EL CERRITO (CBS 5) – In the San Francisco Bay Area, thanks to one man, some extraordinary music recordings were made that are invaluable cultural treasures.
The man is Chris Strachwitz. He is founder of El Cerrito-based Arhoolie Records, a small record label with a big history. More than 50 years of capturing traditional American Roots music.
Strachwitz grew up in Germany, under Nazi rule but as a teen, he ended up with his mother in the United States where he got to listen to American radio and fell in love with American music.
“Here it was just extraordinary,” exclaimed Strachwitz. “I heard all this hillbilly music and blues and I just simply fell in love with the whole idea of recording.”
In 1961, during his last year as a teacher at Los Gatos High, with a reel-to-reel recorder and a microphone, Strachwitz began to travel around the country, recording music for what would become Arhoolie records.
He found the music that so fascinated him as a child and put it on tape, including these genres: Down Home Blues, Hillbilly, New Orleans Jazz, Cajun, Zydeco, and Mexican.
“I made a lot of recordings in people’s homes, in clubs, at concerts,” said Strachwitz. Many recordings were made in the San Francisco Bay Area. One such session, with the legendary Big Joe Williams in 1961, was fraught with emotion.
The Mississippi bluesman had just been released on bail. He had pulled a knife on a woman in Oakland, the police were called, and Williams ended up spending 60 days in Alameda County’s Greystone Jail. After Williams was released, he brought his wife Mary and their son to Strachwitz’s shack near Los Gatos and the recording began.
“He poured it out,” remembered Strachwitz, “and I think within about 2 hours we finished the whole album.”
In the 60s, Strachwitz also recorded Louisiana Creole Music with the Opelousas Playboys.
He heard them perform in a tiny dance hall in South San Francisco.
“I went there and there was this amazing little band of accordion, fiddle washboard and drums, and it was just haunting stuff. They played just real lowdown stuff,” Strachwitz marveled.
Many Creole had come from Louisiana to the Bay Area seeking work in local shipyards.
Another performance included “Big Mama” Thornton singing “Hound Dog” at UC Berkeley’s Pauley Ballroom. Strachwitz first met Thornton when she was performing at a small beachfront bar in Santa Cruz, and then ran into her again at one of Bob Geddin’s studios in Oakland. At the studio, legendary music photographer Jim Marshall snapped an image of Thornton singing, and Strachwitz looking on.
Strachwitz learned how to make his own records, and thousands of songs ended up on the Arhoolie label.
One song- – first recorded in Berkeley – became world famous.
In the 60s, Berkeley was full of civil unrest and protests against the Vietnam War.
Here, in 1965, Strachwitz recorded a skiffle band singing an anti-war anthem. The group was Country Joe and the Fish. The song: “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.”
Joe McDonald remembered the session well. “He hung a microphone from his lamp in the living room and we all gathered around the microphone,” said McDonald.
In exchange for the recording, McDonald gave Strachwitz the publishing rights to the song.
Four years later, at Woodstock, in front of half a million people, McDonald made an unscheduled appearance and sang an acoustic, solo version of the “Rag”.
“I never dreamed it would become popular and that people would like it,” said McDonald.
The song became a highlight of the movie and the soundtrack.
His share of the profit allowed Strachwitz to buy the building in El Cerrito that now houses Arhoolie records
Strachwitz has scoured his archives and put together four CDs worth of songs he recorded in the Bay Area during the 60s: including Jess Fuller, Big Joe Williams, Lighting Hopkins, Country Joe and the Fish, Toni Brown, The Joy of Cooking, Barbara Dane, the Hackberry Ramblers, The Fondettes, Mance Lipscomb, Skip James, Fred McDowell, Vern & Ray, The Opelousas Playboys, Clifton Chenier, Jerry Hahn, Smiley Winters and Big Mama Thornton.
“They are really musical snapshots they will never be the same they will never happen again just we change every day,” said Strachwitz.
The box set is called “Hear Me Howling!” and it’s been nominated for two Grammy Awards: Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes.
Adam Machado wrote the liner notes and admires Strachwitz. “It’s an honor to work for a guy like that,” said Machado. “He believes in what he does and he does it out of sheer heart.”
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