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The History of Arhoolie Records
by founder and president,
Chris Strachwitz

The Very First Album

On November 3, 1960, the first Arhoolie LP (stands for Long Play, 33 1/3 rpm record, for you young folks!) arrived from the pressing plant: 250 copies of Mance Lipscomb’s “Texas Sharecropper and Songster.” Wayne Pope, his wife Alice and I sat around his kitchen table gluing printed cover slicks onto black jackets which I had ordered from an album plant. We stuffed the discs into the jackets and inserted a booklet which included Mack McCormick’s interesting and informative notes and the texts of the songs. After a lot of hard work we finally had 250 “homemade” copies for sale!

I had recorded Mance Lipscomb, the remarkable songster and guitarist from Navasota, Texas, during my first extensive trip to Texas, Mississippi and Louisiana in the summer of 1960. Mack McCormick, who had introduced me to my idol, Lightning Hopkins (via Sam Charters) in Houston the previous summer, was a very informed and generous host and also came up with the name ARHOOLIE for my new record label. I decided to start a record company, primarily to capture Lightning Hopkins at his inventive best: live, at the beer joints where I heard him the previous summer. Unfortunately, although I later did record Lightning on several occasions, I never had the capital nor recording equipment to make the “live” album a reality, and Lightning soon became a well-known performer appearing in concert halls ã a long way from the personal, intense improviser I had heard at the neighborhood beer joints in 1959!

Origins of the Names

I had thought of names like Delta, Gulf, Down Home, etc., for my label when Mack suddenly suggested ARWHOOLIE! My initial response was: “AR what?” But soon the name, at least a part of which apparently means a field holler, seemed rather appropriate for the music I wanted to record. The word, spelled as above by the recordist, appeared on a Library of Congress recording made in Mississippi and apparently was the response of the singer when asked what he called the selection just recorded. I have since heard the word “hoolie” in reference to a field holler but I think the “ar” in front of it was simply the man stuttering a bit in Mississippi fashion when somewhat nervous!

Most African Americans I met in record shops, taverns, dance halls, etc. would refer to the kind of low down, rough, gut-bucket type of blues I liked as “down home blues” or “alley music” even though the music biz trade journal “Billboard” included it under the general category of “Rhythm & Blues” at that time. My main aim was to document the best authentic down home blues singers and try to sell the albums to a new, mainly young white “folk music” audience which was increasing here in the USA, as well as in Europe, Australia, and Japan. I also tried to reach our black audiences with this magnificent historic music by releasing 45 rpm singles and searching for distributors to reach that market. However many seemed dubious as to the merits of this “low class” genre, considered by many at that time as backwards or even “uncle Tom.” Fortunately a few Djs like “Rockin’ Lucky” here in San Francisco and “Gabriel” in Kansas City were still keen on playing the Blues.

The First Recording Trip

In the summer of 1960 I met up with British blues aficionado, author, and vernacular architecture scholar, Paul Oliver and his wife Valerie at the legendary Peabody Hotel in Memphis, TN. Paul was making this trip, his first to the USA, to produce a series of radio programs to be broadcast by the BBC and interviewing historic blues musicians at the source was a major goal of his trip. Paul had sent me in advance a list of names of blues singers who had recorded in Dallas and Fort Worth in the 1920s and ’30s, hoping I would perhaps do a little research on my way to Texas from the West Coast. Driving with Bob Pinson (now of the Country Music Foundation Library) into Texas, we both made many inquiries which led to meeting Lil’ Son Jackson and Black Ace, a singer who accompanied himself on a National steel guitar. With Mack McCormick I was fortunate to meet and record the remarkable Mance Lipscomb and later on the return trip to the West Coast with Paul, we also met Alex Moore in Dallas, an extraordinary character and pianist from the early era in blues history, as well as many other artists in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

What Got Me Started Making Records

The idea of making records grew out of my hobby of collecting 78 rpm recordings of various vernacular traditions, which began shortly after my arrival in the US from Germany as a teenager in 1947. I first encountered Swing music, a la Lionel Hampton and Tommy Dorsey on the Armed Forces Radio while still in Germany. When eventually going to school in California I became addicted to New Orleans jazz after seeing the film “New Orleans” with my high school buddy, the late Bill Melon. The film introduced me to the music of Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong, Meade Lux Lewis, Billie Holiday, and others. I also became fascinated by other sounds which I heard on the radio, especially Country or Hillbilly (on XERB from Rosa Rito Beach, Baja California), Rhythm & Blues (on KFVD with DJ Hunter Hancock who played real blues like Lightning Hopkins, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Howlin’ Wolf), Gospel music (especially the Sunday night broadcasts from the St. Paul Baptist Church in Los Angeles) as well as Mexican ranchera music (over a small station in Santa Paula, Ca.).

