Excellent news on the archival recordings front: Arhoolie Records, the 55-year old treasury of American folk and vernacular musics, has been acquired by Smithsonian Folkways, the non-profit record label of the Smithsonian Institution. So a broad, odd, historic, incomparable cultural catalog, founded and run since 1960 by producer Chris Strachwitz (now 84) enters the public trust. The Smithsonian Folkways’ mission is to keep “in print” its 3000 some albums (also available as tracks for streaming) to which Arhoolie’s 300-some productions will be added.
The best way to celebrate what Arhoolie has done is to listen to its artists. True roots credibility — the music we people (whoever we are) make and use for our own personal and social purposes, music enduring and passed through generations by performers with individualistic integrity — is the label’s hallmark. After all, it’s efforts were for a while monetized by a portion of royalties from Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” which I recall as a expression of immediate alarm among the draft-aged during Viet Nam. Here are some other of my own favorites:
Fred McDowell — You’ve Got To Move – During the ’50s/’60s folk Mississippi Fred, a slide guitarist/singer of north hill country blues style (the Delta blues less-structured cousin), gained white kids’ attention for his austere lyricism, a well-spring of rock ‘n’ roll and much else.
George Coleman, Bongo Joe. The unique street performer based for decades in San Antonio TX, George “Bongo Joe” Coleman plays garbage cans as steel drums while whistling brightly and commenting freestyle, full of iconoclastic life.
Big Mama Thornton — In Europe, With the Muddy Waters Blues Band. A tough diva growls, backed up by Muddy’s fine mid ’60s outfit with exciting Buddy Guy and the Aces, bassist Louis Myers and drummer Fred Below.
BeauSoliel — The Best of BeauSoleil. Fiddler-scholar-preservationist-modernizer Michael Doucet in quintet invigorates beautiful Cajun and Creole traditions for life as it is now. I do not have to tell NoDepression readers about BeauSoleil!
Klezmorim, The First Recordings, 1976 – 78. Who foresaw renewed enthusiasm for the jazzed-up Eastern European inflections of early 20th century Jewish-American urban greenhorns? Arhoolie helped launch the klezmer revival, too.
Jerry Hahn and his Quintet with Noel Jewkes, sax and flute; Ron McClure, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Michael White, violin. The straightforward, light-touched, fusion-nuanced San Francisco guitarist in very good company, a snapshot of the Bay Area scene at the time.
Sonny Simmons, Manhattan Egos. Ferocious “free” alto saxophonist Simmons (he also plays English horn) with his then-wife the equally boundary breaking Barbara Donald on trumpet and a rhythm section that forges its own solid identity during the course of the live concert recording.
Rebirth Brass Band, Here to Stay. Rebirth is right — in 1983, following up on the ’77 debut of the Dirty Dozen, New Orleans neighborhood kids injected rowdy, funkified energies into ye olde parade music, syncopating intensely.
Clifton Chenier, Louisiana Blues and Zydeco. Accordionist extraordinaire, bluesman equal to any, Chenier leads his definitive party bands in rollicking good times.
Earl Hooker, Two Bugs and a Roach. Uproarious electric blues from one of Chicago’s premiere slide and boogie guitarists.
Dr. Isaiah Ross Call the Doctor. This gentleman played guitar, harmonica and drums simultaneously, interdependently, a solo blues orchestra, with grace and feeling.
Lydia Mendoza, La Gloria de Texas. The songbird of the Southwest, accompanying herself on 12-string guitar, expresses nobility, wisdom, defiance, joy and sorrow. I don’t speak Spanish but get it.
The entire Arhoolie catalog is worth browsing — I know of no clinkers, and many other standouts. Up there with Yazoo, Delmark, Testament and Moses Asch’s original Folkways label (the basis of Smithsonian Folkways) all vital to capturing and disseminating our terrifically diversified nation’s sounds.