Alan Lomax is probably the best known American ethnomusicologist and producer because of the thousands of recordings he made and collected over his life before he passed away at age 87 in 2002.
A new documentary, This Ain't No Mouse Music!, shines the spotlight on a gentleman with a similar mission -- but one who's still at it at 82. Chris Strachwitz left Germany for the United States with his family in 1947 and instantly fell in love with American music. He founded Arhoolie Records 13 years later and This Ain't No Mouse Music! (the last two words forming a term he coined to describe what he dislikes) tells the story of the man, the label and a wide range of music with roots in the U.S. and Mexico.
"My stuff isn't produced," Strachwitz says early in the film. "I just catch it as it is."
That was the case with the first artist he recorded, Texas sharecropper and largely unheralded blues artist Mance Lipscomb, and continues in a similar fashion to this day. Strachwitz helped a number of aging blues artists gain exposure at folk festivals in the U.S. and Europe in the '60s and '70s, which helped raise Arhoolie's profile -- though it still remains a small operation that also spun off the Down Home Records store in El Cerrito, Calif.
That expansion was largely paid for with the publishing money Strachwitz received from making the first recording of Country Joe and The Fish's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" -- which went on to become an anti-establishment anthem after it was performed at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair and played a prominent role in the film and album that documented it.
Arhoolie's catalogue has grown to include klezmer, Cajun, Creole, zydeco, conjunto, nortena, New Orleans jazz, bluegrass and Appalachian music, and Strachwitz has often put pioneering artists from these genres together with more current ones to record.
The biggest names interviewed for the film who've either recorded for Arhoolie or hold it in high esteem are Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Michael Doucet and Flaco Jimenez, who all discuss the influence that the label and its music has had on them.
This Ain't No Mouse Music! will introduce most people to artists, songs and perhaps entire musical styles that they weren't familiar with before, and will also show them just how motivating music can be in people's lives. Anyone with an interest in the roots of American music should track it down and watch it.