After experimenting with a cheap disc cutter in high school, I bought my first tape recorder while at Pomona College in the early 1950s but it was a piece of junk! I taped radio programs and the jazz band led by school mate Frank Demond, who is now the trombonist with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. When I moved north to attend UC Berkeley in 1952, I soon began to visit Oakland record producer Bob Geddins on many occasions and he, more than anyone else, showed me how to make recordings.

Drafted into the US army in 1954, I returned to Berkeley in 1956 to finish my schooling under the GI bill and went on to teach high school in Los Gatos, Ca. On weekends I would often visit Bob Geddins in Oakland and I got to know local blues bards like Jesse Fuller and K.C. Douglas. It was difficult to save up capital for recording trips and record production, but I sold 78s to collectors around the world and struggled to survive. Things got even tougher when I quit teaching in 1962 and moved back to Berkeley. Fortunately the folk music movement of the early 60s had spawned an audience eager to accept authentic rural American music – both black and white. I hosted Mance Lipscomb for his appearances at the now legendary Berkeley Folk Festival and we traveled to make appearances both on the West Coast and in the East. I was selling enough Arhoolie records here and there to eke out a living and enough profit to keep going and produce more recordings. Small distributors both here in the US and in Europe were beginning to help me sell albums via the retail trade.

What Finally Brought the $

The first real money, however, didn’t come from sales of Arhoolie LPs but started rolling in after my friend Ed Denson, who was managing Country Joe and the Fish, had me record a tape in my living room which resulted in this group’s first record. I hung an omnidirectional mike from the ceiling, like I had done when I recorded the Hackberry Ramblers and J. E. Mainer’s Mountaineers, and Joe cut loose with “One, two, three, what are we fighting for, …next stop is Vietnam” which he called “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag.” As Joe walked out of my house he asked what he owed me for making the tape. I said “nothing” but I remembered what Eddie Shuler in Lake Charles, La., had once told me about “getting their copyrights” and I said: “Let me be the publisher of those songs.” Joe agreed to let my fledgling publishing company, Tradition Music Co., be the publisher of the songs. The record on the Rag Baby label put out by Joe McDonald and Ed Denson, was a limited edition and I believe only 100 copies were sold at a big anti-Vietnam war march which took place a few weeks later. The group soon re-recorded the song for Vanguard Records and when Bill Belmont, now of Fantasy Records, told Joe McDonald to get his guitar at Woodstock and to get up on that stage and sing that song against the Vietnam war, it became not only part of the soundtrack recording of that now famous event, but it was also the center piece of the film made at the huge concert. Eddie Shuler was right, there is more money in publishing songs which become popular than in making esoteric authentic folk music records! But putting out those records is what I love to do!

By the late 1960s the Rolling Stones helped to boost the interest in blues all over the world and sales for real blues records have continued to climb ever since. Fred McDowell was a remarkable blues singer and slide guitarist from Como, Miss., who had been introduced to the world by Alan Lomax via several incredible cuts on an Atlantic LP. I couldn’t get that sound out of my head and finally contacted Alan who kindly sent me Fred’s address in Como. I took off for Mississippi and recorded a full album the same evening I met Fred! After several LPs of Fred’s music on Arhoolie, the Rolling Stones put his version of “You Gotta Move” on their “Sticky Fingers” album. After lengthy and expensive litigation and the help of our attorney, Peter Franck, and Rev. Gary Davis’ manager Manny Greenhill, I was able to give Fred McDowell the biggest check he’d ever seen in his life, when I saw Fred for the last time in Como. Again, the money did not come from Fred’s record sales but from royalties earned by one of his songs as performed by the Rolling Stones but copywritten in Fred’s name by Tradition Music Co. – our publishing wing. Bonnie Raitt’s touring with Fred and recording several of his songs also continued to bring in revenues.

