Chris Strachwitz, who traveled in search of the roots of American music with the eagerness of a pilgrim, discovered traditional musicians with the skill of a detective, promoted their careers with the zeal of an ideologue, and guarded his work with the care of a historian, died on Friday at a nursing home in San Rafael, California. He was 91 years old.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his brother, Hubert.
Mr. Strachwitz (pronounced STRACK-wits) specializes in music passed down through generations – cotton field music, orange grove music, mountain music, bayou music, bar music, porch music. The songs came from not only before the era of the recording industry, but even before mass culture itself existed.
Like other great musical folklorists of the modern recording era – among them Moses Asch, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith – Strachwitz rescued parts of that history before they disappeared.
But the extent of their devotion and the idiosyncrasy of their passions defy comparison.
Mr. Strachwitz was the founder of Arhoolie Records (the name comes from a term for pitch screams). In addition to recruiting his own artists, he did his own field recording, music editing, production, liner notes, publicity, and sales. In the company’s early years, he slapped the labels on records and mailed them in personally.
He was a lifelong bachelor who said that having a family would have frustrated his career. On his travels across the country to record new music, he kept a hand-held orange juicer and 20-pound bags of oranges with him. His search targets included a roadside mower, a gravedigger and a janitor, whose musical talents were largely unknown at the time.
He emigrated from Germany after growing up as a teenage earl under Nazi rule and went on to explore the limits of American pluralism. He dabbled not only in the standard roots folk and blues repertoire, but also in norteño, cajun, zydeco, klezmer, Hawaiian steel guitar, Ukrainian fiddle, Czech polka, and Irish dance music, among countless other genres.
To explain what united their passions, Strachwitz said that he liked “pure”, “hardcore” and “old-time” music, especially if one of the musicians had a “spark”. His language got more colorful when he defined his type of music negatively.
“Not wimpy, that’s for sure,” he said in a 2014 documentary about him. The film took its title from Strachwitz’s last insult, which he used to refer to anything he considered commercial, contrived, and soulless: “This Ai n’t No Mouse Music!”
Arhoolie’s first record, released in 1960, was “Texas Sharecropper and Songster” by blues singer Mance Lipscomb. Lipscomb’s music had never been recorded, and the new release put him in the spotlight during the folk revival of the 1960s. Strachwitz helped revive the careers of other blues singers, including Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Big Mama Thornton.
As a record executive and record collector, he made a particularly profound historical contribution to norteño, music from the Texas-Mexican border. Last year, the Smithsonian Institution called its archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music “the largest existing collection of commercially produced vernacular recordings,” noting that it contained many records that are “irreplaceable.”
It was the result of some 60 years of collecting – but Mr. Strachwitz never learned to speak Spanish. Northern musicians nicknamed him El Fanatico.
Mr. Strachwitz may have been considered a preservationist, but he also shaped the worlds he documented. This was particularly true of his recordings of Cajun musicians. In 2000, rock historian Ed Ward wrote in The New York Times that Mr. Strachwitz “helped spur the culture into what is now a complete renaissance”.
Perhaps his most notable discovery in Louisiana was Clifton Chenier, who became known as the leading exponent of the blend of rhythm and blues, soul, and Cajun music known as zydeco. During a visit to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival as an older man, Mr. Chenier discussed his frustrations with the recording industry.
“They wanted you to do what they wanted you to do, and I didn’t like that,” Chenier said. “Then I met Chris.”
Traditional musicians also saw something exceptional in Strachwitz. In a 2010 profile of Mr. Strachwitz in The Times, guitarist Ry Cooder said Arhoolie’s second release, “Tough Times,” an LP by blues musician Big Joe Williams, “started me on a path of life, the path I still am.”
Christian Alexander Maria Strachwitz was born on July 1, 1931 in Berlin. He grew up on a country estate called Gross Reichenau, located in what was then the Lower Silesian region of Germany (it is now a village called Bogaczow in southwest Poland). His father, Alexander Graf Strachwitz, and his mother, Friederike (von Bredow) Strachwitz, managed a vegetable and grain farm of about two hundred acres. The men in the family had the royal title of earl.
The family lived in a mansion originally built during the time of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia. The Nazis appointed Chris’s father as a local ranger, and during World War II he joined the army and reached the rank of captain, although Hubert Strachwitz said his service was limited to escorting troop transports bound for Italy. . On the family’s bucolic ancestral estate, war seemed far away for young Chris.
That changed in February 1945. The family fled when the Russians invaded the property. Chris and two of his sisters had left shortly before on a train; his father escaped in a horse and buggy; Hubert, Chris’s two other sisters and their mother left in a trailer. Thanks to a wealthy relative in the United States, the family was able to reunite in Reno, Nevada, in 1947.
Chris served in the United States Army from 1954 to 1956. Shortly after being discharged with honors, he graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a BA in Political Science. He taught high school German in the San Jose suburbs for several years.
In his spare time, Strachwitz collected records and developed a particular interest in Lightnin’ Hopkins, about whom he struggled to learn more. There was no public information about whether Mr. Hopkins was still alive.
In 1959, a fellow music enthusiast told Mr. Strachwitz that he had found the bluesman in Houston. When the school year ended, Mr. Strachwitz took a trip.
He later recalled that he found Mr. Hopkins playing in “a little brewery” – improvising songs in a conversational style, telling a woman in the crowd to calm down, wondering in a song about the California man who traveled all the way to Texas “to hear poor Lightning sing”.
Mr. Strachwitz believed that no one had ever recorded a scene like that live. Taking a cue from one of Mr. Hopkins, he returned to Texas the following year and found Mr. Lipscomb. This time he brought a tape recorder.
Meeting musicians where they lived and recording them where they liked to play, rather than in a studio, became Strachwitz’s signature style.
It gained unexpected commercial success when Country Joe and the Fish performed their “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at Woodstock in 1969. Joe McDonald, the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, had used The equipment of Mr. Strachwitz to record the song in 1965 and gave him publishing rights in return. With his share of the royalties, Strachwitz put down a down payment on a building in El Cerrito, California, near Berkeley, which became Arhoolie’s home and a record store he called the Down Home Music Store.
In addition to recording music, he caught the attention of the artists he loved by collaborating with filmmaker Les Blank on several music documentaries.
With the recording industry in decline, Strachwitz has focused on a non-profit arm of Arhoolie that digitizes and exhibits his unique record collection. In 2016, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the non-profit imprint of the Smithsonian Institution, acquired the Arhoolie catalogue.
In addition to his brother, Mr. Strachwitz is survived by three sisters, Rosy Schlueter, Barbara Steward and Frances Strachwitz.
There was a word that Mr. Strachwitz often used to describe success in his field. When he found an old traditional music master playing a song in a resonant time and place, he would call it, as if he were catching butterflies, a “gotcha”.