BOSTON (Reuters) - Chris Strachwitz discovered the first performer for his Arhoolie Records label by quizzing roadside field hands, a prosperous cotton farmer named Mr. Tom Moore, and a man called Peg Leg at a railroad station in Navasota, Texas.
As Strachwitz tells it, Peg Leg identified a highway worker and former tenant farmer who entertained local folks: Mance Lipscomb.
“Mance Lipscomb, Texas Sharecropper and Songster,” was recorded in 1960 in the musician’s shotgun house, and it launched Lipscomb into the surging U.S. folk-music revival.
It also launched German-born Strachwitz on a half-century career of uncovering and popularizing vernacular “roots music” of the Americas. That includes the blues of black Americans, the Zydeco of Louisiana’s Creoles, Mexican norteño and Tejano conjunto music, and other styles that spring from deep cultural wells and get crowds dancing in obscure rooms.
“I probably should have become a detective,” Strachwitz told Reuters in a telephone interview. “Meeting all these people was an intriguing adventure. I didn’t have to go on a safari, hunting for elephants or something. I hunted musicians.”
Some of the performers who Strachwitz tracked down on his back-road and honky-tonk rambles, and others influenced by him and his records, gathered two years ago in Berkeley, California for a 50th anniversary concert run.
The three-night run was released this week as “They All Played for Us,” a 4-CD set and photo book that showcases Arhoolie’s mosaic of musicians.
“They had confidence in the music that they made,” Grammy-winning recording artist Taj Mahal said. “It wasn’t predicated on selling a million or millions ... it’s what made them happy. Chris - most of his records were about that.”
Mahal and fellow roots-music pioneer Ry Cooder joined the performers at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse for the anniversary. Others included the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, bluegrass master Peter Rowan, norteño stars Los Cenzontles, the Treme Brass Band from New Orleans and The Campbell Brothers, a “sacred-steel” guitar gospel group.
Strachwitz, who said he fell in love with records as a child in pre-war Germany and came of age in southern California, gathered his musical family in several ways. He scoured record stores and listened to regional ethnic radio programs.
Strachwitz learned of bluesman “Black Ace” Turner when he inquired at a street-corner gambling game. Blues legend “Lightning” Hopkins took him to see a cousin, Clifton Chenier, who later rose to acclaim as the “King of Zydeco.”
Strachwitz named Arhoolie after a type of work song, a field holler, that had deep roots in African-American musical culture.
He was asked to describe the unique attributes of each musical style he recorded. But instead he cited a common thread.
“I think it’s the powerful rhythm,” he said. “They were all dance music - real dance music, not this boogaloo shit. And it’s sort of honky-tonk music, it’s just free flowing, rhythmic, stuff. With some good singing on top of it.”
He recorded in his living room, kitchens, beer joints and churches. “I didn’t give a damn about acoustics. I’d record in an outhouse if I had to,” he said.
He made sure his musicians got their due. Strachwitz recalled giving an appreciative Fred McDowell a royalty check for the Rolling Stones’ cover version of “You Gotta Move.”
“Fred McDowell enjoyed his life so much just playing for people, and after we got him the money ... from the Rolling Stones, he said. ‘Well, I’m glad them boys enjoyed my music.’”
The 50th anniversary concert and recording were fundraisers for the Arhoolie Foundation, which supports folk culture and is advised by Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and others. Projects include films, instrument donations, and digital transfers of more than 50,000 records and cassettes in the collection Strachwitz donated of Mexican and Mexican-American music.
Arhoolie Records and writer Adam Machado won a Grammy award last year for “Hear Me Howling,” an anthology of the Bay Area music scene culled from Strachwitz’s recordings.
But Arhoolie, based in El Cerrito, California, is struggling. Strachwitz said. He called himself more of “songcatcher” than businessman.
“I’ve been trying to survive basically on the publishing royalties. I haven’t got a salary from Arhoolie in years and now they can’t even afford to pay the rent anymore,” he said.
But there will always be songs to catch and backwaters to explore, Mahal said. The folk-music scene is still vibrant and house concerts are supporting a wave of new talent to be discovered, he said.
And the legacy Strachwitz created will endure.
“Deep Americana (music) is a huge force and it has traveled out of our country to people around the world. It is a big source of comfort for a lot of people,” Mahal said.
“People like Chris Strachwitz have spent their lives making sure that that is so, and that these people don’t get lost in the shuffle, and drop through the cracks.”
Reporting by Randall Mikkelsen, editing by Jill Serjeant