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Producer Chris Strachwitz, responsible for many recordings of roots music, has died

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We're going to remember a record producer who played an outsized role in documenting and preserving American roots music. The musicologist Chris Strachwitz has died.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The very first record he released contained the music of a Texas farmer named Mance Lipscomb.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUGAR BABE")

MANCE LIPSCOMB: (Singing) Sugar babe, what's the matter with you? You don't treat me like you used to do.

KELLY: He recorded Lipscomb in the singer's kitchen in 1960, and that album kicked off a career that spanned six decades recording and releasing blues, country, zydeco and Norteno music, among others.

PFEIFFER: Strachwitz was born in Germany in 1931. He and his mother fled after World War II and relocated to Reno, Nev. In 2013, he told NPR that as a teenager there, he didn't enjoy the popular American music of the time.

CHRIS STRACHWITZ: I was subjected to what my classmates and schoolmates were listening to - all this sappy "(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?" barf barf.

KELLY: Eventually, he found local stations that played hillbilly country and R&B.

STRACHWITZ: I felt it all had this kind of earthiness to it that I didn't hear in any other kind of music. They sang about, you know, how lonesome you are, and those songs really spoke to me, and the music did.

KELLY: He soon set off to record the music that evoked those feelings, describing his motivations in the 2013 documentary "This Ain’t No Mouse Music!"

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THIS AIN'T NO MOUSE MUSIC!")

STRACHWITZ: I couldn't sing or dance or snort or whatever, you know (laughter)? I just wanted to have my - I thought it'd be fun to have my own label, and it was a time when everybody was starting small record companies.

PFEIFFER: That label became Arhoolie Records. As for that name, he says a friend came up with it.

STRACHWITZ: I was thinking about words like Gulf Records or Delta Records or Southern or something like that, you know? And suddenly he said, how about Arhoolie? I said, our what (laughter)? Arhoolie. Well, it finally hit me, and I figured, well, it's certainly unique. Nobody else is going to think of that word. And I asked him, what the heck did it mean, you know? He said in parentheses, a field holler.

KELLY: A field holler.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOPPY DRUNK BLUES")

BIG JOE WILLIAMS: (Singing) I'd rather be sloppy drunk, mama, any way that I know.

KELLY: Strachwitz's recordings, like this one of Big Joe Williams playing on a nine-string guitar, influenced other musicians, too, like the guitarist Ry Cooder.

RY COODER: Because of that Big Joe Williams record and that particular song, it decided me once and for all I'm going to do this, too. I'm going to get good on guitar, and I'm going to play it like that, and I'm going to make records. And that's what I'm going to do with my life.

PFEIFFER: In the 1970s, Strachwitz began to record Mexican groups from the borderlands, like Los Pinguinos Del Norte.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EL CONTRABANDO DE EL PASO")

LOS PINGUINOS DEL NORTE: (Singing in Spanish).

PFEIFFER: He told NPR's Alt.Latino podcast in 2019 that he first heard Mexican music shortly after he arrived in the United States.

STRACHWITZ: I was just enamored by it, but it really developed more and more as I, of course, spent time in areas where you had this music popping out. And it grew on me. I became absolutely fascinated by it.

KELLY: That fascination drove him to amass the world's largest private collection of Mexican and Mexican American music - old shellac records and 45s with songs by artists like Los Madrugadores from Depression-era California.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONE QUE FUI CASADO")

LOS MADRUGADORES: (Singing in Spanish).

PFEIFFER: More than 100,000 of those songs are now online, and along with the 400 albums from Arhoolie Records, they tell the story of a man who, in his own words, just loved to make records.

KELLY: Chris Strachwitz died on Friday. He was 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SONE QUE FUI CASADO")

LOS MADRUGADORES: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Alejandra Marquez Janse
Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
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