Chris Strachwitz passes

Chris Strachwitz, founder and president of Arhoolie Records, passed away from complications with congestive heart failure at an assisted living facility in the San Francisco Bay Area’s Marin County, California, on May 5, 2023. He was 91 years old.  

Always a keen record collector, Strachwitz was a promoter and publisher of roots music; a retailer and distributor; musicologist and an amateur folklorist; and filmmaker.

Christian Alexander Maria Graf Strachwitz von Groß-Zauche und Camminetz, was born on July 1, 1931, in Gross Reichenau, in the Lower Silesian Voivodeship, then in East Germany and now known as Bogaczów, south-western Poland. 

His family were aristocratic farm owners, with some American antecedents who moved to West Germany after World War II and emigrated to the United States, settling firstly in Reno, Nevada, and then in Santa Barbara, California. 

By this time the young Strachwitz had listened to swing music played on Armed Forces Radio. Then at school in a Santa Barbara County school he became interested in jazz after seeing the movie New Orleans, starring Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, and began collecting jazz records. Later his tastes broadened to include rhythm ‘n’ blues, blues, Cajun, and zydeco music. 

He became a United States citizen and in 1953 attended the University of California at Berkeley, then spent two years in the army before working as a high-school language teacher.

His first field trip took place in 1959, and then the following year he went to Texas where he recorded Mance Lipscomb, whose album Texas Sharecropper and Songster became Arhoolie’s first release in November 1960, with a pressing of 250 copies. The name “Arhoolie” is derived from a word for a field holler. 

Of the music itself he commented, “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 how lonesome you are, and how you miss your girlfriend and all this other thing,” Strachwitz told NPR. “Those songs really spoke to me.”

From 1965, he presented a Sunday afternoon music program on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA -FM in Berkeley, California, which ran until 1995, and in the 1980s he hosted shows on WWOZ, the station specializing in music from or relating to the cultural heritage of New Orleans and the surrounding region of Louisiana.

Strachwitz and Les Blank co-produced two important documentaries of traditional music: Chulas Fronteras, a 1975 film about the Mexican-American music of Texas, and J’ai Été Au Bal [I Went to the Ball], a 1989 film about the Cajun and Creole music of southwest Louisiana.

Subsequently the label released recordings of other forms of roots and traditional music, including that by a small number of bluegrass, early/pre-bluegrass, and country music artists. 

These included albums by …. 

  • J.E. Mainer’s Mountaineers – The Legendary Family From The Blue Ridge Mountains (Arhoolie G7512G,  
  • Snuffy Jenkins with Homer “Pappy” Sherrill – Carolina Bluegrass (Arhoolie-5011, 1972)

Miller’s Reel 

  • Old-time guitarist Sam McGee – Grand Dad Of The Country Guitar Pickers (Arhoolie 5012, 1971)

Fuller Blues 

When the Wagon Was New

  • The Louisiana Honeydrippers – Bayou Bluegrass (Arhoolie 5010, 1972)


  • The Arkansas Bothers Floyd and Lloyd, The Armstrong Twins Just Country Boys (Arhoolie 5022, 1980)  

Strachwitz had edited their earlier Old Timey LP Hillbilly Mandolin — see the compilation Mandolin Boogie (Arhoolie 9046, 2004). 

Arhoolie Records is the parent label for Old Timey Records. 

In 1968 Strachwitz released Del McCoury’s first LP …  Del McCoury Sings Bluegrass (Arhoolie F 5006) 

You’re a Flower in the Wildwood

Prisoner’s Song 

This material was re-issued in 1992 as I Wonder Where You Are Tonight (Arhoolie 9030), with two previously unissued tracks, one of which was I’m Coming Back but I Don’t Know When

The Maddox Brothers & Rose, from Boaz, Alabama, had been active for about 40 years when Strachwitz released 1946-1951. Vol. 1 (Arhoolie 5016) in 1976. 

The Maddox Brothers & Rose – On The Air (Arhoolie 5028, 1983)

Also, Rose Maddox teamed up with the Vern Williams Band for This is Rose Maddox (Arhoolie 5024, 1980) …. 

Philadelphia Lawyer

… and Beautiful Bouquet (Arhoolie 5030, 1983) 

We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder 

Beautiful Bouquet 

Rose Maddox – $35 and A Dream (Arhoolie CD 428, 1994)

I Wonder Where You Are Tonight

Fried Potatoes

West Coast’s Any Old Time String Band – Genny Haley, Kate Brislin, Sue Draheim, Susie Rothfield, and Valerie Mindel – have two collections on the label …. 

Any Old Time String Band (Arhoolie 4009, 1978) and I Bid You Goodnight (Arhoolie 433, 2006)

Free Little Bird 

Vern & Ray (Park) with Herb Pedersen – San Francisco 1968 (Arhoolie 524, 2006)

The Touch of God’s Hand 

The Bottle Let Me Down 

Pederson’s association with Strachwitz continued when he was the leader of Loafers’ Glory (with Bill Bryson on bass and vocals; and father and son Frank and Patrick Sauber on fiddle, banjos, mandolin, and vocals) – Loafers’ Glory (Arhoolie 542, 2012) 

Let Me Fall is one of the songs on the CD …. 

