Sunday, December 9, 2012

Long May They Stand: Arhoolie Records Celebrates 50 Years

Santiago Jimenéz, Jr. performs with La Familia Peña-Govea at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in February 2011

On November 3, 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. LP stands for Long Play because these records ran at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and contained a lot of music, compared to what had been available before. These days people fill up 80 minutes of a CD with remixes and ‘bonus tracks’ (many of which we could live without) or create interminably long downloads for their iPods. But in the sixties, it was the LP, or album (so called because they replaced the actual ‘album’ collection of 78s which made available long music pieces on a set of 10” records that had to be changed one after the other). I digress. On November 3 1960, Arhoolie Records released their first LP. It wasn’t the first LP ever, but it was an important one, 250 copies of Mance Lipscomb’s Texas Sharecropper and Songster. The records had arrived. It was a big moment for Chris Strachwitz and his partner Wayne Pope who sat around the kitchen table gluing printed cover slicks onto black jackets, stuffed the discs into the jackets and inserted a booklet of notes and lyrics: 250 copies.

The whole project had been a labour of love. Blues songster Lipscomb had been recorded in the field in Texas. Blues writer and historian Mack McCormick, had introduced Strachwitz to Lightning Hopkins (via Sam Charters) with the intention of a live recording which never took place, but Mance Lipscomb was a major substitute. Strachwitz pulled together the financing and named the label Arhoolie which means something like a “field holler” an appropriate name for the kinds of authentic Americana music the label would release over its fifty years. From first recording Country Joe McDonald’s famous “Fixin’ to Die Rag” to discovering (or at least making known) Mexican performers, sacred steel players, and down home blues singers, Strachwitz remained true to his vision right up to They All Played For Us, the soon-to-be-released recording of their 50th anniversary celebration at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse.

For three days in February 2011 the artists that Arhoolie released, as well as some who Arhoolie simply inspired, came to pay tribute to the man and the label that inspired them. I well recall the excitement on the Ry Cooder mailing list when it was confirmed that Cooder would be playing live. Some associates from that list attended the shows and reported back to us what a fine night of music it had been. They sent photos, and even a surreptitiously recorded snippet of the performance. Now Arhoolie celebrates the concert with this extraordinary deluxe four-disc set, packaged in a hardcover book with marvelous photographs taken by Mike Melnyk, and text describing the concerts in detail written by Strachwitz and many of the participants.

The package is a thing of beauty, visually and aurally. I pre-ordered mine, so it arrived early with several bonuses: including a programme from the original shows, an Arhoolie 45rpm record, and the book signed by Chris Strachwitz and Mike Melnyk. The CDs follow the original playing order, but are limited to only a couple or three tracks per artist. There is still a wealth of great music on these discs.

Nick Spitzer is a folklorist and radio broadcaster who served as host for the three nights. His introductions are brief and to the point, and served to move things along during shows that were packed with music. He appears only briefly on the discs, introducing each evening’s concert. The shows are presented chronologically. First up is Santiago Jimenéz Jr. accompanied by  La Familia Peña-Govea. Their two tracks set the tone for the whole weekend. Mexican music played on accordion. Strachwitz, in his notes, gives a short history of the arrival of the squeezebox in Texas and Mexico, brought by German beermakers. Fantastic bouncy polka-cum-conjunto tunes accompanied by cajon, bajo sexto, stand up bass and a second accordion. If you don’t dance to this stuff you might be asleep!

Next it’s Los Centzontles from San Pablo, CA., a family group who have recorded with David Hidalgo, Taj Mahal and The Chieftains. They are string based featuring jarana, guitar and requinto playing behind the close singing of the female singers. Again, they make your feet move with their energy and zeal one feature of Los Centzontles is the dancing, which of course you don’t see on a CD, but you can hear the applause that accompanies the dancing, which is represented in a series of photographs in the book. It’s worth following along with the pictures and text as you listen.

Ry Cooder introduces himself by picking a few notes on his slide guitar. He starts a moody and very bluesy rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Vigilante Man” which lasts nearly seven minutes. He’s accompanied by his son Joachim on drums and Joachim’s brother-in-law Robert Francis on bass. They make a lot of noise for a three-piece. They pick things up on a joyous version of “Wooly Bully” which leads into more guitar play. Lots of guitars appear next in the hands of Any Old Time String Band. A couple of fiddles, a banjo, stand-up bass and a guitar or three along with some loose harmony singing brings mountain music into the Freight & Salvage. This group gets four tracks, and they are so filled with joy you can’t help but love them.

Bruce Batton and Peter Arnott of Goodtime Washboard 3
Then it’s David Doucet with some acoustic zydeco, followed by Peter Rowan’s Tex-Mex combo doing “Free Mexican Air Force” and “Break My Heart Again.” Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands wrap up the first disc with some bluegrass. Trouble is, there wasn’t enough room on the first disc to finish Friday night’s representation. Laurie Lewis & The Right Hands come back on the second disc joined by a couple of Los Centzontles’ singers for “Texas Bluebonnets,” and then an ensemble closing on Joseph Spence’s funeral song “I Bid You Goodnight.” And that’s just the representation of one show!

Disc 2 provides washboard songs (Goodtime Washboard 3), Creole music (The Creole Belles), blues (Terry Garthwaite), Cajun (Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band), and more. Then Disc 3 brings out the Treme Brass Band for a touch of New Orleans Jazz, some Sacred Steel by the Campbell Brothers, and Country Joe McDonald.  And finally Disc 4 continues the Campbell Brothers gospel, more Centzontles, the Savoy Family Band and Taj Mahal’s blues until Chris Strachwitz joins the whole gang for Huddie Ledbetter’s “Goodnight Irene”! There is such a wealth of great music on these four discs a review like this can only point to a highlight or two.          

The book is over 250 pages of pictures and text that will keep you going through the music and bring you back as a resource. The four discs are a history lesson of American music from the hills and rivers of three coasts and past all borders. People like Chris Strachwitz do this kind of thing for love, they spend their own money, they work incredibly hard, they deserve to be celebrated. They All Played For Us pays justified tribute to a man with an amazing vision. More than that, it pays tribute to each of the artists represented at the concerts, as well as all the musicians playing in their own yard, who just play music for the love of a good song. Long may they stand.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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