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I had many questions for Chris Strachwitz, subject of THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC and founder of Arhoolie Records. Born into German nobility, he and his family fled post-war Europe for the United States, where the adolescent Chris promptly fell in love with roots music, though he prefers to call it regional music. After asking about his first recording (it wasn’t music), and how he left the sensible profession of teaching for a life in the music industry, I wanted to know what it was like for him, a tall white guy, to travel the deep south in the 1960s in search of African-American musicians, most known only in their own immediate community. It took a puckish blend of single-mindedness and courage, and led him to some of the most remarkable musicians of their day. Musicians whose work would have been lost entirely if not for Strachwitz’s obsession and moxie.
The conversation covered many of his discoveries, as well as what it was like for someone who had been calling the shots in his life for decades to submit to a pair of filmmakers, albeit ones he had known for almost as long. Witty, sharp, and passionate about his life’s calling, Strachwitz comes across as the irascible, lovable eccentric that he is. Who else would be so insistent about the correct number of lemons necessary for a proper glass of lemonade, or come up with a novel way of preserving old 78 recordings?
We also covered the injustices of the Jim Crow era that he witnessed while in the company of the musicians he revered. In an interesting bit of serendipity, or is it synchronicity, as Strachwitz was describing what it was like to be pulled over by a cop while driving with an African-American at a time and in a place where that was cause for suspicion, you can hear fire-engine sirens in the background.
Strachwitz’s story is more than that of a man and his mission to preserve the music he loves, it’s a story of the temper of the times in which he lived, and the triumphs, political, personal, and professional, that coalesced to make that story
It’s also what prompted my question to the three of them. What is it about this music that speaks to us as no other kind of music can? Their answers are as moving as the music itself.
THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC is a documentary about roots music, finding home, and discovering treasures others have overlooked. Strachwitz came to the United States as a refugee after World War II, and though he lost his homeland of Silesia, he found a different kind of home in the roots music of his adopted country, finding in it an authenticity and a passion not found in more popular mainstream music. Simon and Gosling, longtime friends of Strachwitz, follow this tall Teuton doing what he has done for over 50 years, travelling through the deep south tracking down the music that makes him happy, and recording it, both of as a document of a particular place and time, and for the general delight and delectation of the fans of his record label, Arhoolie, and his landmark of a business, Down Home Music in El Cerrito, CA. Among his many milestones, Strachwitz was the first to record Country Joe and the Fish’s anti-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”, preserved the sounds of Mance Libsomb, boosted the career of Michael Doucet and his Cajun band, Beausoleil, and captured the genius of Clifton Chenier, thereby allowing us to love the accordion for all the right reasons. He has also taught us via this film that real lemonade has more than one lemon in it per cup. Gosling and Simon have been making documentaries for a decades, and their previous work includes Gosling’s BLOSSOMS OF FIRE about Oxaca’s Zapotecs, and Simon’s I HEAR WHAT YOU SEE: THE OLD-TIME WORLD OF KENNY HALL, a portrait of the legendary blind mandolin player and his music.
All three have known each other for years, through the iconic filmmaker Les Blank, but the idea of making a film came very late in the relationship. And it was my first question,
Click here to listen to the the interview (26:38) THIS AIN’T NO MOUSE MUSIC — Chris Strachwitz, Chris Simon, & Maureen Gosling Interview.