Strachwitz despised most commercial music — “mouse music,” he called it — but he did have just enough success to keep Arhoolie going. In the mid-1960s, he recorded an album in his living room for no charge by Berkeley-based folk performer Joe McDonald, who in turn granted publishing rights to Arhoolie. By 1969, McDonald was leading Country Joe McDonald and the Fish and one song from the Arhoolie sessions, the anti-war anthem “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” was a highlight of the Woodstock festival and soundtrack.
Arhoolie releases were cherished by blues fans in England, including Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Around the same time Strachwitz met with McDonald, he taped more than a dozen songs by bluesman “Mississippi” Fred McDowell, including McDowell’s version of an old spiritual, “You Gotta Move.” The Stones sang a few lines from it during the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter and recorded a cover that appeared on their acclaimed 1971 album Sticky Fingers. Strachwitz prevailed over the resistance of the band’s lawyers and ensured that royalties were given to McDowell, who was dying of cancer.
“I was able to give Fred McDowell the biggest check he’d ever seen in his life,” Strachwitz later said.
In 1993, Arhoolie was boosted again when country star Alan Jackson had a hit with “Mercury Blues,” a song co-written and first performed by K.C. Douglas for the label.
Besides his Grammy, Strachwitz received a lifetime achievement award from the Blues Symposium and was inducted as a non-performing member of the Blues Hall of Fame. In 1995, Strachwitz established the Arhoolie Foundation to “document, preserve, present and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music,” with advisers including Dylan, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt. In 2016, Strachwitz sold his majority interest in the record label to Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, part of the national museum in Washington.
“The ripple effect of Chris Strachwitz in the world of is immeasurable in preserving this music,” Raitt, a longtime friend, told the podcast The Kitchen Sisters Present in 2019.