Bay Area Vinyl Hop: Down Home Music Store (Part 1)
Holding Onto The Past Through Roots Music
The early bird that visited me this morning, bringing me the usual maladies from the digital news world, chirped: Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin Dies at 76. Oh no, not Aretha! Another cord that tied us back to “real music times” — severed. I sobbed. The past is really becoming the past. I put on Lady Soul, listened to a few melancholic verses and sighed: “Lord, what a day to be interviewing a record store...”
We showed up at Down Home Music Store located in El Cerrito, California just north of Berkeley, and sure enough, a Berkeley based news crew was setting up to interview one of the store staff. JC Garrett was waiting for us to do our interview, which wasn’t about Aretha, but deeply related, nevertheless, to her roots: Gospel music — prominent “roots music” of America.
Down Home Music Store is home to Arhoolie Records (Est.1960), a music label known for its archiving of roots music. Arhoolie is the lifelong project of owner Chris Strachwitz ( b.1931), native of Germany who immigrated to the US at a young age. Chris’s first exposure to American music was swing music on the American armed forces’ radio show, and once in America, he started collecting jazz records after seeing the film New Orleans, starring Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday. In the ‘60s, Chris went around the Southern United States recording and archiving roots music; playing a significant part in the “Folk Blues Revival.”
The music store itself is one of a kind, and it’s more like a museum with an archival look; the walls are covered in vintage posters, photos, and memorabilia. “It’s nothing like the newer and more hip record stores that are popping back up on the map,” comments JC, “for us, the trend never ended. The best way to listen to roots music — is in the format that it was recorded.”
Rather than a sit down interview, we had JC take us on a “museum” tour of the history of Arhoolie Records and Down Home Music Store, and had him share with us a few records from the momentus Arhoolie archives, asking questions as we went along.
――Please help us define roots music, you also called it community based music or American vernacular music.
Generally, I would define roots music as: people who are not trained musicians who come out of a community and create music for and about that community. They are not necessarily in it for the money in terms of fame and fortune. Roots music is mostly something that took place prior to the internet. So it's not so much commercially based music. Gospel music, for example, is used more for ritual. Things like that. It’s not strictly for entertainment.
――Is there any part of the country that is actively making this kind of music post internet?
Definitely, there are. I would define it as ethnic communities. I am sure there are Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and there are people around the world who are still creating perhaps something that falls into the categories of more traditional music — that has roots in the past. That would probably fit the category.
――What about zydeco in Louisiana?
That's a perfect example. Yeah, Cajun and zydeco.
――So this category of music is not really defined by a time period, but rather how it’s made.
Yes. Though, less likely made that way now. Primarily due to technology, I would say. I am sure there is someone out there who could define some form of electronica as being roots, but I probably wouldn't do that. [ Chuckles. ]
――Tell us how this store came about?
This was the home of Arhoolie that was originally started in Chris Strachwitz's kitchen in Los Gatos, CA, south of here. He was a school teacher. During his summers off, he would travel to Texas and Louisiana in search of music and it grew from there. He put out a successful record with Texas Songster (Mance Lipscomb) and he continued doing that. A few other people were doing that at the same time — it was called the Folk Blues Revival. Arhoolie moved up to Berkeley for a while and some money came in through some publishing deals and that enabled him to buy this building we are in now. Our headquarters were here, there was a record distribution company, and Flower Films or Les Blanc — they are still here. In 1976 it became Down Home. It was Chris's idea.
――The publishing deal, that was with Country Joe, correct? Can you tell us about that?
Here is Chris's story of how he financed the beginnings of Down Home:
So one day in 1963, I guess it was, or 1964, my friend Ed Denson called me and said, “Do you have your tape recorder ready?” And I said, “Well, I’m going tomorrow with Lightnin’ Hopkins to Europe.” “Oh no, we gotta make this recording for this march, this peace march, that is going on against the Vietnam War.” I said, “Alright, bring him over” and this motley looking crew came in my living room and I hung one of the directional mics from my lamp ceiling and put them around in a circle and “1-2-3, what are we fighting for, next stop is Vietnam, I don’t give a damn” [ Laughs.] And there was Country Joe making his historic record Fixin’-To-Die Rag. As he walked out he said, “Chris, what do we owe you for making the tape?” and I said, “You don’t owe me nothing but do you have a publisher for this stuff?” He said, “No, what’s that?” I said, “Can I be the publisher?” and he said, “Ok” and it was an oral agreement but his agent, his manager, overheard it so we split whatever came in the first check. $70,000 came in after Woodstock made it famous and I put my money down on my building and I sent him his $35,000. At first, he was really kind of pissed that he did this, you see, because he kind of knew what publishing was and on and on."
――Tell us more about other artists Chris worked with.
All the posters that are here like the Chuck Berry Show you see, these were organized and produced by Chris. [ Pointing. ] He brought them to the Bay, Chuck Berry and Big Mama Thornton, she was on the Arhoolie label. In some cases, he traveled to Europe with them. There was a series of folk blues tours (The American Folk Blues Festival) and they traveled all over Europe. They had blues artists and R&B artists from all over the US, and it was like a bus tour. There were actually quite a few DVDs that came out about that because it went on for several years. (The Germans used a very high res video at the time, so their film quality is really good.) It was really how Europeans, in many cases, were introduced to live blues acts. They were very influential tours at the time. Chris took people on our label along on these tours. A lot of these artists had never been out of the United States; they had never flown. The crew was really the cream of the crop — Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Skip James, Big Mama Thornton, Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-bone Walker, Junior Walker, Big Joe Williams — dozens and dozens of artists. The tours started in the mid '60s and went up into the '70s.
――How about artists of today; any notable people that have walked through these doors?
We have seen many well known musicians, writers, archivists, collectors, over the years. Carlos Santana, BB King, Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder, Joel Selvin, Paul Oliver, Taj Mahal, Robert Crumb, just to name a few.
――Since two years ago, Arhoolie is part of the Smithsonian Folkway. What lead to that?
Yes. It took a while. It was a long process. Chris is now 87 and he realized he needed to do something to preserve the work, hopefully. The Smithsonian does not buy anything, so in this case Ed and Laura Littlefield purchased it and donated it to the Smithsonian. The advantage of the Smithsonian is that they will keep everything currently in print, in some form or another, downloads or whatever.
――So it's being archived.
The Arhoolie Foundation, part of what it does, conserves the music digitally. That is not connected to the Smithsonian at this point, that's a separate operation. There are staff people that sit at turntables and copy things over to digital formats. Music in 45s, 78s and photographs. Chris traveled a lot and took pictures everywhere.
――You had mentioned that there were other people going around recording Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi music, when Chris was also doing that. Did Chris have any musical or engineering background himself?
Hmm. Not that I know of, I mean he picked up pretty quick how to do it. Most of them were not professionals. All of those guys learned on the job. They carried around small reel-to-reel equipment and got the best microphones they could afford and they recorded very primitively. In some cases with Chris, he would hire the local studio: they would take the musicians to studios or what used to be radio stations and had them record there.
――So he didn't just hold up a microphone and say: "Play."
Well, there was some of that, too. There are things he recorded at his kitchen table.
Down Home Music Store
10341 San Pablo Ave, El Cerrito, CA 94530
Hours: Tue-Sun: 11am-7pm
Closed on Mondays
Tel: (510) 525-2129
Interview and article by Mika Anami
Photographs by Rieko Fujii