(live at McCabe’s)

From Galax, Virginia, in the very heart of old-time string band country, is Stevie Barr, once the leader of the bluegrass band No Speed Limit, went solo with Stevie Barr with Friends – Along the Crooked Road (Arhoolie 531, July 31, 2007)

It’s Sinful to Flirt 

Arhoolie seemed to provide the ideal home to a couple of Various Artists collections … 

Masters of the Banjo: A National Tour Of Traditional Banjo (Arhoolie 421, February 1994)

The Lover’s Return · Laurie Lewis 

The Wild Fox · Tony Ellis 

and Masters of the Folk Violin (Arhoolie 434, 1996)

John Barleycorn · Kenny Baker

Always A Rambler traces the journey of the New Lost City Ramblers, stars of the 1960’s folk revival who pioneered the concept of urban musicians working side by side with authentic traditional musicians. Just like Strachwitz their influence spread far and wide ….. 

(Arhoolie AFV 204 (DVD), 2009) The Arhoolie Foundation Presents: a film by Yasha Aginsky.

Down Home Music, his retail store in El Cerrito, California, was established in 1976, partly funded by royalties.

“No one has meant more to the preservation and appreciation of Americana roots music than Chris Strachwitz,” said Bonnie Raitt. “The ripple effect of Chris Strachwitz in the world is immeasurable in preserving this music.”

Ry Cooder would call him “El Fanatico,” the kind of true believer for whom just the mention of a musician worth hearing would inspire him to travel hundreds of miles to states such as Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana to do some recording.

Just as Moe Asch (Folkways) influenced Strachwitz, so he encouraged the Rounder folks, as one of the co-founders, Bill Nowlin described….. 

“Chris Strachwitz was an inspiration, and his Arhoolie Records a model for us at Rounder. Arhoolie recorded blues and Cajun and bluegrass; it was no one-genre label. We even emulated his four-digit numbering system – our first record was Rounder 0001. He was open and encouraging in every way, and kindly offered an appreciation of the three Rounder Founders for the back cover of my book on Rounder’s first 50 years. I was planning to go visit him this July – and see the Red Sox play in Oakland – but that is sadly now a visit I will not make.

Suzy Thompson, Director of the Berkeley Old Time Music Convention, was a friend and close working colleague … 

“Chris changed my life through his work. I feel very, very lucky to have known and worked with him for so long. I began recording for Arhoolie when I was 24 years old, CDs with various bands, and with Eric, and even a solo album, participated in different film projects in different ways, and in recent years, it’s been my privilege and pleasure to sit on the Board of the Arhoolie Foundation. So many, many memories of Chris, nearly all involving music and food! If there is a heaven, I hope it is filled with highly flavored food (with plenty of gravy) and that the music of the angels is of the ‘down home’ variety.”

Eric Thompson, once of David Grisman’s New York Ramblers. was 16 years old when he was introduced to Strachwitz and was part of the early Bay Area bluegrass scene …. 

“In 1962 Brooks Adams had encouraged me to go visit Chris Strachwitz. This was just when he had started Arhoolie Records. He had a large record collection, and still lived in Los Gatos and was still teaching German. He had one LP out on Arhoolie – the Mance Lipscomb record. We went and visited him. He pulled out 78 after 78 of amazing stuff that I had never heard before. For the first time I heard Elmore James, Bukka White, Memphis Minnie, and all kinds of blues things. He had just been to the south, record collecting, and he brought back all these 78s. He had duplicates of some of them, so I bought some from him. Two that I bought were Cajun, of a guy who was extremely influential in the 1940s, Harry Choates. I got exposed to real Cajun music early on.”

He was the subject of a 90-minute film, This Aint No Mouse Music!, In 2013. For Strachwitz ‘mouse music’ was what he regarded as inconsequential, commercial pop that he collectively dismissed.  

“My stuff isn’t produced. I just catch it as it is,” he stressed. 

As well aa being opinionated, he was self-sufficient, indefatigably enthusiastic, briskly energetic; having all the ingredients necessary to run a one-man business successfully. 

Strachwitz championed the songwriter. When The Rolling Stones sang a few lines from “Mississippi” Fred McDowell’s version of an old spiritual, You Gotta Move, during the 1970 documentary, Gimme Shelter, and recorded a cover that appeared on their acclaimed 1971 album Sticky Fingers, he prevailed over the resistance of the band’s lawyers and ensured that royalties were given to McDowell.

“I was able to give Fred McDowell the biggest check he’d ever seen in his life,” Strachwitz later said of the bluesman who was dying of cancer.

In 1995 he established the Arhoolie Foundation to “document, preserve, present and disseminate authentic traditional and regional vernacular music.”

Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label run by the Smithsonian Institution, acquired Strachwitz’s majority interest in Arhoolie in 2016. 

in addition to a lifetime achievement award from the Blues Symposium (1993) and induction as a non-performing member of the Blues Hall of Fame (1999), Strachwitz received a National Heritage Fellowship (2000) awarded to him by The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Grammy Trustees Award (2016) – in recognition of his contributions in areas of recording other than performance.  

His final accolade came just hours before he passed when Strachwitz was saluted during the 2023 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (April 28 to May 7). 

R.I.P., Chris Strachwitz.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.