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The ripple effect of Chris Strachwitz in the world is immeasurable in preserving this music. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to not have heard those records. This music that without his care and watering would have withered probably. It didn’t matter what country he was from. This is somebody that was born to do this for the music that he loves.

– Bonnie Raitt

Above all things, Chris Strachwitz is a sound and song catcher. He has devoted his life to collecting the ever changing sounds of regional or vernacular music, first on 78 rpm records and later on tape as played in homes, backyards, front porches, and beer joints. Since 1960 he has been seeking out and recording music played with joy, grit, and vigor—capturing the moments that captured his heart, regardless of language, region, or commercial trends.

Born on July 1, 1931 in a village southeast of Berlin, Germany, Chris was raised in an aristocratic family who lost everything at the end of World War II when the region became a part of Poland. His deceased grandmother had been an American but her two sisters, concerned about the future of their niece, brought the whole Strachwitz family to America in 1947 to live in Reno, Nevada. Sent to school in southern California, Chris started listening to the radio and was soon transfixed by the sounds of hillbilly, New Orleans jazz, R&B and Mexican music he heard coming through the airwaves.

Coming from another language and culture, he perhaps saw the artistry in this music a little sooner, a little earlier than the rest of us, and his vision of a kaleidoscopic American musical culture, from Tejano to country and Southwestern blues, has helped thwart the single standard the music industry has tried to impose on us over the years.

– Dick Spottswood

By 1951 he was at Pomona College, east of Los Angeles, and heard Lightning Hopkins and other “down home” blues artists on Hunter Hancock’s “Harlem Matinee” over KFVD. After a stint in the US Army, Chris attended UC Berkeley where he fell in with the local crowd and met fellow student Sam Charters who was working on his book The Country Blues and persuaded him to really listen to his idol, Lightning. In 1959 while teaching German at Los Gatos High School he received a postcard from Sam telling Chris that he had found Lightning Hopkins in Houston! That summer Chris went on a pilgrimage, hopped a Greyhound and with Mack McCormick caught him playing at a beer joint. Lightning was in his element, bantering with the crowd and even singing improvised lyrics about the man who “came all the way from California just to hear Po’ Lightnin’ sing.”

Determined to record the sounds that so enchanted him, Chris returned to Texas in 1960 with a tape recorder only to discover that Lightning was just leaving for California. But Mack suggested looking for other singers, and so they drove towards Navasota. They remembered a harrowing song “Tom Moore’s Farm,” and at a feed store Mack asked if Tom Moore might be living in this area. The reply was “yes, indeed Mr. Moore has his office over the bank building!” They met Tom Moore and asked if he knew of any popular musicians in town and Mr. Moore directed them to the railroad station to ask Peg Leg. Chris and Mack quickly located Peg Leg, who gave them the name of Mance Lipscomb and where he lived. They drove to Mance’s house and ended up recording him in his living room for what would become the first imprint on Arhoolie Records, Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster.

Since that very first record, Chris has gone on to record hundreds of albums and thousands of hours of home videos. You can browse selections from his personal archive here. He recorded regional musicians like Fred McDowell, Flaco Jimenez, and Big Mama Thornton. He brought many like Clifton Chenier, Los Alegres de Terán, Lydia Mendoza, and BeauSoleil to a new and international audience. And he caught snapshots of their soulful everyday music played in regional communities.

This young guy from Navasota, Texas, came in one day and was oh, just so excited by the record he had in his hand. This was the local hot guy from his area, and it was Chris’ first Arhoolie record, Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster. I have to tell you, that’s when it started for me.

– Taj Mahal

In the early 1970s, Chris was introduced to corridos—Mexican narrative ballads—by a young Chicano musician and activist named Rumel Fuentes. Chris became enamored with Tejano, Norteño, and other regional styles of Mexican and Mexican-American music. In 1976 he traveled to South Texas with filmmaker Les Blank and a young Ry Cooder to record the original giants of Tejano music in what would become the documentary film Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders). Chulas Fronteras was among the first 125 essential motion pictures selected by The Library Of Congress to be added to the National Film Registry list, to be preserved in perpetuity. Its peers included such classics as Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Cane, The Godfather, and On the Waterfront.

He got to be known as El Fanatico, who wanted to hear every song, know every story, bought every record he could get his hands on, and he never stopped. And he could just crank and work all day and night, and I would get tired. ‘Drink your orange juice,’ he would say. ‘Let’s have our orange juice and keep moving.’

– Ry Cooder

Chris’ fascination with this music only grew, and he eventually compiled the world’s largest known collection of historical Mexican and Mexican-American commercial recordings—now known as the Frontera Collection. In 1995, he founded the Arhoolie Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization.

This is our musical heritage in the broadest sense of the word, and it is remarkable that Chris Strachwitz had the foresight and passion to know how important it was to preserve this.

– Chon Noriega
Director of the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA

That’s the amazing part you shouldn’t forget about vernacular music: it changes every day. Nothing is ever the same the next day. These are audio snapshots.

– Chris Strachwitz

Originally established to protect and preserve the extraordinary music of the Frontera Collection, the Arhoolie Foundation has become a renowned archive of regional and roots music. Its mission is to document and celebrate blues, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, jazz, Tejano/Norteño, old-time, and other tradition-based styles of music through archival preservation, community and educational outreach, live performance, and direct support to artists.
Since Smithsonian Folkways acquired the Arhoolie Records company in 2016, Chris has devoted his time to the Arhoolie Foundation along with continuing his lifelong search for vibrant down home music. He is a member of the Blues Hall of Fame (1999), an NEA National Heritage Fellow (2000), and a recipient of the 2016 Grammy Trustees Award by The Recording Academy. He is also the subject of a full-length feature documentary, This Ain’t No Mouse Music.

I dread to think of a world without Chris Strachwitz. Everything that I love Chris has supported, everything that I love Chris has cultivated it, and everything that I love Chris has helped bring out in me.

– Marc Savoy

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