Roots music icon Chris Strachwitz, founder of legendary Arhoolie Records, despairs at the corporate "mouse" music dominating America. He takes us along on a hip-shaking stomp from New Orleans to Texas, Cajun country to Appalachia, as he continues his passionate quest for the musical soul of America.
Strachwitz and the filmmakers behind "This Ain't No Mouse Music," Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon, celebrated the premiere for the film with a gathering at a private home about eight miles away from the center of town.
The films chronicles Strachwitz at work in recent years, recording indigenous musicians in Louisiana and Texas, as well as explaining his 50 years in the record business working with Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, Mance Lipscomb, Big Mama Thornton and Michael Doucet of Beausoleil.
"If Chris didn't go down there and record it," Richard Thompson says in the film, "we wouldn't know about it."
Racial identity is also the theme of This Ain't No Mouse Music!, a celebration of American and Mexican roots music, as heard through the ears and recorded through the mikes of Chris Strachwitz, founder of the Arhoolie record label and owner of the Down Home Music Store in El Cerrito, California.
Co-directors Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling are Strachwitz's female film equivalent. Both made movies for years with Les Blank, helping to document personal passions/obsessions in exquisitely executed yet DIY-flavored films like Gap-Toothed Women and Burden of Dreams. Moving for decades in the same circles as Strachwitz, whose Chulas Fronteras, a 1976 collaboration with Blank, was a groundbreaking documentary about Tex-Mex norteño music, they had long seen the potential in his story.
Working with a budget of just $175,000 painstakingly gathered over seven years, they pieced together an intimate and inspirational story of a life well lived. Strachwitz grew up in Germany in the 1930s and '40s and was forced out after WWII, at the age of 15, as part of the resettlement of Germans from what is now Poland. He wound up in the United States and fell instantly in love with the jazz he heard on the radio, soon graduating to rawer forms of music—basically, anything with soul. "I was a lonely cat," he explains. (There's also a lovely irony in a German boy from Nazi Germany becoming an American standard bearer for cultural diversity, not to mention a champion of African-American sharecroppers and Mexican-American campesinos, but the filmmakers don't address that.)
Strachwitz wound up recording or collecting all kinds of music, nearly all of it from south of the Mason Dixon line, and some from south of the Mexican border. In the process, he helped disseminate the work of seminal musicians from Texas, Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, and Appalachia, including Flaco Jimenez, Clifton Chenier, and Lightnin' Hopkins.
The film's visuals are strictly pedestrian, but the access is impeccable as Simon and Gosling layer jam sessions, family reunions, conversations, and reminiscences into a moving portrait of a man who constructed a new de facto family and life for himself from the music and musicians he kept falling in love with.
Richard Thompson, Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, and other musicians talk about how Strachwitz and the music he recorded influenced them. They tell some good anecdotes in the process, as when Raitt says that she learned, from sharing a dressing room with Big Mama Thornton, that Thornton dressed like a man "right down to her drawers."