Arhoolie Records Sold to Smithsonian Folkways, Will Keep Releases in Print

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Chris Strachwitz accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award for an Executive at the 12th Annual Americana Music Honors And Awards Ceremony in 2013 (Photo: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Americana Music Festival)

Arhoolie Records, the El Cerrito-based roots music label that released records from blues legends such as Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi Fred McDowell, announced Tuesday that its catalog is being acquired by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, the label run by the Smithsonian Museum.

In a press release, Arhoolie founder Chris Strachwitz, 90 years old, said that the sale is intended to ensure that the label's 350 releases would continue to be available for the music-buying public after he passes.

"Since I’m not King Tut, I can’t take my Arhoolie baby with me. It was Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, who told me in so many words, 'Chris, you’ve got to think about what you are going to do with all your stuff when you kick the bucket,'" Strachwitz wrote. "I am very pleased that Arhoolie has found a new home at the Smithsonian, where they are committed to keeping everything in print and available to the public by one method or another. It has been fun running Arhoolie Records for the past 55 years. I plan to continue to produce records and assist the staff at Smithsonian Folkways where I can."

Strachwitz started Arhoolie Records in 1960 with goal of releasing records by obscure and sometimes forgotten artists, and Strachwitz would typically record the releases himself. He began with blues artists such as Mance Lipscomb and Big Joe Williams, but his label would expand to include zydeco, bluegrass and Tejano (Texas-based Mexican American music), among other genres.

The sale comes just weeks after Strachwitz was awarded a Grammy -- the Trustees Award -- for his work preserving the music of artists outside of popular culture. He was honored in a low-key ceremony along with songwriter Fred Foster and avant-garde composer John Cage.

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The purchase of Arhoolie was made possible by a large grant from Laura and Ed Littlefield of the Sage Foundation, who basically bought the label's catalog and handed it off to Smithsonian Folkways, leaving a 40 percent share for Strachwitz's partner, Tom Diamant.

For independent label owners such as Scott Soriano, who runs the Sacramento-based SS Records, the Arhoolie sale was smart on Strachwitz's part:

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Smithsonian Folkways Recordings began in 1987, the result of the museum buying the catalog of the Folkways label after its founder Moe Asch died the year before. Folkways, an influence on Strachwitz, recorded and released the work of Leadbelly ("In the Pines"), Woody Guthrie and the highly-influential Anthology of American Folk Music.