It's Got Ahold of Me

By  |  December 10, 2014
Photograph by Sandy Carson / www.sandycarson.com Photograph by Sandy Carson / www.sandycarson.com

My first exposure to Arhoolie Records was through the blues singer Lightnin’ Hopkins, and from there I followed the company stamp, knowing that I could always trust the label for quality folk music. Arhoolie founder and president Chris Strachwitz has had a legendary career in production. But when I got the opportunity to interview him for this issue, I wanted to ask him not just about the musicians he’s worked with over the years, but about his experiences as a field recorder. When he was a young teacher, Chris visited small towns and sought out musicians over the summer. Many of us dream about such adventures, but few of us actually go.

I called Chris at home, and the feel of our conversation was casual; Chris is a fantastic storyteller, and I asked him to do just that. As a person of both black and Hispanic descent, I was especially interested in his tales of the interwoven musical cultures prominent in Texas.

When you read Chris’s story you will discover a fellow who came to this country as a refugee and found a love of American music. To our benefit, that love has left a grand legacy of wonderful recordings.


What brought your family to the U.S. from Germany in 1947?

We had to leave our large farm in Lower Silesia before the Russians came, because we were considered capitalists. And if we hadn’t left, we wouldn’t be on the planet—or we would have wound up in Siberia. We left before the Russians came and lived for two years with an uncle near Braunschweig.

The lucky thing is that our mother’s mother was an American. She died very early in my mother’s life. Her two aunts—our great-aunts, the sisters of my grandmother—pulled strings in Washington and succeeded in bringing us over. One of them had a large house in Reno, Nevada, and that’s where we lived that summer. It was our new home! It was just extraordinary.

That’s a shocking way to jump right into American culture, in Reno.

It was, and on the other hand we were so privileged to have these well-to-do great-aunts who did everything for us—we came from almost starving to death.

I think I encountered my first live blues via the gardener that my great-aunt had in Reno. He was a one-armed black man who was from Texas, and when he discovered that I was interested in black music he said, “There’s a club here right by the railroad station called the Harlem Club, and they’ve got a good piano man playing in there. You ought to stop by.”

And I’ll never forget—I did that. I walked down to the railroad station where all the winos were hanging out, and it was already sort of a decrepit part of town, and I went to the Harlem Club. There was this amazing piano player behind the bar. There was a raised platform behind the bar, and he was playing low-down blues. It was just amazing.

I had a feeling it could have been Mercy Dee, but I will never know for sure. At that time Mercy Dee had not made his hit record of “One Room Country Shack,” which came out about a year or two later. It was on every jukebox, even in Reno, Nevada.

When did you move to California?

I went to a private high school—the Cate School near Santa Barbara—in the fall of 1947. I got to know American music largely through the radio. After school, I heard hillbilly music every day during the daytime because XERB, the station in Rosarito, reached us. They blasted their 50,000 watts north into the L.A. Basin.

They played nothing but the Armstrong Twins and Maddox Brothers and Rose, Bob Wills, T. Texas Tyler, and on and on. It was fantastic. I loved that stuff. Then I went to see the movie called New Orleans. That came out in 1947, so a buddy of mine, Bill Melon, and I went to see that. I asked him, “What is that kind of music that we heard in that amazing show?” He said, “That’s New Orleans jazz.” With Louis Armstrong fronting Kid Ory’s full-tilt New Orleans jazz band. Unbelievable.

Then I went to Pomona College in the fall of ’51. There, every afternoon I heard Hunter Hancock on his “Harlem Matinee” program. That was two hours of rhythm and blues. He had a wonderful theme song, and he started playing these low-down blues.

That’s pretty amazing, Chris. I had no idea that you learned so much of this music from hearing it on the radio.

It was very democratic. Until then you didn’t really hear black music unless you went to the ghetto and listened to the jukeboxes. It was not on the radio.

Let’s talk about Texas. When did you meet Sam Charters?

I must have met him around ’57. He played with a Dixieland band then. That was the kind of music that was for hip people, you know. There was no rock & roll yet. And traditional jazz bands were everywhere. I’ll never forget: on Sacramento Street there was a black club, and this San Francisco jazz band was playing there one Sunday afternoon and I went there and all of a sudden this black woman walked in the middle of the place and said, “Man, I ain’t heard shit like this since I saw King Oliver in Chicago.”

So, you met Sam through Dixieland music, and he inspired you to go see Lightnin’ Hopkins? You went and saw Lightnin’ Hopkins in a club, and he just amazed you from there.

Yeah. You see, nobody knew where these people were from. And I knew Sam Charters had just started to work on The Country Blues, his book about the blues. And suddenly I got this postcard from him, from Houston. It said, “I found Lightnin’. He lives here in Houston and a guy named Mack McCormick is trying to be his agent.”

Is that where Mack McCormick enters into this?

Yes. He met me when I got to Houston, and I stayed at the YMCA. That started it all. This was in the summer of 1959. I was teaching school in California at the time, and the summers were the only time I could get off.

