by Bruce Sylvester
So what becomes of an outstanding indie label of long standing when its founder/owner/chief cook and bottle washer gets up in years? In the case of 84-year-old Chris Strachwitz’s El Cerrito, CA-based Arhoolie Records, it’s a sale to the best of all possible new owners, Smithsonian Folkways Records. Below you’ll find a press release on the purchase. Note that Down Home Music (Strachwitz’s retail record store in the Arhoolie building) will remain open as a separate operation. (Down Home Music is a must-visit for me whenever I’m in northern California.)
Smithsonian Folkways Acquires Arhoolie Records
Thanks to the generosity of Laura and Ed Littlefield of the Sage Foundation, and the encouragement of the Savoy Family (the First Family of Cajun Music), the revered Arhoolie Records has been acquired from founder Chris Strachwitz and his business partner Tom Diamant by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Arhoolie Records is known for “down home” blues, folk, jazz, country, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Mexican-American, and world music. The acquisition includes more than 350 albums released since 1960 in various formats by Arhoolie as well as recordings from three South Texas regional labels specializing in Mexican music (Ideal, Falcon, and Rio), Andean Huayno music from the Peruvian label Discos Smith, and archival materials including master tapes.
The collection features seminal recordings by artists such as Bukka White, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Flaco Jiménez, and Clifton Chenier. More recent releases include those by the Savoy Family Band, the Magnolia Sisters, and the Pine Leaf Boys. Hear Me Howling, a collection of recordings made in the Bay-area in the 1960s, won a GRAMMY award in 2011. In the same year, the label issued a GRAMMY-nominated retrospective box set celebrating Arhoolie’s 50th anniversary.
“Since I’m not King Tut, I can’t take my Arhoolie baby with me,” said the 84-year-old Strachwitz, who was recently honored by the GRAMMYs with a Trustees Award. “It was Moe Asch, founder of Folkways Records, who told me in so many words, ‘Chris, you’ve got to think about what you are going to do with all your stuff when you kick the bucket.’ I am very pleased that Arhoolie has found a new home at the Smithsonian, where they are committed to keeping everything in print and available to the public by one method or another. It has been fun running Arhoolie Records for the past 55 years. I plan to continue to produce records and assist the staff at Smithsonian Folkways where I can.”
“The Arhoolie Records collection is a national treasure of recorded music,” said Daniel Sheehy, curator and director of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. “We are honored to further the accessibility of these recordings, and continue the commitment Chris Strachwitz has had to finding, recording, and promoting ‘down home’ music since he founded Arhoolie in 1960.”
Once the transition is completed, all Arhoolie albums will be available on CD and digital formats, along with selected LPs, at folkways.si.edu. Until then, a prime source for currently available releases is the Down Home Music record store (downhomemusic.com), located in the same building as Arhoolie Records and the Arhoolie Foundation (arhoolie.org) in El Cerrito, California (both the record store and the foundation will continue to operate separately from Smithsonian Folkways). Albums are also available at outlets such as Amazon, iTunes, and Spotify.
Watch the trailer for This Ain’t No Mouse Music, the documentary film about Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records (https://youtu.be/-A_Wa9TKUc4).