Fifty Years of Howlin’

A visit with Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz


A mousey and suspicious woman tells me to leave my bag behind the counter, and so I rush to explain that I am meeting Mr. Strachwitz. An older gentlemen, also doing inventory, gives me the once over, adding a few cagey questions and eyefuls of boredom. But soon after, I am granted access to Arhoolie Records, one of a few quietly magnificent record stores still in existence.

Chris Strachwitz opened Arhoolie Records in 1960, in El Cerrito, on the lonely side of San Pablo Avenue. Strachwitz is regarded as a paragon of music preservation, an artist of musical taste and a distributor of rare and gritty sounds of clapboard chicken shacks in Louisiana and Texas beer joints, as well as Norteno border music dating back a century.

Strachwitz is predominately admired for reviving the careers of such seminal blues musicians as Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi Fred McDowell. He also owns the largest private collection of Mexican-American and Mexican music in the world, an ongoing digitization project primarily funded with grants by the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Grammy Foundation and the Los Tigres del Norte Foundation.

The Arhoolie Foundation’s mission is honorable in the highest degree: “The Arhoolie Foundation was established in 1995 to document, preserve, present and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music.”

This statement has made Strachwitz a hero to old-time music enthusiasts. For his time and contribution, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Blues Symposium in 1993; in 1999, he was inducted into the Blues Music Hall of Fame.

Strachwitz greets me with a big handshake. At age 79, he stands at six feet, four inches, dressed in a pumpkin-orange collared shirt beneath a navy-blue sweater. Pressed brown slacks, blue socks and shiny brown shoes complete the look, and he speaks like a bluesman, answering my questions in a wholesome, German, slack-jawed lilt.

We sit in desk chairs across from each other. Strachwitz plops his hands on the black arm rests and begins to mention his wayfaring of 1963, documented in the Arhoolie Foundation’s DVD Down Home Music: A Journey Through the Heartland 1963, just released this year. (With over 75 minutes of soulful music, the film’s footage is as scarce as hen’s teeth.) Then Strachwitz bounces into a story about Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“Anyplace Lightnin’ would go, I’d be delighted to go,” he says. “I remember driving to the southeast part of Houston, what they called ‘French Town.’ They had ship channels there. Man, the rats were enormous.” A phone call buzzes in.

“Excuse me,” Strachwitz says, “it’s my attorney.” I thumb through some notes, bluffing a temporary detachment. We are upstairs in his office, encircled by filing cabinets and records seemingly piled to the crevices of the room, surrounded by walls ornamented with forgotten vinyl, banana-colored T-Bone Walker posters and other blues memorabilia.

“I don’t think I’ll make another 50. I’ll see you over in glory land,” he laughs into the phone. “After this event, I’m going to have my hip replaced. I’m going to be a hippy instead of a hobbler.” Expeditious sentences follow, and then Strachwitz ends the call.

“Where was I?” He asks. “Oh! Hopkins . . . So we go to this little beer joint, and Lightnin’ sets up his amplifier on top of a table and plays for a dozen people at the most, a real funky, down-home audience. This was really community music. And that still goes on in certain musical enclaves. But blues, I sort of left that when I saw that it was no longer really appealing to blacks. But when I started, it was still definitely happening.”

Strachwitz continues: “There were a lot of people out here from Louisiana and from Texas, you know. I always remember Rockin’ Lucky—he was a DJ on the old KSAN in San Francisco. It was an AM station at the time. This was in the early ’60s. He was from Orange, Texas. He would play my singles by Lightnin’ Hopkins, but you had to give him a hundred free ones because he had a record shop that he sold them to so he could make a little money on it. But he played the hell out of some Lightnin’ Hopkins records.”

Strachwitz asks if I want to see the music vault. We walk outside and enter another building; he informs me that this is the digitization premises. There are two separate rooms where his Mexican music project is being digitized. Here work Adam Machado and Antonio Cuellar, Arhoolie employees and selfless individuals with brains crammed full of musical erudition. Both Machado and Cuellar handle most of the vault, seeing to it that rare recordings find a digital birth.

“Chris’ energy is very infectious,” Cuellar says. “You can’t help but fall in love with his love for music. You get convinced his whole being is music.”

Machado practically lives in this vault of archival imbroglio, writing away and adhering to upcoming projects and events going on with Arhoolie. In fact, it was Machado who wrote the literature for the new box set, Hear Me Howling! Blues, Ballads and Beyond, out this week. The box set features unreleased and first-time-on-CD material from Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Skip James and many others, and serves to mark the 50-year anniversary of Arhoolie Records.

Machado tells me, “Arhoolie isn’t just a store; it’s a museum. And Chris, you can ask him a question about Howlin’ Wolf, and all of a sudden you’re with Howlin’ Wolf barreling down a German highway.”

Some time passes with Macahdo and Cuellar, and in the next room I discover Chris watching some news on the television. He admits to being a news hound. Then he takes a screwdriver to a small round container, peeling off some plastic, and hands me a weighty Lebkuchen cookie as a road token for my journey home.

‘Hear Me Howling!: Blues, Ballads and Beyond’ is out this week. The Arhoolie Foundation celebrates its 50th anniversary with a series of concerts and panels, featuring Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal, Country Joe McDonald, Linda Ronstadt and others, Friday-Sunday, Feb. 4-6, at Freight and Salvage. 2020 Addison St., Berkeley. 8pm. $75-$85. 510.644.2020.

Sonoma County Library