Is that how you met Mance Lipscomb, from going to some of the black clubs to see Lightnin’?

Not quite like that. The next year, in 1960, I was hoping to record Lightnin’ Hopkins in one of those beer joints. But I found out Lightnin’ was leaving the next day to play at a folk festival in Berkeley! And so Mack tried to get me to make some recordings of Lightnin’ that same evening, but he almost got into a fistfight outside of the place because Lightnin’—every song he plays, he should be paid for, you see. He was very rigid about that. Anyway, they got into a hassle outside the club, and my equipment wouldn’t work right; it was terrible. But once we found out that this Lightnin’ thing wasn’t going to happen, Mack said, “Chris, you got a car”—you see, Mack didn’t have a car— “You got a car, let’s just go out in the countryside. I’m sure there’s other singers like Lightnin’ Hopkins.”

We went out and happened to be driving toward Navasota. I was already sort of a blues detective by then—I had experience doing that even out here in California—and I saw people chopping cotton in the fields along the highway. I just went up to the fence and they came and looked at us like we were from Mars. They said, “What y’all looking for?” I said, “You got any good guitar pickers in these parts?” “Oh, you got to go to Navasota for that.” And since we were on our way to Navasota, that’s how we found Mance.

When you met with Mance, was he open to the idea of recording?

Oh, yeah. He was the songster in town. He played for both black and white audiences. When we tracked him down, he came home from a job that night cutting grass. When we got to his house the second time, he said, “Oh, you wanna hear me play music, huh?” He didn’t even have a guitar; I was carrying one with me. I remember a guy named Jon Lundberg from a music shop over here in Berkeley. He told me before I left: “Chris, you ought to take a guitar with you because a lot of those people don’t have one or they’re in hock or in bad shape.” So I had that guitar—that Harmony that you see on all the covers.

How did your recording of Lil’ Son Jackson come about? I think that over time people have become fans of Jackson in a very extensive way.

Well, I already knew what his real name was because the composer credits on the Imperial records said “Melvin Jackson.” So Bob Pinson, a great record collector and friend of mine, and I drove down to Texas in ’60. He was also a good investigator, though he was interested more in the western swing guys; he grew up with Bob Wills and all that. But he knew where Sleepy Johnson was from—he was a guitar player in Bob Wills’s first band. I’ll never forget. I asked Sleepy Johnson, “How did you learn all these blues?” And he said, “Cause we just went into the furniture store and listened to all them nigger records.”

You see, that’s how they learned all this stuff. I mean, blues was always so close to the white people—it’s nothing new that it’s more of a white man’s music. They were so close to each other, yet they couldn’t socially intermingle. They heard the same radio stations and they would hear people singing out in the fields, you know. That’s how Mance learned about some Mexican tunes. Like what he calls “Spanish Flang Dang.” He said he learned that from Mexican field hands.

How did you convince Jackson to record?

At first he said, “I don’t want any more part of that stuff.” But I talked to him, and I really wanted to record him for a historic perspective. I was curious because he knew quite a bit of the traditional material. So he made a few records and recordings, but he was like Lightnin’—he wanted one hundred dollars a side, and I couldn’t afford that. In those days, I didn’t have a pot to piss in. But I came back a second time and told him that I’d like to get a few more numbers and do an album, and he recorded a few more tunes.

You’ve put out a lot of great albums. If we keep it focused just on Texas, there’s Black Ace, but then there’s the Tejano and norteño music that you’ve put out for years, the Moravian Brass Band. Adolph Hofner. That stuff is so amazing.

There is so much music in Texas. Of course, it was always a rich state; it had oil, and I remember Mack McCormick saying, “Well, their highways were always gorgeously paved.” They had a lot of oil money to keep the state up, and most of those workers did have enough to support their own musicians. They would go to dances and support them that way.

And the class thing was a real distinction. So, although he lived just off of Dowling Street, which had some fancy nightclubs, Lightnin’ would never play there. Blues was always looked down upon by blacks and still is, I would say, mostly. It was the drunkard’s music. You know, that life is nothing to be admired for most of them: mistreating women, getting drunk, gambling, and cutting people up isn’t what most people look forward to. That blues world was pretty tough.

Can you tell me about Bongo Joe?

Oh, god. Well, first Mack McCormick played me these tapes that he had made and he actually issued one number under a label from England: 77 Records. It was an amazing song by this guy who banged away on an oil drum, and he sang about the mighty dollar.

You know, Chris, I picked one up last week—it’s not “A Treasury of Field Recordings,” is it? 

That’s it. That’s it! Listen to it; it’s amazing. I just happened to walk across the damn bridge in San Antonio, I believe it was in the Seventies, and he was playing right downtown. My little portable machine gave out, but a good friend of mine, Larry Skoog, lived in San Antonio with his family. He said, “Chris, come over to my house and we can record him there on your Magnecord machine.” I didn’t know any place to record him, you see. And at least there we had Larry’s children as an audience.

