"It Ain't No Mouse Music": A warmly told story about the man who changed the course of American music.
If you have just one bone in your body that responds to music, you’ve got to see "This Ain't No Mouse Music" a documentary about Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records. I don’t care what stripe of music lover you are, you'll be captivated by the spirit of this man who showed the world what makes American roots music so damn important - and good.
Chris Strachwitz was the son of an honest-to-goodness count in Germany. His family fled in 1945 as the invading Russian army was primed to kill German gentry on sight. As a 16 year-old immigrant, he became fascinated by the wild and rich mixture of American music he heard on the radio.
He wasn’t fixated on one genre but on the sense of place and time it represented. As a foreigner, he heard something in the music that few others did, the heart of his adopted country beating through the music on the airwaves. Where does this music come from and who is creating it, he wondered. Thus inspires a lifetime, fifty years and counting, spent finding the people who make it and the culture in which it grew.
What a ride. The 92-minute film takes us from dusty Texas towns to Louisiana bayous and the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once the young Strachwitz heard Lightning Hopkins playing in an obscure bar in Houston, Texas in 1959, the die was cast. His next expedition took him to Navasota, Texas to find and record Mance Lipscomb playing country blues in 1960, the year he founded Arhoolie Records.
The singer-guitarist Mance Lipscomb, left, and the Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz in this music documentary. Credit Sage Blossom Productions
Using clips of Strachwitz at work, film makers Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling paint a picture of a man who can be charming, opinionated, obsessive and entirely devoted to collecting, promoting and classifying a huge chunk of genuine American music. The photography ranges between gritty and coffee table gorgeous. The interactions between Strachwitz and the musicians show us how connected he was with the men and women who, over time, became an extended family for him.
Strachwitz has eclectic tastes. If he likes it, he's all in and will go on expeditions to find the people who make it and the environments that embrace it. If he doesn’t like it, it's "mouse music," it doesn't have an edge, a current running through it that draws him in. He was convinced that the roots of American music were disappearing because record companies were interested in 'hits' and had no interest in preserving its roots.
"My stuff isn’t produced, I just catch it as it is,” he says of his style. That doesn’t mean he's haphazard. He's meticulous in his goal to get the sound that seized his imagination and reproduce it just so. As one of his friends says, “He’s involved from sperm to worm…” in recording, cataloging, and classifying the music he collects.
Early on he traveled by himself, later with one or two others like "Mack" McCormick, who helped him find people like country blues player Lightning Hopkins or Mississippi Fred McDowell, two of his earliest discoveries. Hopkins introduced him to his cousin, zydeco icon Clifton Chenier. If the music was a portal to culture and people who sprang from it, he recorded it in kitchens, porches, gin mills, and back yards. To his ears the one strand of commonality was that it had soul.
Strachwitz heard it in country blues, zydeco, bluegrass, New Orleans jazz, and norteño music made by the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Ry Cooder, Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, the Treme Brass Band, Fred McDowell, Big Joe Williams, Flaco Jimenez, Clifton Chenier, Lydia Mendoza, Los Alegres de Terán, the Pine Leaf Boys, the Savoy Family Band, Los Cenzontles, Santiago Jimenez Jr., Michael Doucet of BeauSoleil, George Lewis, Country Joe McDonald, and many more.
"I just like it if it's got some guts to it, it ain't wimpy that's for sure...it ain't no mouse music," he says about music that appeals to him.
For Chris Strachwitz, the drawn-out, nearly religious opening intro to a bluegrass song by No Speed Limit lead singer Amber Collins and the emotional wails of Cajun singers like Michael Doucet and the hollers of field hands from bygone days in the cotton fields are the tiny rivulets that water the roots of American music.
Ironically, many of the artists Strachwitz recorded were the inspiration for musicians like The Rolling Stones, Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton and a ton of others who made hit records with their renditions of songs they heard on the Arhoolie label.
The film ends with Tremé Brass Band second lining to Arhoolie's (named after a variant on a field holler) office for its 50th anniversary party... and 83 year-old Chris Strachwitz cheering them on, cane in one hand, white handkerchief waving aloft in the other.
Most of us have never heard of Chris Strachwitz or Arhoolie Records. After watching this warmly told, richly anecdotal story of about the immigrant son of a German count's love affair with the roots of American music, it's impossible not to grasp the impact both have had upon the evolution of American popular music.