In the corner of a cramped music store in El Cerrito, California, Chris Strachwitz pores over a stack of weathered albums with warped cardboard covers, looking to find the rare gems he calls “missing links.” He is already surrounded by hundreds of them, wax and vinyl documents of indigenous music from klezmer, zydeco, and Afghani to folk, Tejano and reggae. He selects one and drops the needle: It’s a silly, scratchy song from the 1920s that sounds like someone expelling flatulence in a rhythmic fashion. The 83-year-old German count who escaped both the Nazis and the Soviets beams radiantly. “I don’t just collect these things,” he tells us. “I liberate them.”
For over 50 years, Strachwitz has searched for rare vinyl and recorded musicians for Arhoolie Records, the grassroots label that he founded just at the dawn of the ’60s. Arhoolie (named after a type of field holler) wound up bringing the sounds of what Greil Marcus dubbed “the Old Weird America” to the boomer generation, and became a huge influence on that decade’s folk and blues boom. “My stuff isn’t produced, I just catch it as it is,” Strachwitz happily says in the new documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music. “I never wanted a studio really, because I knew the music I liked was all over the place.”
In Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling’s film, which opens tonight at the Downtown Independent, there’s a lot of footage of back and front porch hoedowns in the leafy green margins of rural America. Mouse Music follows Strachwitz as he seemingly tries to make every one of them. From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the dusty Brazos of West Texas and crowded street corners in New Orleans’ French Quarter, boom mike and portable recorder in tow, we watch him coax everyday musicians who have never seen the inside of a recording studio to unburden themselves. Strachwitz, who wears the constant grin of a true believer, takes pleasure in what he does, partly because of his great displeasure at the popular music that gives the film its title. In one memorable scene, Strachwitz sits on a lawn chair and heckles the music at an outdoor festival with loud asides of “Oh, God no!” and taunts of “Meow! Meow! Meow!” Suffice to say, the guy would probably be a nightmare at an Arianna Grande concert.
Strachwitz’s life before Arhoolie is an origin story for the books. He was the wayward son of landed gentry who had to flee their castle in Silesia when the Red Army was converging on East Germany and “shooting every capitalist on sight.” In 1947, the family emigrated to, of all places, Reno, and Strachwitz remembers waking up and turning on the radio and being galvanized by the tunes that poured out of it: bluegrass, Mexican, gospel, blues, and especially jazz. In the early 1950s, he attended Pomona College in Claremont, where he haunted jazz and rhythm and blues venues, even taping some of the live shows he attended, before moving up to the Bay Area to attend Berkeley.
In 1959, Strachwitz and a folklorist friend traveled to Grimes County, Texas to locate and record the bluesman Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins. Instead they found a 63-year-old field hand named Mance Lipscomb, who played them a few songs he thought would be presentable to white folks. When Strachwitz requested “Tim Moore’s Farm,” a protest song about the brutal working conditions at a local plantation, Lipscomb grew reluctant. “Oh, you wanna hear the real stuff?” he told them. “Well, If you’re gonna record me doing that I don’t want you to put it out while I’m still alive.” (The song was so incendiary that Moore himself once invaded a Lightnin’ Hopkins concert to demand that Hopkins stop playing it.) This was Stratchwitz’s introduction to the “hidden America,” one that was accessible only by sidestepping the racial attitudes of the communities in which he found and recorded it.
Mouse Music contains a lot of priceless footage of Arhoolie’s major success stories: Hopkins, Lipscomb, Flaco Jimenez, “King of Zydeco” Clifton Chenier. But the film’s most thrilling parts are watching Strachwitz uncover what British guitarist and interviewee Richard Thompson deems “this obscure, almost invisible culture.”
There’s the case of Louisiana fiddler Canray Fontenot, a quiet man who worked at a mercantile store loading sacks of dry cement. “His boss had no idea why we were interested in him,” recalls Cajun-music revivalist Michael Doucet. “They just thought he was a day laborer. We thought he was an amazing holder of the Creole tradition, and his boss wouldn’t let him go 15 minutes early.” Strachwitz convened a magical (and unrehearsed) recording session where Fontentot poured out all of the pent-up songs in his head, accompanied by his bare foot on the carpet as percussion. In another sequence, Strachwitz and guitarist Ry Cooder find conjunto accordionist Santiago Jimenez Sr. working as a janitor in Dallas and document Jimenez and his son playing together for the first time. The untrammeled joy expressed on both men’s faces—even if the footage wasn’t shot specifically for Simon and Gosling’s film—should melt any cynic’s heart, and proves a comment made earlier in the film by NPR’s Davia Nelson: “This is the music of your neighbors, you just don’t know it.”
This Ain’t No Mouse Musicpremieres October 1 at the Downtown Independent (251 S. Main St, LA 90012, 213- 617-1033) and runs until October 9.