That seems like one of the early examples of what would later be called hip-hop. It was a little too raw for rap.

Exactly. I think he calls himself “The Original Rapper.” I think I mention it in the notes. Anyway, I’m sure glad I recorded him. He was a really amazing improviser. He would comment on the world around him. That’s really what all these guys did, in a way. He would just put together simple phrases where others had these extraordinary stories to tell.

One thing I want to talk to you about is Texas piano playing. That was a huge part of the state’s musical tradition.

When I was in Houston, we found some piano players who recorded extensively in the Thirties. They used to play in these turpentine camps. This was in the woods, where they’d haul logs. These guys would play dives that catered to the workers there. And of course, Mercy Dee played this wonderful blues, what they call barrelhouse.

Was that more of a blues style of playing compared to, say, a Jelly Roll Morton style? 

Oh yeah, definitely. It didn’t have much jazz in it except maybe some boogie-woogie. It was mostly slow pieces. The saddest part about piano players was that they never sold well during the folk music boom era. There were guitar players everywhere that people went crazy about, but nobody really was crazy about the piano players.

How did you get involved with Tejano and norteño music?

I really fell in love with that music early on. I heard it on the radio, I think, as far back as 1948, when I was in high school near Santa Barbara. I snuck out of sports and stayed in my room and listened to the radio. They were playing ranchera music, as it was already called: music from the ranches from the countryside. And it was mostly mariachis, but I do vaguely recall hearing an accordion.

Then I went to Pomona, and from time to time I would go to downtown L.A. all by myself, and not only for the rhythm and blues concerts. I also encountered Mexican dives on Main Street, just off of Broadway there. I’ll never forget: there was a bar I walked into—a long bar—and to the left of it, people were dancing and there was a conjunto playing in the middle of the whole scene, you know, just accordion, bajo sexto, drums, and string bass, and I just thought: this is the most delightful music.

The accordion was primarily dance music because it was fairly loud, and it was usually accompanied by a drum out in the country in the north of Mexico, or South Texas, and it was never accompanying singers because you couldn’t possibly hear them over the pounding of the drum and the accordion. But then once records came up: boom!

“La Cucaracha” was the first conjunto record that was really popular that had an accordion with a vocal duet, and anyway it was a really popular song. It was from Bluebird Records. From then on, the gates were open. I heard it every time I drove through South Texas, San Antonio, and so forth. I heard this music on the radio. I was fascinated.

Would you just stop off like you did for the blues records? Did you know people?

Yes. I would do that, and I also discovered that you could go to this-and-this jukebox operator. It was a time when 78s were going out of style and 45s were coming in. Not only were stores selling 78s cheaply, but jukebox operators were, too. Those were my main sources in those days.

Before the accordion, was it a lot of bajo sextos or guitars and more orchestra and mariachi-type music?

Well, not mariachis. They didn’t really come in until the Fifties, at least in northern Mexico. They were popular in Mexico City and, you know, they came from Guadalajara. Before the accordion, in the rural parts of South Texas and northern Mexico, they did have little orchestras. Somebody would play a clarinet or a violin.

The plaza was the only place where you would really hear singers, like the Mendoza family, who would squat down almost any place and sing their song and make pretty good money. But they could really be heard clearly once Lydia was allowed to go on the radio in San Antonio. That was maybe ’31 or ’32.

Yeah, I read the biography you published. What a great book. 

That took us ten years to put together.

I’m glad you did it. It was just such a treat to be able to read about these experiences because there just aren’t a lot of books about that style of music, especially since Mexican culture is so prevalent in the United States. But at the same time there’s also a barrier.

Yeah, it’s totally unknown to most people. It’s a peculiar thing, especially because nowadays the Mexican population has become enormous. In the last thirty years it’s just absolutely sky-rocketed. And so has the sale of Mexican records.

The thing I like about the “Corridos” album is that it comes with a great booklet with two CDs. That’s just priceless to me. I’m a liner notes sort of person.

I just got so fascinated with that whole tradition. My God, this is the richest cultural heritage of any American ethnic group on record. You know, there’s no other one that has ever, to this extent, documented their travails and their experiences in this country.

And almost all of this music—I would say a huge portion of it—is recorded in Texas by Texans. Almost all of them. Some of the musicians were born in Mexico, like Narciso Martínez, and then they came to Texas. However, there were a lot of them, like Valerio Longoria, who were born here in the United States. Even Lydia Mendoza was born in Houston, yet most people think of her as Mexican. In our Chulas Fronteras film, singer and composer Jose Morante says, “I call myself a Tejano.” That’s how the term “Tejano music” came along. That’s how you pronounce the word “Texas” in Spanish. It’sTejas. And if you come from Tejas you are Tejano.

Anyways, it’s an amazing field and I guess it’s got ahold of me.


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Dom Flemons is a multi-instumentalist and founding member of the Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops. He has also released three solo albums—Prospect Hill; Dance Tunes, Ballads, and Blues; and American Songster.