasion, were impossible to ignore. Chris paid them a fair wage and took down the information he needed to pay them future royalties. Over the next several decades, I saw that he saw this not so much as a contractual obligation, but rather as an act of respect for their artistry and special gifts to humanity.
The recording came out later in 1978, titled Music of Mexico, Vol. 1: Veracruz: Sones Jarochos, by Conjunto Alma Jarocha (Jarocho Soul Ensemble), with a striking cover image of all six musicians in their daily dress standing in front of one of their homes. Decades later, a relatively lucrative licensing deal brought in a gush of money, and Chris made a real effort to locate the musicians, several of whom had passed on, to share the earnings with them. He enlisted me to find one of them, whom I located in the small town of Paso del Toro living in heartbreaking poverty, barely getting around on one crutch and mainly blind with glaucoma. When I handed him his share of the license income, he broke down and cried with gratitude. This is a glimpse of Chris Strachwitz at work.
In a 2022 recorded interview with Chris about the shaping of his life, he took me back to his youth in what was then Germany-controlled Silesia in the 1930s and early 1940s. During the turbulent Hitler years, forced laborers and people with labels on their clothes identifying them as “other people” (P for Polish, a Star of David for Jewish, for example) were moved into the area where he lived. As a young boy, he did not grasp the dark meaning of what this situation represented. Rather, he was fascinated by the working-class people speaking languages other than his native German and the different kinds of money they brought from their homelands. He spent time talking to them and bartering with them for Danish kroner, Polish zlotys, Russian rubles, French francs, and other coins and bills. He was a collector of things, but also an admirer of the people represented by those things, along with their languages and cultures.
At the same time, Chris loved recordings. At age seven, he was given his first 78 rpm records. One was a joyful song about the air in Berlin, from an operetta, a song which he particularly liked because it was a nice contrast to the Nazis’ ever-present march music. One day, his father told him, “Christian, you can’t play that record anymore.” When he asked why, his father explained that if the village Nazi leader heard him playing music by a Jewish composer, it could cause trouble for his family. Young Chris was perplexed, because at that age, he didn’t even know what Jews were. Once when his mother took him to the dentist, he saw a woman with a “J” on her dress, sweeping streets. He recalled the disturbed emotions that sight provoked in him as a young child, remembering, “That whole scenario became really, really weird to me.”
After the war, his family relocated teenage Chris to Carpinteria, California, in 1947. In the United States, he discovered other cultures new to him, this time through their music. He was a fan of radio, particularly broadcasts of what was called hillbilly music, blasted far northward from high-powered stations just across the Mexican border and thus not regulated by American laws and media limitations. Later in college, he discovered New Orleans jazz via the radio and worked hard to learn what he could about these sounds and people that fascinated him. He yearned to know more and more about American roots musics. “I just fell in love with all these amazing regional musical traditions that I heard,” he reminisced.
After a few years of serving in the U.S. Army in Austria, he took work as a German teacher at Saratoga High School in Los Gatos, California. (Years later, a former student told him he was a lousy teacher, but he had the best music in class!) He eventually decided that teaching was not for him, and he made the leap to start a record label in 1961. Arhoolie Records was born.
As a record producer and record label owner, Chris parlayed his admiring fascination with working-class music makers and his zeal for collecting into something ever grander. In addition to making new recordings, he was a collector of Mexican and Mexican American border music. Collectors are often not thought of as artists, but Chris collected a body of work with his own strong sense of connoisseurship and cultural point of view. He traveled around Texas and other border areas searching for early 78 rpm records. He said he favored the most worn-out records, feeling that since their owners played them so much, they must have really liked them. Over more than a half-century, his collection of early pioneer recordings of Mexican border music became a masterwork of collecting and the largest of its kind. Chris was a true believer in the value of the music and culture and wanted it to be part of the United States’ and the world’s cultural future. With a generous, substantial donation from the GRAMMY-studded Mexican norteño group Los Tigres del Norte, the collection was passed to UCLA for long-term preservation, digitization, and public access.
Looking back on his life’s journey, Chris reflected, “I enjoyed myself. I learned so much every step of the way. And to me, learning that way was [the best]. I felt an awe, you know?”
Even as a nonagenarian, he actively continued his life’s work of art, especially through the Arhoolie Foundation, which he founded, featuring videos, articles, recordings, and recognition awards to American roots artists. And his life’s masterpiece—Arhoolie Records—lives on within Folkways as a premier folk music collection of the U.S. national museum.
Daniel Sheehy is director and curator emeritus of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings.