Meet Chris Strachwitz. Here's a guy who knows how to have a little fun, and get his own way while he's at it. The owner and founder of Arhoolie Records, this modern day Alan Lomax has been collecting, producing, publishing and promoting the music he loves for the better part of 60 years. This film catches up with him in recent times to look back on a life that has been dedicated to documenting musicians who bleed songs and live to play.
Born in Germany, Strachwitz made his way to the U.S. at just 16 years old in 1947. Fresh out of a war zone and drawn to the swing music he was hearing on Armed Forces Radio, Strachwitz was hungry to learn everything about American culture. A film called "New Orleans", starring Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, was the true catalyst that would put Strachwitz on his path. He was so enamoured with the music in the picture that he started looking for anything similar that turned his crank. Being a foreigner gave him a unique and perhaps untainted view of the music he was listening to. His quest had him searching for folk, blues and jazz, but it wouldn't be long before those genres would lead to other, more exotic sounds.
His rise to prominence came thanks to dedication, good taste, and a lot of luck. The doc chronicles his first recordings with plantation blues legend Mance Lipscomb and Big Mama Thornton, the woman responsible for Elvis Presley's hit, "Hound Dog." Interviews in the doc with blues elite Bonnie Raitt, Ry Cooder, Taj Mahal and Richard Thompson help to underline the importance of his commitment to recording under-appreciated artists such as Lipscomb, and how he saved nearly-lost chapters of the American songbook.
Strachwitz's luck came when a little known hippy-folk outfit named "Country Joe and the Fish" offered up the publishing to a song called "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," sometimes known as the "Vietnam Song." Country Joe fluked at the Woodstock festival and was used as a replacement act for another artist that was a no-show. The song was a smash, and suddenly Chris Strachwitz was flush with cash. He put it all into music.
For decades he has been collecting recordings of Cajun, Creole, Conjunto, jazz, Tex-Mex accordion music and even country and bluegrass tunes. He sounds like a music fanatic, but he hates a lot more than he loves. One scene in the doc shows him watching a concert in disgust, mocking the players and yelling out criticisms during the applause. When Chris doesn't like something, he calls it 'mouse music.'
Strachwitz is not a dying breed. Music collectors and lovers will continue to look down their noses at pop lovers for years to come, but he is the last of a certain business model. Now in his 80s, he has seen the record industry bloom and decay in his lifetime. While musicians can build state-of-the-art studios in their bedrooms these days, Strachwitz still hits the road and sets up his live-to-tape recording equipment with laser precision and near-perfect ears.
"This Ain't No Mouse Music!" is not only a celebration of Arhoolie Records and the man behind the company; it's a reminder that the musical landscape is not as pathetic as Top 40 radio would have us believe. It is full of unsung heroes who play rich, lively and colourful music so that they can breathe. Chris Strachwitz gave them a voice and had a lot of fun doing it.
Thu, May 2, 7 p.m.
The Royal Cinema
Fri, May 3, 10:30 a.m.
The ROM Theatre
Other Hot Docs 2013 Reviews:
Hot Docs Day 6: "12 O'Clock Boys"
Hot Docs Day 5: "Pussy Riot -- A Punk Prayer"
Hot Docs Day 4: "TPB AFK"
Hot Docs Day 3: "15 Reasons To Live"
Hot Docs Day 2: "Good Ol' Freda"
Hot Docs Day 1: "The Manor"