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American Routes Shortcuts: Chris Strachwitz

Chris Strachwitz

This is American Routes, celebrating the music and musicians of Arhoolie Records. The Berkeley-based record company is devoted to roots music, blues and jazz, Mexican and Cajun, gospel and country. Arhoolie Records was founded in 1960 by producer Chris Strachwitz. He recently celebrated his 91st birthday. “Arhoolie” is a word for an African American field holler in the South. Young Chris Strachwitz arrived in America from Germany after the war. The first thing he loved was jump jazz on the radio and on jukeboxes. In school Chris discovered hillbilly and mariachi music on border radio. He skipped class to hear Kid Ory, George Lewis, Big Jay McNeely and Muddy Waters. That's a good education for his future life as a record producer. I visited Chris in back of his record store in El Cerrito, California and asked how Arhoolie Records began.

Chris Strachwitz: I don't know, I just fell in love with the whole idea of recording. I already started in high school. I remember that they were advertising in these little flyers that came from electronic companies. They had a disc recorder where you can cut your own discs that had an amplifier, and a microphone came with it. I just loved recording. I just thought this was the neatest thing.


CS: We had a radio program too. We'd goof off and do all kinds of silly stuff. Then I did, you know, find out that these records were really something. I started collecting records.

Nick Spitzer: But beyond recording and collecting the things you cared about at what point does your consciousness shift and say, I'm not just gonna record people. I'm gonna take those recordings, and I'm gonna get them out to people?

CS: I think consciously it only happened after I'd met Lightnin’ Hopkins.


CS: Now I'd taken some research trips with this friend of mine, Ken Mills, who had a record label. He documented a lot of the New Orleans bands of the very early sixties before Preservation Hall happened. And I'd met Bob Geddins, I believe, and I was intrigued to learn from him how to make records. And also Mr. Jackson, down on Seventh Street, you know?

NS: A Black record producer.

CS: Yes, but they were both Black record producers. Especially Mr. Jackson, he ran this totally funky, tiny little radio repair shop there on Seventh Street next to the old Lincoln Theater. This was really the Black street in Oakland.


CS: He just literally recorded people off the street during that time, during the late forties, you see, when a lot of rural workers had come from the South and found better work here in the shipyards and in the war industry. And I learned all that by meeting these people, you know? Why they were here and where they came from. I remember he told me one time to come down. If I like this music, there’s gonna be a guitar player from Louisiana at this joint in Oakland, and I went there, and I’ll never forget. I walked in, and there were big tables, and one big table had just one couple sitting, and they finally told me, "Come on, boy, sit down here. You all right." You know, I was the only white kid there, you know. And then all of a sudden a guy started a fight with somebody else and busted a bottle. But this couple was nice. He said, "Don't worry, boy. We'll take care of you." I mean it was just so sweet because they knew I wanted to hear the music, you know.


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