Sometimes it takes an immigrant to spot something magical we take for granted here in America. That was the story for a lot of American roots music that won over a dedicated champion when a young German teenager arrived in the US after World War II and turned on the radio.
"I just fell in love," says Chris Strachwitz, who now hails from El Cerrito. At the age of 87, he can look back on a long career discovering, documenting and promoting a host of musical traditions, including bluegrass, blues, Cajun, creole, gospel, Tejano, and zydeco, to name just a few.
Music fans in the know know Strachwitz is the San Francisco Bay Area's local legendary ethnomusicologist, akin to Alan Lomax and Moses Asch. But for those who don't, Down-Home Music: The Story of Arhoolie Records, in SFO's Terminal 2, offers a fun-sized introduction to the history with a collection of album covers and concert posters, as well as a short documentary produced by SFO Museum, which put on this exhibition.
His very first recording for the Arhoolie label was of Texas sharecropper Mance Lipscomb of Navasota, Texas.
Strachwitz and Mack McCormick recorded Lipscomb in 1960. "I was lucky I had that guitar with me. He loved to play and he just gave us one song after another," Strachwitz recalls.
After recording with Strachwitz, Lipscomb became a popular figure on the folk music scene, performing for audiences around the country. The story is similar for many other now beloved blues artists like Clifton Chenier, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
"Without Chris, a lot of this music we might have never heard," says Nicole Mullen, curator of exhibitions at SFO Museum. "We really wanted to show what Chris has done helping to preserve American vernacular music.
Down Home also acknowledges Strachwitz's work collecting Texas-Mexican music, from mariachi and norteño accordion groups to corridos. Mullen says in many cases these artists "gained fame through him, or he restored their careers."
Strachwitz also collaborated with filmmaker Les Blank on documentaries like “Chulas Fronteras,” about Tejano music.
In recent years, Strachwitz has been most concerned with preserving his legacy for generations to come.
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings owns his label now. The Strachwitz Frontera Collection at the University of California, Los Angeles provides public access to a huge variety of Mexican and Mexican-American music.
These days, Strachwitz also runs the Arhoolie Foundation, which is, among other things, holding a benefit concert on October 13, 2018 at the UC Theatre in Berkeley featuring Taj Mahal and Oakland’s own Fantastic Negrito. The Foundation will give away the first ever Arhoolie Awards at that event to local musicians, teachers, and community organizations doing their part to keep tradition-based music alive.
Down-Home Music: The Story of Arhoolie Records, runs Sept. 15, 2018 - June 9, 2019 in SFO's Terminal 2, post-Security, For more information, click here.