To all of us discovering folk and roots music over the latter decades of the 20th century, Chris Strachwitz, with his Arhoolie Records label and Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, was a long-limbed, grinning, venerated guide. By the time he passed away from heart failure on May 5, a few weeks short of his 92nd birthday, Strachwitz had shepherded more than 400 albums and had established the nonprofit Arhoolie Foundation to help showcase and support a dazzling bounty of genres.
The catalogue of Arhoolie and its associated labels comprised blues, Cajun, zydeco, Tejano, Norteño, klezmer, sacred steel, bluegrass, and other forms of American and global music. Shared royalties from Strachwitz’s 1966 recording of Country Joe and the Fish’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die” had helped subsidize the then six-year-old label and move it into the building on San Pablo Avenue, whose upper floor later became the headquarters of documentarian Les Blank’s Flower Films. Strachwitz provided inspiration and audio for Blank’s 1976 film Chulas Fronteras, about norteño music, and 1989’s J’ai Été Au Bal, about the Cajun, Creole, and zydeco culture of Louisiana.
Both men reveled in traveling to the sources of the music. “Chris likes to just come into your kitchen to make a recording,” Cajun musician Ann Savoy, who appears in the latter film and records for Arhoolie, told me in 1995. “He’s not frantic about being technically perfect, he goes for the feeling.” Strachwitz’s influence extended into pop music, making early fans and then longtime friends of Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, and introducing bluesman Fred McDowell’s “You Gottta Move” into the repertoire of the Rolling Stones (from which both McDowell and Strachwitz reaped substantial royalties). Strachwitz was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame and earned a Grammy Trustees Award and a Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
After he relocated to an assisted living center in San Rafael, Strachwitz shared with me a remembered encounter with Moses Asch, the founder of Folkways Records. “Before he died, in 1986, Moe said, ‘Chris, you’ve got to think of what you’ll have done with your stuff when you pass from this Earth.” Accordingly, Strachwitz passed maintenance and distribution of the Arhoolie catalogue to the Smithsonian Folkways label, in 2016. The Arhoolie Foundation, still based at the Down Home Music site in El Cerrito, maintains exhibits, YouTube channels, and the Chris Strachwitz Frontera Collection of some 44.000 records, issued commercially between 1906 and the 1990s, of Mexican and Mexican-American vernacular music.
An annotated collection of Strachwitz’s photographs will be published by Chronicle Books this fall. On the occasion of his 91st birthday last year, Strachwitz advised friends and colleagues, “Do things that you enjoy doing,” and added, “I’ve been very lucky in that regard.” A public celebration of Strachwitz’s life will be announced by the Foundation in the coming weeks.