Maureen Gosling is the co-director, with Chris Simon, of This Ain’t No Mouse Music: The Story of Chris Strachwitz & Arhoolie Records, shown this week at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
By Brian Wise
Maureen Gosling began her film career working with acclaimed independent director, Les Blank (Burden of Dreams, Always for Pleasure) and has also been sought after as an editor, working with such directors as Jed Riffe (Waiting to Inhale, California’s “Lost” Tribes), Tom Weidlinger (Heart of the Congo, A Dream in Hanoi), Shakti Butler (The Way Home), Ashley James (Bomba: Dancing the Drum), Amie Williams (Stripped and Teased) and Pam Rorke Levy (The Mission District: The Hidden Neighborhoods of San Francisco). Her films have been seen in countless film festivals around the world, on national public and cable television, on television in Europe, Australia and Asia, and have been distributed widely to educational institutions.
Maureen and Chris Simon’s documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music! profiles the now 82-year-old Chris Strachwitz, founder of the influential Arhoolie Records label. The documentary won a Special Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival.
You’ve been making films for a long time, haven’t you?
Yes. I first started working with Les Blank, in 1972, and I was a total apprentice. I didn’t know anything about film making, so I really learned the bulk of what I know from Les, certainly, in those years doing sound recording, and assistant editing. Then I graduated into doing editing once he trusted my sensibility that I actually understood what he was doing.
He made some seminal films about music, didn’t he?
Yes, he really did. The first time I saw his films – I think I saw three of them – at an anthropological film festival, he was one of the only people that was making films about the U.S. and I just thought they were beautiful, very poetic and really different. There was one about … called The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins, one called A Well Spent Life, about the songster Mance Lipscombe, and the third one was called Spend it All, about Cajuns, French people in Louisiana. So, those really laid the groundwork for what he eventually continued to do, and the kind of films I got involved with him. Along the way we met Chris Strachwitz, because he was in the same world of Down Home Music. He had, actually, produced recordings of those same musicians.
When did you come to the decision that you wanted to make a film about Chris?
Chris Simon, who I did the film with, who actually was married to Les for 10 years (and went with him 10 years before that), we arrived at it at the same time. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, and I was living in Oakland, California. We were both ready to do a film, and I really don’t know who had the original idea but we both agreed that that would be a fun film to make because we knew Chris, already. We knew a lot of the musicians and we were right in the same building working with him. Actually, not at that particular moment, but, I had been, and was still very much in touch with him.
I approached him one night, and said that Chris and I had this idea, and he pooh- poohed the idea and said, ‘Oh, no, no, you don’t want a film on me.’ He just totally pooh-poohed it – which he does sometimes. So, I didn’t bring it up for a while.
Then I was talking to him on the phone and he said, ‘Oh, there are these people who want to do a film, about me, and they have some connections with PBS, and Tom, the Arhoolie manager thought it would be a good idea, maybe, to do a film.’ I said ‘Chris Simon and I want to do a film! I talked to you about it first. You can’t let them do that!’
So, I caught him in the nick of time. He was about to sign a contract with them. He thought about it for maybe five or 10 minutes, and then he warmed up to the idea fairly quickly and next thing he was taking us out to dinner and opening up a bottle of champagne to start off the film. So, it was a nice beginning.
There’s an interesting back story to his life that is, really, quite fascinating.
Yes. He was born in Silesia, which doesn’t exist anymore. It’s on the border of Poland and Germany now. He was born into aristocracy, or high class, shall we say. If the war hadn’t happened, he would have been a count, but the Russians started invading that area and all of the people had to leave. His father has a diary where he recounted their escape from their home. It took them about two years, but after that, actually from leaving everything behind to get to the States. Chris’s mothers’ mother was an American, and so they were able to pull some strings with some relatives in the States. He ended up in, Reno, Nevada, of all places.
Very different from where he was living in Germany, and as a kid, as a 16 year old, he was at that time, he really got fascinated by American radio. He wasn’t listening to Doris Day and Bing Crosby, and folks like that. He caught these channels. There was this one channel that was coming out of Mexico, it wasn’t Mexican, but they beamed out of Mexico. It had all kinds of country music, and jazz, and blues, and he just got really enamored at that point.
Through listening to the radio and different sorts of music, as you said, he decided that he wanted to do something about it, like get more involved, and went on a few interesting journeys, and prompted by friends to start with, wasn’t it?
Yes. Instead of just listening to the records, which most people would do, and just enjoy them, he said, “I want to meet these guys. I want to meet Lightnin’ Hopkins. Where is he?” That information was not available. There was no internet. There weren’t books written about these guys. They were just making records, and somehow their music got on the radio. People in those days didn’t identify who was who, or where they were from, or anything. So, some friend of his discovered that he was in Houston, Texas. Chris said, ‘I got to go,’ and he just showed up in Houston, and started looking around for Lightnin’ Hopkins in the black neighborhood, during segregation in the U.S. It was early Civil Rights Movement.
Either with naiveté or boldness, he decided he was going to find Lightnin’ Hopkins. He didn’t really care what happened and so, with suspicion, people would see this tall, skinny German guy, white guy there with an accent. He would just say, ‘I’m a fan. I love this guy’s music. How can I meet him? Do you know where he is playing?’ Usually, apparently, that worked. I guess, he did have some encounters when he was doing some of his travels. Actually, we have some stories that aren’t in the film too, but there’s one that’s in the film. Somehow he managed to do it, and ended up meeting all these amazing people and recording them.
Now, people can be avid music fans but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to start a record label. Can you talk about the inspiration for him to do that?
I think he was so enthusiastic about the music, that he wanted to share it with people. Somewhere along the line he just thought, ‘Maybe I should just start a little record label, and I can put this stuff out and share it with people.’ He started thinking about that, and he started recording some musicians, with the intention of putting them on records. He was living in Berkeley, California, and there were some folks that he met who taught him how to do it. He just decided to start a little label and see what happened. Somewhere along the line, he met a guy who said, ‘You got to get the publishing rights, you got to get the publishing rights. You got to get the songs, that’s where you’re going to make your money,’ and that guy was right. That’s the thing that has kept Chris above water.
That was pretty good advice, and, specifically, regarding one song from Country Joe McDonald. I’m not exactly sure how he managed to get the rights to that – I don’t think Country Joe is either – but, eventually, he gave the rights back. That helped sustain him for quite a few years, didn’t it?
Yes, but then that’s not the only one. There’s some big country songs that he got royalties on in the last maybe, five or eight years. I don’t know if it was Clint Black or some big country western star sang one of his songs that he owned, and he got a whole bunch of royalties from it. The Rolling Stones did some of his stuff. They did a Mance Lipscomb song, I think.
Certainly Ry Cooder was a big fan of Mance Lipscomb. Although he wouldn’t have sold quite as many records as the Rolling Stones.
Right. Of course, what he did was get Flaco Jimenez, the great Texas accordion player, to join his band. That is something that happened by hanging out with Chris and Les Blank, when they were filming in Texas.
Can you tell us the meaning of his expression ‘This Ain’t No Mouse Music’? What does he mean by that, because it encapsulates his musical philosophy, doesn’t it?
Yes. Apparently, he heard some jazz musicians, back in the 50s, say something like, ‘Oh, I got a mouse gig. Got a mouse gig tonight.’ The guys were playing with the music that they really liked during the day, but then they had to do their ‘mouse gig’ at night, which was their bread and butter, commercial, pop, more polished. They weren’t hanging out and grooving. Chris talks about anything that’s not authentic, from the heart, unpolished, raw, gutsy; he calls it mouse music.
He has got very definite opinions and it’s interesting to see the scenes in Eunice, Louisiana, with Marc Savoy, who also has some very firm opinions about music.
Oh, yes. They are a wonderful pair . They are both amazing and they’re both cantankerous, and, in fact, we went down for Marc’s 70th birthday, and Marc gave buttons to his buddies that said, ‘We’re starting the Curmudgeon Club and Chris is the President.’
He obviously is fairly modest about it, but the label – which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary – has had an incredible effect.
At the 50th anniversary he invited all these musicians, the ones that were still alive – so many of the wonderful musicians, that he recorded, are gone – but he got as many together, as possible, including some of his friends who he hadn’t recorded: Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Country Joe (he just did that one song).
Almost all of them talked about the first Arhoolie they heard and there were unexpected things that they had heard that turned them on. I actually wanted to get this in the film and we didn’t really get to do it, but Taj Mahal likes Lydia Mendoza. Linda Ronstadt – the first Arhoolie she heard was Clifton Chenier on her tour bus with one of her crew.
It goes on, and on, like that. The musicians seem to know who Chris is, a lot. He is like one of those people that’s on the musicians’ radar but not necessarily in the general public.
Bob Dylan’s on his advisory board, isn’t he? Certainly, he’s talked about how he discovered music through Arhoolie Records? You didn’t get to interview Bob?
No. There were a few others that said that. Before Bonnie Raitt became well known I saw her backstage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival in 1977, and she was talking to Clifton Chenier, Lightnin’ Hopkins. She really was interested in knowing those guys, and she really was affected by them, I think.
Chris’s life is a fantastic example of turning an obsession, or a passion, into a job. He’s done an incredibly important thing for archiving music, as well, not only with Arhoolie, but also with an amazing collection of records of some 60,000, or so.
Yes, he started collecting records pretty early on in his life. At a certain point he realised not that not very many people were collecting Mexican music, especially Mexican Border music in Texas. He realised there were all these little labels that were either going out of business, or the widow didn’t know what to do with the big box of records in the back room that her husband left.
Radio stations had these collections, and they were just going to put them in the dumpster. Somehow Chris was always sniffing around for a stash of records, and he found a lot of them and he salvaged all these little labels, and amassed this huge collection of 78s, also 45s and albums.
He got some money from Los Tigres del Norte, which is like the equivalent of the Rolling Stones for Mexican American music, and he started a foundation, especially to digitise all this music, so that it’s accessible to people. It’s 78s. People don’t really have 78 turntables these days, so the records would just sit there. Now they are available on files with a database, song titles and artists and also publicity photos, contracts etc.
He’s really interested in all the memorabilia surrounding it too. It’s this incredible collection that’s called the Frontera Collection and right now there’s a version of it that’s sitting at UCLA’s Chicano Studies Department. Probably, at some point, the actual physical records will end up in some library.