In Memoriam: Chris Strachwitz

Published on: May 6th, 2023

Chris Strachwitz on-air with WWOZ at Jazz Fest in 1993, courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation

Chris Strachwitz on-air with WWOZ at Jazz Fest in 1993, courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation
Chris Strachwitz on-air with WWOZ at Jazz Fest in 1993, courtesy of the Arhoolie Foundation

Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz died Friday, May 5 at his Marin County assisted care living facility from complications with congestive heart failure, the Arhoolie Foundation announced today. He was 91 years old.

German-born Strachwitz went from an enthusiastic amateur to the most important musicologist of his generation. He recorded more than 400 albums for his Arhoolie Records label, which he began in 1960 and acquired by Smithsonian Folkways in 2016. He discovered and recorded such key American musicians as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, Clifton Chenier, and Fred McDowell. He practically single-handedly resurrected the history of Tex-Mex norteño music and was one of the leading proponents of regional music from Louisiana, where he fostered the careers of artists such as Clifton Chenier, Michael Doucet and Beausoleil, and Marc & Ann Savoy.

His work covered the vast panorama of vernacular American music – from old time country music and bluegrass to Cajun and Creole music from the Louisiana bayous, from Mississippi delta country blues to electric big city blues from Chicago. He led American blues artists on historic tours of Europe in the ‘60s. With Les Blank he produced two landmark documentaries of traditional music: Chulas Fronteras, a 1975 film examining the rich Mexican-American music of Texas, and J’ai Été Au Bal, a 1989 film exploring the deep Cajun and Creole music traditions of Southwest Louisiana. In 1996, he donated his vast collection of Mexican and Mexican American Recordings (The Frontera Collection) to the Arhoolie Foundation, who partnered with UCLA to digitally preserve and share it with the world. To date, they have posted over 90,000 vintage recordings online.

Strachwitz was given a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2000, and a Trustees Award from the National Recording Academy in 2016. His photography was the subject of a special exhibit at this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Fair, and a book of his photographs, "Arhoolie Records' Down Home Music: The Photographs and Stories of Chris Strachwitz" will be published by Chronicle Books this October.

"No one has meant more to the preservation and appreciation of Americana roots music than Chris Strachwitz," wrote vocalist Bonnie Raitt for the forthcoming book.

Strachwitz leaves behind the Arhoolie Foundation that he began in 1995 to preserve and document authentic traditional music. His enormous body of work as archivist and song collector – he rejected the term "record producer" – remains his unparalleled contribution to American culture.

WWOZ and Jazz Fest were both already celebrating Strachwitz's life this week. A photo exhibit in the Grandstand at Jazz Fest highlights his life's work with Arhoolie. Today, an altar honoring Strachwitz in death has been added. And yesterday, John Leopold interviewed Jazz Fest Producer/Director Quint Davis, CJ Chenier, Lars Edegran, and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Archivist, Rachel Lyons, at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage about Arhoolie Records. Last Tuesday, WWOZ aired two shows that Strachwitz guest hosted in the 1980s. These are still available to hear via our 2-week archive at this link.

WWOZ sends our best wishes to Chris's family and friends at this difficult time.

Plans for a public celebration of his life will be announced in the coming weeks.

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