A man with a wall of record labels behind him.
Arhoolie Records Founder Chris Strachwitz. Photo by Alain McLaughlin

In choosing a location to celebrate the legacy of Arhoolie, the invaluable El Cerrito-based roots music label, it’s hard to think of a better neighborhood than the Mission.

Founded and run by an immigrant who saw the beauty, depth and power in songs that sustained and defined rural and working-class communities, Arhoolie has played an essential role in preserving sounds that would otherwise be lost. 

On Friday, The Chapel hosts the 5th Annual Arhoolie Awards and Benefit Concert, an event that highlights the work of the label’s parent, Arhoolie Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to documenting, archiving, and celebrating regional roots music. Featuring performances by rockabilly icon Dave Alvin, Tejano music scion Santiago Jiménez Jr., and blues great Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, the concert helps support the foundation’s mission, building on the work of founder Chris Strachwitz. 

“It’s our first return to the stage, to a live event, since we held the second awards at The Chapel in 2019,” said John Leopold, the Arhoolie Foundation’s managing director. “We’ve done video presentations the last three years, and all those performances are on YouTube. Jerron will play solo, and some guests will join him. Dave Alvin is playing with Rick Shea and maybe others, and Santiago will be there with his bajo sexto and Miguel Govea,” from the neighborhood’s beloved band, La Familia Pena-Govea. 

A man with a hat and tie, white shirt from the chest up.
Dave Alvin performs at the 5th Annual Arhoolie Awards and Benefit Concert at The Chapel in San Francisco on Friday, April 14. Courtesy of Mongrel Music.

Much like two German immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany founded the most important mid-20th century jazz label, Blue Note Records, Arhoolie is the work of an outsider who recognized the true value of cultural treasures hidden in plain sight. The 91-year-old Strachwitz was a teenager when his German family resettled in Santa Barbara after being displaced at the end of World War II, and it wasn’t long before American roots music became an abiding obsession. 

Since the mid-1950s, he’s devoted his life to recording and recovering a dazzling array of roots styles, including country blues, gospel, bluegrass, jazz, zydeco, Cajun and Tex-Mex music. 

“Meeting all these different cultures blew me away,” Strachwitz told me in a 2011 interview marking the label’s 50th anniversary. “They were all so different. They all had their own thing, their totally unique music that was constantly changing. Records are such neat snapshots, a time and a place they’ll never be again.”

Generally bored by music produced for popular consumption, Strachwitz prizes authenticity, which for him means music that emerges from and is intended for distinct communities. The sounds he’s captured or uncovered have influenced generations of musicians, including Bob Dylan, Taj Mahal, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder and the Rolling Stones (whom Strachwitz famously and successfully pursued for royalties due the ailing bluesman Fred McDowell for his song “You Gotta Move” from 1971’s “Sticky Fingers”). 

“I didn’t care for the slick R&B,” Strachwitz said. “I liked the raggedy stuff, the stuff where the musicians are obviously expressing themselves. I like honking bands, the beat, the powerful rhythm, and I don’t care if it’s hillbilly or gospel.”

Strachwitz’s legacy continues to grow. An exhibit at this year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival called “Allons A Louisiana — 60 years of Arhoolie” in Louisiana, is dedicated to Arhoolie and the state of Louisiana. As part of the exhibition, Leopold is moderating a May 5 panel at JazzFest with Quint Davis, CJ Chenier, Lars Edgran, and New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation Archivist Rachel Lyons. Strachwitz will participate via video link. 

In October, Chronicle Books is slated to release “Down Home Music: The Stories & Photographs of Chris Strachwitz.” An extensive review of his black-and-white photographs from his early days recording tunes in garages, living rooms and juke joints, the book documents the people and places that produced some of America’s great vernacular music. Former San Francisco Chronicle rock critic Joel Selvin wrote the book’s essay. 

No project better captures Strachwitz’s encompassing vision than the Arhoolie Foundation’s Rumbo a California, an ambitious online archive of the vast trove of recordings he collected at a time when Mexican music was largely invisible to non-Latino audiences. Known as the Frontera Collection, it’s the world’s largest private archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music. 

After two decades of work, Juan Antonio Cuellar digitized the collection’s final track in February, 2021, for a total of 162,860 songs. A former chef and member of a punk rock en Español band, he started working on the project with no idea it would turn into his new calling. 

The great San Jose norteño band Los Tigres del Norte’s foundation gave Arhoolie a major grant (via the University of California, Los Angeles’ Chicano Studies Research Center) to digitize some 17,000 78-rpm discs recorded between 1906 and 1960. Cuellar joined the project during the early phase “and I just never left,” he said. The grants kept coming and Cuellar kept digitizing. 

Arhoolie’s first major bilingual digital exhibition includes hundreds of tracks from the Frontera Collection, along with archival photos and video and downloadable song sheets. Easy to navigate, Rumbo a California provides a brilliant mosaic of a century of Mexican music in California, capturing the evolution of songs that described and fueled social change.

“I first heard it around 1948 on a radio station from Santa Paula that had some Mexican music, mostly mariachi, but some accordion too,” Strachwitz said. “I loved the sound of it. I thought it was just like hillbilly music, but in a different language.”

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  1. Thank you. I appreciate this information. What Chris Strachwitz has accomplished over the years is tremendous.

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