Arhoolie Records Down Home Music
The Stories and Photographs of Chris Strachwitz
Chronicle Books, 2023
Review by Bruce Miller
Chris Stratchwitz never saw himself as a record producer, even though his label, Berkley, California-based Arhoolie records, produced hundreds of albums. Likewise, he never saw himself as a photographer either, even though he always brought a camera to recording sessions and festivals where he visually documented the various streams of mid-twentieth century American folk music released on Arhoolie. And because he passed away at the age of 91 earlier this year, it only made sense to collect many of his best photos for a book, Arhoolie Records: Down Home Music.
German-born, American raised Stratchwitz’s decision to open his own label to record his favorite bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, is well known. And while Texas songster Mance Lipscomb was actually the first record the label issued, in 1960, recordings by Hopkins and other Texas-based blues players followed, before he branched out to other areas of the American south and beyond. Just in time for the folk/blues revival of the 1960’s, Arhoolie captured post-discovery Fred McDowell, as well as Big Joe Williams and more obscure blues players such as Herman E. Johnson and fiddler Butch Cage. He captured the most blisteringly intense gospel ever laid to tape when he documented Rev Louis Overstreet in one his typical COGIC church services in Phoenix, AZ. He also documented the Creole Cajun brilliance of “Bois Sec” Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, the Nashville Street Band of Blind James Campbell, the surreal oil barrel percussion and vocals of George “Bongo Joe” Coleman, the Tex-Mex border accordion of Flaco Jimenez, Mexican fiddle Juan Reynoso, Tejano singer/guitarist Lydia Mendoza, New Orleans jazz legends Billie and De De Pierce, and Sacred Steel guitar masters Sonny Treadway and Aubrey Ghent.
This book, heavy, deep, and fit for a coffee table, gives a second life to his achievements. Here are richly detailed black and white photographs of a Czech swing band in a North Houston dance Hall; Big Joe Williams and his extended family in front of his Crawford, Mississippi home; the Eureka Brass Band parading down a New Orleans street; the Hackberry Ramblers in a Lake Charles, La. Club; Zydeco godfather Clifton Chenier hanging out with Bonnie Raitt at New Orleans’ jazzfest in 1977; Lightnin’ Hopkins kicked back in the grass at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival; and many of the photos that ended up on various LP covers over the years. Accompanying the visuals is commentary, much of it by Stratchwitz, which serves to tell the stories of how some of these photos came to be. It also allows his humor and opinions a bit of space.
Stratchwitz understood the power of music that had little to no commercial potential. He also recognized that capturing the unadulterated sounds these musicians produced would allow their music to be immortal. His photographs carry the same timelessness, capturing the raw truth of what turned out to be a radically expansive soundworld. As a result, the sounds and photos he collected feel less like an act of preservation and more the tenacious passion of a man who knew what he liked when he heard it.
Celebrating the Life of Chris Strachwitz (1931-2023) at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, CA