Who Fired the First Shot?

By John Leopold, Managing Director

Working with Chris Strachwitz is always a joyous adventure. From reviewing tapes he made in the 1960s to looking over posters that he has collected over the last 60 years and enjoying his great collection of photographs, there are so many time capsules to unpack and enjoy. Chris has been working on a book of his black and white photographs with Joel Selvin, the noted Bay Area music historian. The book will be published next fall by Chronicle books.

Over the last six months, we have been reviewing over 17,000 photos that Chris took from 1959-1980 to pick out the best ones to include in the book. As we have pulled photos, Chris has shared stories. It has been a great experience to walk back in time to capture the scenes where the pictures were taken. Occasionally, we will find pictures that lead us on an expedition.

Clifton and Cleveland Chenier at the 1979 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

In July of this year, I came across this wonderful photo of Clifton Chenier and his brother Cleveland taken at the 1979 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Taken before the two hit the stage for their set, Clifton is hugging his piano accordion and Cleveland is flashing the peace sign. When I shared the photo with Chris, he said he liked the photo but didn’t think that he took it. (When you have taken tens of thousands of pictures over six decades you don’t always remember each one). He claimed that Michael P. Smith, the renowned New Orleans photographer, took it instead. In fact, a similar color photo appeared on the cover of “Sixty Minutes with the King of Zydeco” (ARH301). This set us on a search.

60 Minutes with The King of Zydeco (ARH301)

Michael and Chris were well acquainted. Michael took the cover photo for Clifton’s “Bogalusa Boogie” album on Arhoolie, as well as others. Chris and Michael saw each other regularly at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Chris has a great collection of photo books that Michael published, and Michael was even a guest at Arhoolie’s 30th anniversary party in 1990 at St. Mark’s Church. He took some great pictures there.

In the archiving world, it is best to “trust but verify” when you can. I contacted the Historic New Orleans Collection, which houses the Michael P. Smith Archive. They were generous enough to send us a copy of Michael’s proof sheet from the day of the photo in question. Indeed, the photo that appeared on the album cover was taken by Michael, but the shot we had in black and white was nowhere to be seen. We went back and looked at the entirety of Chris’s proof sheet. There was the photo, with Cleveland, the peace sign, and all of his bottle openers that he used on his rubboard. Michael’s color photo is beautiful, but the sharpness and directness from the black and white really stand out in Chris’s photo. The mystery was solved: Chris and Michael photographed Clifton and Cleveland almost at the same time!

I’m not sure if this picture will ultimately make it into Chris’s book, but we like it so much that we’ve decided to offer it as a special signed print on the Arhoolie store. Look out for the print at

Here at the archive, we’ve begun a project to catalog Chris’s thousands of photographs. His datebook is a boon to our efforts, supplying crucial information on the dates and locations of photographs. Chris himself remains an extraordinary resource as we set about the long but rewarding task of describing, arranging, and sharing his collection. Stay tuned to the blog for updates on our progress and more stories from the archive.