Preserving Our Music

Chris Strachwitz was born in Germany in 1931. At the age of 14, he and his family were forced to move to what became West Germany. Two years later they emigrated to America and eventually ended up in California.

Chris attended Pomona College and was introduced to jazz and rhythm and blues. He was immediately attracted to the music. When Chris became a U.S. citizen at age 23, he was drafted into the military. Touring jazz shows continued his interest in the music he had first heard on Armed Force radio in Germany after World War II.

After his military service was over, Chris began to develop the technical skills to record and produce music. He would eventually create his own record label: Arhoolie Records.  Arhoolie was named for the field holler style of singing of slaves. His initial goal was to record down-home blues music of obscure musicians.

Knowing the tragedy of Germany under Nazi rule, Chris embraced the diversity of American culture. He feared, however, that the diversity of America’s music culture would be lost if it were not preserved. He sought out musicians who were virtually unknown and recorded them. What started as an interest in blues expanded to music of the blend of cultures in America.

Chris would do it all including the recording, producing, and editing of the music. He also ran the business side of Arhoolie Records. Unlike other music companies, Chris recorded musicians where they were rather than in a studio. While Arhoolie was not created to be a commercial success, it did receive some royalties as popular performers would cover a song that Chris had recorded. In other cases, a discovery of a musician would lead to their popularity and help to sustain Arhoolie Records.

In 2016, the Smithsonian Institution acquired Arhoolie Records for its collection of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Chris passed away in the spring of 2023.

Just imagine the initiative of an immigrant to America to capture our roots in music. Without the efforts of Chris Strachwitz, much of the music of America would have been lost. With that loss, so too would be the cultural heritage of our country.

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“Music is life itself.” – Louis Armstrong

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