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Songcatcher

New doc celebrates Chris Strachwitz's ear for music

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NOW HEAR THIS Bluesman Mance Lipscomb tells Chris Strachwitz a story.
  • NOW HEAR THIS Bluesman Mance Lipscomb tells Chris Strachwitz a story.

Roots music titans Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder and Richard Thompson weigh in on the importance of Chris Strachwitz in the thoroughly beguiling This Ain't No Mouse Music: The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records.

Strachwitz deserves to be ranked with field collectors and ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax and the Anthology of American Folk Music's Harry Smith. In an era of banal, pasteurized sounds—earwash Strachwitz refers to as "mouse music"—Strachwitz's various labels recorded or reissued countless artists from all over the jazz, ethnic, blues and gospel spectrum.

Strachwitz was born a landowner's son in Silesia (now Poland). After he and his family were chased out by the communists, Strachwitz came to America. He became fascinated with the folk-blues revival of the early 1960s. He tracked down Mance Lipscomb, and thus also got to know Lightnin' Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton.

The Texas/Louisiana border area and the swamp lands south of New Orleans produced numerous finds. Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco," with the crown to prove it, emulated Hammond B3 licks and Junior Walker–like mouth-harp on his piano accordion. Down south, Strachwitz met the Savoys and the Doucets—trad-Cajun musicians of sterling dexterity and spirit.

That's just a few of the musicians seen and heard here. Directors Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon show us Strachwitz's facets. He was a shrewd businessman who got the publishing rights to the anti–Vietnam War song "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" from Country Joe McDonald, and who earned enough money with them to open his still-surviving El Cerrito store Down Home Records.

Strachwitz can be prickly, however, and sometimes demonstrates Werner Herzog–levels of hedgehog-like irritation. But this film shows that his career has been like a paraphrase of Will Rogers: Chris Strachwitz never recorded an album he didn't like.

'This Ain't No Mouse Music: The Story of Chris Strachwitz and Arhoolie Records' opens Friday, Sept. 19, at Rialto Cinemas, 6868 McKinley St., Sebastopol. 707.525.4840.

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