On Monday afternoon, numbed from days -- or rather months -- of wall-to-wall political talk focused at least somewhat on analysis of poll after poll on two of the three cable news channels, Irene slipped a rented film into our DVD player: This Ain't No Mouse Music.
Neither of us remembered why I had selected it or remembered who Chris Strachwitz was.
But then, for 92 minutes, we immersed ourselves in the life and adventures of this founder and owner of Arhoolie records, a musical detective whose life has been spent digging into the backwaters of American music. What Strachwitz discovered, beginning in the early 1960s and continuing even until today, is a vast river of music flowing together, seeking to merge its sources, rivulets, and sometimes floods of musical content into the greater body of American character.
Chris Strachwitz was born in what is now Poland, into German aristocracy, in 1931. He somehow made it to America in the flood of displaced persons after World War II, settling, eventually, in California. Once here, he became fascinated with jazz and rhythm and blues.
Early on, he began collecting records and haunting clubs and bars in Southern California while finishing an advanced education. That led, briefly, to a teaching career. But all the time, he collected records.
Soon, Strachwitz was spreading his wings more widely, heading first into Mississippi, Louisiana, and East Texas, then later toward South Texas and into Mexico, always collecting – Blues, R&B, Cajun, Zydeco, Norteno, and more.
This Ain't No Mouse Music, suggests a thinly veiled comment about the smoothed-over mass appeal of music that has been run through the world of Disney, homogenized, and made palatable to everyone.
Strachwitz went into black communities in Mississippi, Louisiana, and East Texas in the early '60s, when segregation was still real and white film-makers were looked upon with, at best, suspicion. One clip in the film states that his way was eased by his accent, which still contains the overtones of his native Germany. However, my sense is that his natural ebullience and native curiosity; his friendly, almost naive, outreach; and his desire to discover, highlight, and record music from communities outside the mainstream also propelled his work.
The film also captures his passion, to the point of mania, in collecting everything available from these heretofore un-recorded and largely unknown performers, as he propelled them onto stages at folk festivals across the country.
Strachwitz has a connection to bluegrass, too. A terrific piece of “This Ain't No Mouse Music” shows him driving on the Crooked Road with the late Joe Wilson through the area near Galax, Virginia. There's a segment shot in Barr's Music Shop in Galax, as well as some wonderful film of the band No Speed Limit with Amber Collins, Stevie Barr, and a number of other bluegrass stalwarts that fans of the music will recognize.
Ken Irwin of Rounder Records pointed out that Strachwitz was also the first to record Del McCoury for the 1967 LP, I Wonder Where You Are Tonight. (Arhoolie, F5006, also reissued).
Marian Leighton Levy, one of the other founding partners of Rounder Records, who were all just inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, remarked that Strachwitz was “definitely a person of real taste and very strong opinions. He was not only a major influence on us at Rounder, but his work is a major gift to American music. Particularly in his commitment to making sure the father of zydeco music was heard as widely as possible and in recording Mexican folk music, his importance cannot be overestimated.”
What's become clear to me, as I've thought about this movie and the music we listen to, is that tradition and change are not opposing forces.
A number of the clips and segments focus on families making music. What begins to become evident is that the younger generation inevitably soaks up tradition and promotes change simultaneously. Preservationists are essential for keeping alive the memory of where it all came from, but without change, the traditions end up in dusty musical archives. Meanwhile, young folks -- immersed in a media world, surrounded by cultural differences -- soak up, imbibe, and inculcate the changes they hear with the traditions on which they were raised. Something new always, inevitably emerges.
As times goes on, young musicians eventually reconnect with their parents' music (and other ideas) as they mature. There's a circle of change, renewal, and reawakening that spirals on forever.
We're used to thinking of roots music in terms of a tree. Roots reach into the fertile ground, a huge trunk provides weight and power to support branches, growing ever smaller and more distinctive as they reach toward the sky. The increasingly powerful image on which I have been ruminating, however is a river. Often little rivulets of sound emerge from almost invisible sources. Then, because of the efforts of contemporary folks like Strachwitz, Irwin, and Leighton Levy -- and, further back, Charles Seeger (Pete's father), both John and Alan Lomax, Ralph Peer, and so many others -- a river of sound flows, merging influences, as it gains and loses texture and nuance, propelled forward by technology, continuing until it becomes a flood that inundates us with its richness.
Easy Ed posted a column on This Ain't No Mouse Music on March 25, 2015. I recommend this to your reading and then that you watch the film itself. You won't regret it.