Arhoolie al­bums are like mu­si­cal DNA, build­ing blocks of a mu­si­cal her­itage most of us take for granted.

Pasatiempo - - Pasa Tempos - Steve Ter­rell


Amer­i­can mu­sic would have been a lot poorer had Ger­man im­mi­grant Chris Stra­ch­witz not got­ten the weird no­tion to make trips to Texas to record blues­men Light­nin’ Hop­kins and Mance Lip­scomb a half cen­tury ago and start his own record com­pany to make these trea­sures avail­able to the pub­lic.

Over the years, Stra­ch­witz’s Arhoolie la­bel has given us mu­sic by some of the most im­por­tant blues, hillbilly, folk, zy­deco, Ca­jun, Tex-Mex and gospel mu­si­cians known (or un­known) to hu­man­ity. Arhoolie al­bums are like mu­si­cal DNA, build­ing blocks of a mu­si­cal her­itage most of us take for granted. Its cat­a­log has branched out to in­clude mu­sic from Mex­ico and the Caribbean, but it’s the sound of the ru­ral South that is the core of Arhoolie.

In honor of Arhoolie’s 50th an­niver­sary, the com­pany has given us Hear Me Howl­ing! Blues,

Bal­lads and Be­yond. The pack­age con­sists of four CDs, plus a book de­tail­ing Arhoolie’s his­tory. Most of the mu­sic — four hours and 40 min­utes worth — has never been re­leased be­fore, and many of those songs that pre­vi­ously have seen the light of day had only been on LP decades ago. All the mu­sic here was recorded in Stra­ch­witz’s adopted home­town of San Fran­cisco, some in the pre-Arhoolie ’50s. Tony Bennett might have left his heart there, but Hear Me Howl­ing shows that other mu­si­cians just left a lot of great record­ings there.

Some of the mu­si­cians lived in the land of RiceA-Roni, but many were pass­ing through and were cap­tured live at fes­ti­vals, cof­fee-house con­certs, and even house par­ties. Mis­sis­sip­pian Skip James, for in­stance, was recorded at Stra­ch­witz’s home. Can you imag­ine how cool it must have been to have James in your liv­ing room, play­ing your piano and moan­ing his ghostly blues?

James isn’t the only ma­jor dude to ap­pear in this col­lec­tion. There are San Fran blues­man Jesse Fuller, Sonny Terry (born Saun­ders Ter­rell, no re­la­tion), Bukka White, Lon­nie John­son, zy­deco de­ity Clifton Che­nier, Wil­lie Mae “Big Mama” Thorn­ton, Rev. Gary Davis, Mis­sis­sippi Fred McDow­ell, Big Joe Wil­liams and, of course, Hop­kins and Lip­scomb.

Some high­lights of this col­lec­tion in­clude Hop­kins’ “Up on Tele­graph Av­enue” — also recorded at Stra­ch­witz’s house — which is a funny and lech­er­ous en­counter be­tween the old blues codger and “a lit­tle hippie girl” in a miniskirt who of­fers her­bal treats. There are four Lip­scomb songs here. This soft-spo­ken gui­tar picker is a Texan, but his mu­sic re­minds me a lot of that of Mis­sis­sippi John Hurt, es­pe­cially the tune “Sugar Babe.”

Some of the most in­tense songs are by Big Joe Wil­liams. His session was recorded shortly af­ter he had been re­leased from the psy­chi­atric ward of the lo­cal jail. Thus he sings “Grey­stone (Alameda County Jail) Blues” with blood in his eye. And “Oak­land Blues,” sung by his wife Mary Wil­liams, sounds even more fright­en­ing.

There’s even a 1965 ver­sion of the anti-war clas­sic “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” by an early ver­sion of Coun­try Joe & the Fish. This was a pre-elec­tric Fish that sounded like the West Coast cousin of Jim Kwe­skin & The Jug Band. One thing I learned from the Howl­ing book — Joe McDon­ald was named by his left­ist par­ents for Joseph Stalin, whose nick­name was “Coun­try Joe.” Maybe this was a Com­mu­nist plot!

Those mu­si­cians men­tioned are just the ones you’re likely to have heard of. Some of the most amaz­ing per­for­mances here are by those who are mainly known to Arhoolie devo­tees and other se­ri­ous lu­natics. For in­stance there’s the Rev. Louis Over­street, a South­erner who ended up in Ari­zona, preach­ing at a church called St. Luke’s Pow­er­house Church of God in Christ. Over­street played elec­tric gui­tar with his hands and played a bass drum with his feet, backed by his four sons on vo­cals.

There’s K.C. Dou­glas, a singing garbage man — I’m not mak­ing this up — who lived in Berke­ley. There are four tracks by Dou­glas here in­clud­ing the ti­tle song. Most of his con­tri­bu­tions are acous­tic num­bers — my fa­vorite, “I Know You Didn’t Want Me” fea­tures a band, in­clud­ing sax and piano.

I had ac­tu­ally heard of Toni Brown be­fore. She was in an old fe­male-fronted hippie band called the Joy of Cook­ing that made sev­eral al­bums in the post-flower-power era. But I never re­al­ized un­til now what a great coun­try singer she was. Hear Me

Howl­ing has three songs cred­ited to Brown, all of them sweet, soul­ful acous­tic hillbilly tunes in which she sings like a young Kitty Wells. There’s also “Charles Guiteau,” a fun lit­tle as­sas­si­na­tion bal­lad by Crab­grass, an old-timey string band of which Brown was a mem­ber. And there’s an acous­tic Joy of Cook­ing song, “Mid­night Blues,” though I pre­fer Brown’s coun­try stuff.

Santa Fe’s most prom­i­nent folkie, the late Rolf Cahn, isn’t on this al­bum. But there are songs by two of the women he loved — Bar­bara Dane and Deb­bie Green, so Cahn is here, howl­ing in spirit.

Coun­try, blues, and folk tunes make up the bulk of this col­lec­tion. But the fourth disc in­cludes some jazz from the Bay Area by acts like the Now Cre­ative Arts Jazz En­sem­ble, gui­tarist Jerry Hahn, drum­mer Smi­ley Win­ter, and sax­man Huey “Sonny” Sim­mons. In­ter­est­ing stuff, but Che­nier’s “Louisiana Rock” and Big Mama’s “Ball and Chain” are the high­lights of disc four for me.

Stra­ch­witz is push­ing 80 now, but Arhoolie isn’t show­ing its age. As a for­eigner, Stra­ch­witz found the mu­sic of Amer­ica wild and mag­i­cal. We should thank him and Arhoolie for let­ting us here these crazy sounds through fresh ears.

Blog bonus: I’ve stuck my per­sonal Top 10 fa­vorite Arhoolie al­bums on the blog ver­sion of this col­umn. Check out www.stevet­er­rell.blogspot.com.

Arhoolie on the air­waves: Hear a spe­cial Arhoolie set on The Santa Fe Opry 10 p.m. Fri­day on KSFRFM 101.1.

The new Big En­chi­lada is here: “Sounds From the Wild” will make you scream and holler. Hear Roky Erick­son & The Nerve­break­ers, Mojo Nixon, Dav­ila 666, King Salami, Gui­tar Wolf, and many more. There are 35 big episodes at www.bi­gen­chi­ladapod­cast.com.

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