Thanks to Alan Jackson, who some years ago recorded “Mercury Blues” and turned it into a #1 Country hit, I have for the past four years been able to continue production at Arhoolie at a fairly good clip. The song was composed by K.C. Douglas and Bob Geddins and Tradition Music Co. copywrote it for K.C. when I recorded him back in the 1970s. My half of the publishing has kept me going since record sales have been rather slow at Arhoolie. Tradition Music Co. is ably administered now by BUG Music Co. in Hollywood, and they have had good success in getting some of our songs and master recordings used in several major films. A few years ago the excellent film “Lone Star” used eight of our master recordings, mostly Conjunto/Norteño classics which we acquired when we purchased the Ideal and Rio labels of south Texas. The film opens with Conjunto Bernal singing “Mi Unico Camino” – their huge hit!

Other Sounds, other Traditions and other Enterprises

In February of 1964, my idol Lightning Hopkins, introduced me to one of his wife’s cousins, Clifton Chenier, at a little beer joint in Houston and I recorded our first session the very next day! Over the years Clifton’s amazing Zydeco music proved to be a steady seller for Arhoolie. Since I was never able to gather enough capital to do any real promoting, it sadly wasn’t until after Clifton’s death that sales improved. Only slowly did the world realize that Clifton Chenier was THE King of Zydeco, a remarkable singer and musical genius. Back in those days I didn’t know what was involved in getting artists to travel and tour outside their regional world but I tried to make contacts with various festival and concert promoters and Ed Pearl at the Ashgrove in Los Angeles and Debbie Green at The Cabale in Berkeley were always eager to support authentic folk musicians.

Another extraordinary accordion player, Flaco Jiménez from San Antonio, Texas, also became a good seller for Arhoolie and won us a GRAMMY with the album “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio.” Over the years I had stopped in San Antonio on my way home to the “left coast” because I had become very fond of Mexican music but wasn’t sure if I could sell it to the blues lovers around the world who were my prime audience! I would often drop by to visit Genie Wolf-Miri whose late husband produced Rio Records. She operated the Rio record shop on West Commerce Street and told me that of all the fine accordionists in San Antonio, Flaco was the one who had the charisma to become a star. She was right and Flaco has since then taken Conjunto/Norteño music around the world. I had heard Flaco on several occasions but was not that impressed with his vocal duets and I knew that in Mexican music, like in most other forms, it’s the singing that the public goes for. When Les Blank and I made the documentary film “Chulas Fronteras,” a young guitarist, Ry Cooder, came along for the experience and was soon captivated by Flaco’s music. He helped me realize that with Flaco, one of his prime talents was his ability to play accordion behind most any kind of music, even though I personally preferred the authentic and pure “conjunto sound” for which the region was so famous. Ry made many tours with Flaco, as did Peter Rowan. Recently Flaco has been a member of the Texas Tornados and is now recording on his own for a major label while at the same time jamming behind many famous guest artists.

One of Arhoolie’s steady best sellers has been Michael Doucet and his Cajun band BeauSoleil. Michael’s fiddle playing knocked me out the first time I heard him and I feel he made his best recordings for Arhoolie even though they may not be his most commercial outings. I was fortunate enough to meet the late, great Cajun fiddler, Leo Soileau, shortly before he died, but unfortunately he was no longer willing to record. To me Michael sounded like a younger version of Leo! The Cajun country has had its mojo hand on me ever since I first drove through there in the summer of 1960 and heard my first live band, Aldus Roger, (he recently died on Easter day 1999) who made a wonderful appearance at the 1998 boucherie hosted annually by Marc and Ann Savoy. I’ve been meaning to start a book about my adventures over the years but there never seems enough time and there always is more wonderful music to be recorded or old 78s to be rescued and reissued! However, Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling have been printing many of my photo negatives (which go back to the 1950s) and there are some nice shots which would make a neat book. But, I am not sure when I will get around to putting it all together!

