By Linc Leifeste | September 26, 2014
Directors: Maureen Gosling, Chris Sim
One talking head late in the moving music documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music makes the argument that if we lived in a rational society, Chris Strachwitz would be our Commissar of Culture. If you’re not familiar with Strachwitz or his record label, Arhoolie Records, you’ll probably be left scratching your head at that statement but after you spend 90 minutes learning about his life’s work and legacy via this lovingly crafted documentary, odds are you’ll probably be nodding in agreement.
Strachwitz, interestingly enough, is a German immigrant whose family fled Nazi Germany during World War II as the Russians were approaching. He wound up with relatives in California and fell head over heels in love with American music. In 1960, he started Arhoolie Records as a means to record, publish and release music by artists whose music and culture he loved and cherished but whose music had fallen out of commercial vogue. The first album they recorded and released was by now legendary Texas country blues artist Mance Lipscomb, who Strachwitz tracked down with the help of musicologist Mack McCormick and a Lightnin’ Hopkins recording, “Tim Moore’s Farm.” McCormick, who suggested the record label’s name (based on the title of a Library of Congress recording of a field holler), located the actual Texas plantation/farm that had inspired Hopkins’s song and there he and Strachwitz discovered Lipscomb, who was a treasure trove of southern black song and culture. Like many of the artists Strachwitz would go on to record and popularize (to a certain degree), Lipscomb, who was already an older man, almost assuredly would have otherwise toiled in obscurity and never been recorded.
Another Texas blues artist that Strachwitz tracked down and recorded was Lightnin’ Hopkins. Through interviews with Strachwitz and folks like Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt and Richard Thompson, along with archival footage of Lipscomb, Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Williams, the first part of the film focuses on Arhoolie’s blues recordings, giving the viewer a sense of just how dedicated Strachwitz was to capturing the vitality and soul of these brilliant artists and how small a role commerce played in his endeavors. From there the film goes on to focus on Strachwitz’s Cajun recordings, which include legendary work by Clifton Chenier and Canray Fontenot and his intimate friendships with Marc Savoy and his family and Michael Doucet. The film also shows how Strachwitz’s efforts as a collector and archivist of obscure 78’s paid cultural dividends when he would release collections that would be picked up by young Cajun musicians eager to learn about their own culture and roots.
From there, the film turns its focus momentarily on Strachwitz’s Mexican recordings, again shining a light on his love for the raw, emotional music of another culture. There is a lot of great footage from the legendary documentary Strachwitz made along with Les Blank, Chulas Fronteras as well as some fascinating footage, archival and new, with Flaco Jimenez, a performer who toiled in Conjunto music in relative obscurity before having his career take off. The film loses some of its energy and focus as it closes with a segment on Strachwitz’s bluegrass/country recordings, maybe because he did less in that field or maybe because of a lack of archival footage.
Most of the artists that Strachwitz recorded were down and out, their musical careers having never really taken off or having long since washed up, and Strachwitz gave them new life. In the process he exposed them to younger artists eagerly looking for something real, something potent, while also exposing them to people outside of their cultural traditions. And, because he was looking at their music through the excited, eager eyes of an outsider, he helped to spark interest anew even among some from within those same cultures who had forgotten just how unique and vital these performers’ contributions were. As musician Mark Rubin eloquently describes Strachwitz, he was an “immigrant who can’t go home” who was eagerly searching for the feeling of home and place elsewhere and found it in the vibrant culture and music of other peoples. And thankfully, he was driven to not only personally enjoy the music of the cultures he loved but to find a way to capture it and preserve it for all time, to share it with others not as lucky or industrious as him.