Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records Founder, Dead at 91
Chris Strachwitz, the founder of Arhoolie Records — an indispensable label for American roots music, from blues and zydeco to gospel and Mexican folk, for nearly seven decades — has died at the age of 91.
The German-born Strachwitz “died peacefully” Friday “at home in Marin County, CA, surrounded in his last days by dear friends and family,” the Arhoolie Foundation announced on social media Saturday; the non-profit was established by Strachwitz to preserve much of the music he’d unearthed since establishing the label in 1960.
“Over his 91 years, Chris captured the music that represents the best ‘down home music’ the world has to offer. 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 Arhoolie Foundation added in a statement.
“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, film makers, and academics.”
The label head and musicologist’s death also reportedly came just hours after the New Orleans Jazz Fest honored Strachwitz’s contributions for preserving Cajun and creole music, NOLA.com reported.
Strachwitz emigrated to America following World War II and quickly immersed himself in the regional music of the country. “I remember when I was listening to Bunk Johnson, my father said in German, ‘They are playing off key.’ And I said, ‘Doesn’t matter to me – it’s got soul, it’s got feeling.’ So I was always going against the mainstream,” Strachwitz told the Guardian in 2020.
Inspired by Moses Asch’s Folkways label, Strachwitz launched Arhoolie in 1960, a label where he both gave a platform to roots music as well as what he called a “song catcher,” archiving and reissuing important music recorded well outside the American mainstream. Blues legends like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Big Mama Thornton all recorded for Arhoolie.
“No one has meant more to the preservation and appreciation of Americana roots music than Chris Strachwitz,” Bonnie Raitt wrote in Arhoolie Records’ Down Home Music: The Photographs and Stories of Chris Strachwitz; Raitt is also on the advisory board of the Arhoolie Foundation, along with Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Gibbons and others.
“Arhoolie changed American culture,” said Daniel Sheehy, the curator and director of Smithsonian Folkways, said after the Smithsonian acquired Arhoolie’s catalog in 2016. “The fact that we can play some role in keeping that legacy alive in the future is a dream scenario.”
For his contribution to music, Strachwitz received a Grammy Trustees Award, a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts and was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
“Plans for a public celebration of his life will be announced in the coming weeks,” the Arhoolie Foundation wrote Saturday. “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.”