In January 1976 I started the Down Home Music Store when the upholstery company which used to be in a part of my building (and who almost burned the place down!), moved out leaving me with extra space. Two years later, in July of 1978, Frank Scott joined and steered the firm in the direction of mail-order service. Earlier that year I also started a wholesale company, Back Room Record Distributors (because the space was in the back room!). When Tom Diamant and the late Jeff Alexson, who had been distributing Arhoolie Records in this area via their Rhythm Research firm, wanted to get out of distribution to form Kaleidoscope Records, they came to me one day saying: “Chris, you got so many records already, why don’t you buy a few more, namely our inventory.” I knew I needed better distribution and Tom and Jeff were both willing to stay on as sales persons until I could find replacements so I said: “Why not?” They were also good friends who really knew their music and who had real enthusiasm for down home music to boot! After several labels complained that the name was not dignified and sounded a bit on the shady side and when the State of California refused to grant us Back Room as a corporate name since there already was such a firm, on July 31, 1981, I officially changed the name to Bay Side Record Distributors. Robin Wise, who had been one of the sales people, became the manager until he eventually bought the company from Arhoolie in 1986. Early in 1992 Bay Side Dist. was bought by MTS/Tower.

In the meantime, early in 1990, the Down Home Music Mail Order firm (which in 1992 was renamed Roots & Rhythm) was sold to Frank Scott. Arhoolie, however, retained ownership of the Down Home Music retail store. Today John McCord is the knowledgeable general manager of the Down Home Music Store, as he has been for many years, supported by a number of excellent sales folks who really know their Blues, Jazz, Country, World Music, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Zydeco, and other regional styles which continue to be Down Home’s specialty. There you have a brief history of Arhoolie Productions, Inc. Much of my time now is taken up with re-editing more of the Arhoolie catalog for CD releases. I go back to the original tapes, try to find unreleased selections, or combine two LPs in one CD, make the transfers to DAT tapes, re-edit or re-write the notes and produce a whole new package. Yes, Arhoolie is bringing back 78s! – we often try and present “Up to 78 minutes of music” on our full priced CDs and we hope we give you, the customer, your money’s worth! We also try to record outstanding and unique new material as well as license great music from other sources. However it seems to be getting harder to find music I really like and consider of special merit. Also there are many more record companies around today and the competition is fierce, especially since most outstanding artists want to get on a “major” label to promote their careers and are a bit reluctant to record for very small firms like Arhoolie who simply can only do their best! I continue to concentrate on regional musicians and sounds which to my ears are a constant source of pleasant amazement! I have always been more interested in documenting fine authentic, down home music, instead of heavily promoting just one or two artists. There is so much music available now, not only new recordings but just about every recording ever made is now available on a CD (or soon from the internet) and stores simply can’t carry it all. We are beginning to see some successful stores which specialize in a few genres to serve the specialty customers. You, the buying public, are obviously overwhelmed by what’s available and are rightfully demanding that you get a chance to hear some samples before buying! The Down Home Music Store lets customers listen to any item in our store before buying and Arhoolie now has samples of almost all our releases on our website on the internet.

We now also have a Mid-Price 9000 Series which will bring you NEW recordings (like the recent releases by Santiago Jiménez, Jr. and blues singer Big Joe Williams, neither of which was ever before released) as well as older catalog material where we simply do not have any additional materials, for the budget conscious fans.

Today Arhoolie not only continues to produce its own CDs but also acts as the sole US importer for the fine Dutch Pan world music label AND the Austrian Document firm which has been documenting “the complete recorded works of every pre-war Blues and Gospel artist” not otherwise available and are now well into the full documentation of early white Country music.

Our Staff

Tom Diamant is the manager at Arhoolie Records and oversees the day-to-day sales and distribution as well as production. Haley Ausserer coordinates our office, editing, media, artist royalties, promotion, and other operations. Jonathan Schiele, our product manager, handles the inventory, deals with many individual accounts and does all the shipping.

John McCord is the amazingly knowledgeable general manager of the Down Home Music Store, as he has been for many years. J.C. Garrett and Lyuba are also quite well versed in various genres like Folk, Blues, Jazz, Country, World Music, Cajun, Tex-Mex, Zydeco, etc. which continue to be Down Home’s specialties.  Adam Machado researches, writes, and edits for Arhoolie Records, writes grants for the Arhoolie Foundation, manages content for the Down Home Music Store website and newsletter, and is an overall assistant to Chris.

Chris Strachwitz
Arhoolie Productions, president
10xx1 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94530

Copyright 2009 by Arhoolie Productions Inc.