Chris Strachwitz, a nationally renowned musicologist who founded Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito and helped preserve and popularize the work of scores of authentic American roots musicians, died Friday at age 91, his label reported.
Reports said Strachwitz died peacefully at his Marin County home surrounded by friends and family. The cause of death was listed as complications due to congestive heart disease, according to NOLA.com, which noted that the famed music historian’s passing came just hours after he was paid special tribute at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the famed annual event that celebrates the genres of music Strachwitz devoted his life to preserving. NOLA.com also reported that festival organizers had planned a second line — a traditional New Orleans-style funeral — for Strachwitz on Sunday afternoon.
Strachwitz formed Arhoolie Records in 1960, 13 years after emigrating with his family to the U.S. from Germany. He had fallen hard for the raw rhythms, melodies and passion of American roots musicians and made it his life’s purpose to preserve and document their songs.
After finishing a stint with the U.S. Army, Strachwitz settled in the Bay Area, learned the essentials of recording music and reportedly traded some of his treasured 78 rpm record collection for recording equipment.
Arhoolie Records’ first release, issued in 1960, was a field recording from rural Texas bluesman Mance Lipscomb, “Texas Sharecropper and Songster.”
The release launched Strachwitz’s tireless campaign of traveling to authentic American music hotspots throughout the U.S. — Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and more — to record musicians in their natural element. He recorded musicians ranging from Tejano accordionist Flaco Jimenez, Delta blues singer and guitarist Big Joe Williams, Zydeco musician Clifton Chenier and gospel group the Campbell Brothers.
Through Arhoolie Records, Strachwitz also reissued a vast trove of recordings by musicians whose original labels had gone out of business. This helped preserve valuable recordings from such artists as Big Joe Turner, credited with being one of the founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.
Overall, Strachwitrz’s efforts resulted in the recordings or re-releases of countless records featuring blues, Tex-Mex, Latin, Cajun and Creole, folk and other music genres, much of which at the time was largely unknown to mainstream music listeners.
He based his Arhoolie Records label in El Cerrito, along with his store Down Home Records, a sprawling collection of the fruits of his labors.
“Over his 91 years, Chris captured the music that represents the best “down home music” the world has to offer,” read a tribute posted on Twitter by the Arhoolie Foundation.
Arhoolie Records Founder
July 1, 1931 – May 5, 2023
We celebrate the life of our founder, friend, and great record man Chris Strachwitz. He died peacefully at home in Marin County, CA, surrounded in his last days by dear friends and family. pic.twitter.com/ZqW63gKY12
— Arhoolie Foundation (@ArhoolieFdn) May 6, 2023
“He was at the forefront of nearly all the roots revivals over the last 60 years including blues, zydeco, Cajun, Norteño and Tejano music,” the Foundation added. “His drive to document traditional music helped introduce the nation to our diverse musical heritage. He had the foresight to save music that might have otherwise been lost to obscurity and played a role in strengthening cultural traditions through his records, films, and most recently the Arhoolie Foundation. He cared for those around him, fought for royalties and recognition for Arhoolie artists, and provided counsel to countless musicians, writers, filmmakers, and academics.”
Strachwitz was more than a obsessive music fan; he also proved to be a savvy businessman. In 1995, he created the nonprofit Arhoolie Foundation to oversee his music interests. Members of the foundation’s advisory board include T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and Bonnie Raitt, who reportedly once said that “no one has meant more to the preservation and appreciation of Americana roots music than Chris Strachwitz.”
In 2016, Strachwitz sold the business and its holdings — including some 350 recordings — to Smithsonian Folkways, the nonprofit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. Though he kept his hand in record producing and other matters, Strachwitz told this news organization in a 2016 interview the move was intended to preserve the results of his labor of love well into the future.
“Since I’m not King Tut, I can’t take my Arhoolie baby with me,” he said. “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 had fun,” Strachwitz said of running Arhoolie. “I really enjoyed every minute of it. Sure, there were some headaches here and there — but what the hell?”
The Foundation has also hosted a number of concerts and awards shows in the Bay Area over the years. Its website has an extensive collection of music videos and in 2022, the Foundation made Strachwitz’s legendary Frontera collection, said to be the world’s largest private archive of Mexican and Mexican-American music, available online. Go to arhoolie.org.
The foundation’s music is also widely available on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming platforms.
The Arhoolie Foundation said a “public celebration” of Strachwitz’s life will be scheduled in the near future.
“Today we’re thinking of all that Chris brought to our lives and the lives of the musicians and fans with whom he shared his passion.”.