Arhoolie Records, a label based in El Cerrito, California, and founded in 1960 by Chris Strachwitz, has played a pivotal role in the preservation of early blues, conjunto, and other ethnic music of Texas. Strachwitz immigrated with his family from Germany to the United States in 1947 and eventually settled in California. Inspired initially by bands of the Swing Era and then jazz, Strachwitz fell in love with the blues of singer and guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins, a resident of Houston. In establishing Arhoolie Records, a name in part derived from the word “hoolie,” referring to a field holler, Strachwitz wanted to record and preserve folk and blues music that might otherwise be lost. He later explained, “My main aim was to document the best authentic down home blues singers and try to sell the albums to a new, mainly young White ‘folk music’ audience.”
In the summer of 1960 Strachwitz made his first recording trip to Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi and (with Mack McCormick) recorded songster Mance Lipscomb. This resulted in Arhoolie’s first release, Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster. The issue also marked the start of a long association between Lipscomb and Arhoolie Records. That initial field trip also resulted in meetings with Lil’ Son Jackson and Black Ace Turner and eventually pianist Alex Moore.
On a field trip to Houston in 1964, Strachwitz recorded zydeco king Clifton Chenier. One of his later releases on Arhoolie, Bogalusa Boogie, received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2011. Throughout the years, Arhoolie has released recordings of a number of Texas blues artists including Big Mama Thornton, Juke Boy Bonner, Robert Shaw, and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Strachwitz also recorded the unique jazz percussions of Bongo Joe Coleman in San Antonio in 1968.
Arhoolie’s preservation efforts have extended to documenting the conjunto and other Mexican folk music of South Texas—both through field recording projects and the reissue of albums from the catalogs of record labels that operated in South Texas in the mid-twentieth century. In 1990 Arhoolie purchased the masters of Ideal Records, which had long been stored in San Benito, Texas, at the Rio Grande Music Company. The Ideal catalog (the company had been founded by Armando Marroquín in 1946) contained the recordings of Tejana singers Carmen y Laura, Lydia Mendoza, Chelo Silva, the pioneer and father of conjunto and norteño music Narciso Martínez, the father of orquesta Tejana Beto Villa, accordionist Valerio Longoria, and many others.
Additionally, Arhoolie Records has made available the songs of some of the ethnic folk music of the Lone Star State through the release of historic recordings of polkas, waltzes, and other folk dances as performed by noteworthy Czech musicians such as Adolph Hofner, Joe Patek and his orchestra, the Bacas, and Ray Krenek’s Orchestra. Strachwitz has also supported the efforts of contemporary artists, such as Brian Marshall & His Tex-Slavik Playboys, in perpetuating the songs of their forefathers (in this case, Polish music).
In 1995 the Arhoolie Foundation, a charitable and educational non-profit organization, was established with the mission to “document, preserve, present and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music.” One of the foundation’s primary goals has been to maintain and make available the Chris Strachwitz Frontera Collection. With more than 17,000 78 rpm discs, 23,000 45 rpm records, and almost 4,000 LPs, the Frontera Collection has been regarded as probably the world’s largest and most comprehensive archive of commercially-issued records of Mexican-American and Mexican vernacular materials. The collection, which includes many Texas artists, is available through the UCLA Digital Music Library system.
In addition, Strachwitz collaborated with filmmaker Les Blank to document the music and culture of the border region in the Brazos Films production of Chulas Fronteras (1976, available on DVD) which features Flaco Jiménez, Lydia Mendoza, Narciso Martínez, Los Alegres de Terán, and others. He was also the coauthor with the late University of Texas professor James Nicolopulos of Lydia Mendoza—A Family Autobiography (1993).
By 2011 Arhoolie Records had celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. A documentary film about Strachwitz and the Arhoolie legacy, This Ain’t No Mouse Music, premiered at South by Southwest in 2013. That same year, the new book An Introduction and Guide to the Frontera Collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings, published by UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, won several International Latino Book Awards as well as the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Awards for Excellence. In the 2010s Arhoolie Records continued to make available the historic recordings of early Texas artists (as well as many others) who helped form the musical culture of the Lone Star State.