As a child growing up in a small town just outside New York City, I first came to conceive of America - the mythic America - through our cultural arts. I created an imaginary picture of the American plains and the West through folk tales, storybooks and movies. My parents bought my brother and me Davy Crockett coonskin hats to wear when we played in the woods behind our house. It didn't matter that those woods abutted the Bronx; for us, they were the wild unknown.
The West may have been fairly well documented - or depicted, at least - in visual arts, but it was wholly music that introduced me to the American South. And, it was music that led me to fall in love with the South years before I ever actually traveled through West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. By the time I was in high school, I had created my own vision of an eerie and rhythmic New Orleans through zydeco and Dixieland jazz. Mississippi, in my mind, existed as a scratchy daguerreotype that I had come to create through Robert Johnson songs (and thank goodness for Led Zeppelin and Cream who led me to discover Robert Johnson). Arkansas, thanks to Levon Helm, was a rural Mecca of golden cotton country that married blues and country music, just before the two had a baby called rock 'n' roll up the river in Memphis.
Music became the ultimate textbook into parts of the country that I hadn't been to, but desperately wanted to understand. I may not have always grasped the intricacies of regional culture through music, but it certainly led me to believe that there was a great big country out there with endless sounds to hear and subcultures to embrace. In a way that was very different from classroom education, regional music represented a type of schooling that taught lessons of cultural vernacular. And, if the professors in this analogy were the musicians, then the university deans were a handful of pioneering record producers and folklorists who traveled throughout the country and documented music as it hadn't been heard before by the general public.
Among the most influential of those record producers is German-born Chris Strachwitz, who founded Arhoolie Records, a small record company in El Cerrito, California in 1960. The story of Arhoolie has been told a number of times: Strachwitz had first heard American music on U.S. Armed Forces radio while his family had temporarily settled in allied-occupied Germany in 1945. After emigrating to the United States two years later, Strachwitz immersed himself in jazz and blues, and after a winding life, that included his own stint in the U.S. Army, Strachwitz founded Arhoolie, initially as a vehicle to record the sounds that had drawn him to American music nearly 20 years earlier. Among his first recordings in 1960 were Texas bluesmen: Mance Lipscomb, "Black Ace" Turner, "Li'l Son" Jackson and "Whistling" Alex Moore.
Over the next 51 years, Arhoolie would turn into one of the most prominent and culturally significant record companies in the United States, releasing 310 LPs, over 50 45s, over 375 CDs, and introducing countless pockets of the country to previously unrecorded blues, folk, Tejano, Cajun, zydeco, gospel, jazz, country and bluegrass musicians. We've come to define this music as "Americana" music or "roots" music today, but for Arhoolie, this was - and still is - simply "down home" American music that represents the vastness and diversity of the people who create it and listen to it.
In February 2011, Arhoolie honored its 50th anniversary with a three-day celebration of Arhoolie music, featuring over 70 musicians including Santiago Jimenez Jr., Ry Cooder, The Creole Belles, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Country Joe McDonald, The Campbell Brothers, Los Cenzontles and Taj Mahal. Last week, Arhoolie released the book, They All Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration, a passport into not just Arhoolie's celebration weekend, but into the perfectly uncategorized musical family of Arhoolie's diverse cultural legacy.
They All Played for Us is as much a piece of art as the music it's built upon with over 200 color photos chronicling Arhoolie's musical journey and four CDs capturing the three-day concert. In the Pandora age, when music has become so fragmented by subgenres, these CDs toss you between Ry Cooder's southern slide guitar, Los Cenzontles's Mexican mariachi rock, The Creole Belles' Cajun ragtime and Country Joe's folk protest hymns. You'd think it would be schizophrenic listening, but it's not. There's nothing siloed about these artists, as though to subtly remind the listener that music is meant to be blurred and merged with itself - because that's when new sounds are born.
As I read through They All Played for Us and listened to the five hours of accompanying music, I wondered how it was that German-born Chris Strachwitz has had his finger on the pulse of something so uniquely American for a half a century. American Routes host, Nick Spitzer, sums it up well in his introductory essay to the book: "Chris dug deep into the best things that America represented to the world: the democratic pluralism of our culture and its vernacular expression through music...sometimes it takes an outsider to hear and so profoundly appreciate these things."
This is certainly true, but what may be the underlying connection between Strachwitz and his audience is that we're all a bit of outsiders in our own country, and to some extent, we're all looking to become less foreign in our country's regional subcultures. I think back to my younger self, listening to music as a portal into the South. That land couldn't have been more distant from what I knew a New Yorker, but that's what attracted me to it - that's what made it so mysterious and intriguing. What Arhoolie has done so well for over 51 years, and continues to do so well, is give us outsiders an evolving musical roadmap to find our way into the nooks of the country and back out again with a little better understanding of what America is.
They All Played for Us: Arhoolie Records 50th Anniversary Celebration book and CDs were released on January 22, 2013, as an Arhoolie Records production.