Born in Germany and transplanted as a teenager with his family to California after World War II, Chris Strachwitz was knocked out the first time he encountered Dixieland jazz. He explored other streams of indigenous American music—blues, country, gospel—with the same thrilling result. He’d found his calling: Finding, recording and releasing the songs of musicians essentially unknown outside their small communities. To this day, his Bay Area-based label of love, Arhoolie Records, is all about the artists. Strachwitz receives his own solo, backed by a stellar group of sidemen and women, via the toe-tapping, heart-swelling documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music. Finally hitting theaters more than a year after its triumphant premiere at South x Southwest, the film is the handiwork of veteran filmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon, who were introduced to Chris Strachwitz some thirty years ago by their mentor, Les Blank, the shy master of infusing so-called ethnographic films with humanity, humor and a beat. This Ain’t No Mouse Music begins its theatrical run September 19 in the San Francisco Bay Area, September 26 in New York and October 1 in Los Angeles. For other cities and dates, and the filmmakers and musical guests appearing with the film at each venue, go to www.argotpictures.com/nomousemusic.html.
Fox: I feel like we should start with Les Blank, because his spirit and influence hovers over the film.
Maureen Gosling: I certainly started with Les; I wouldn’t have been making films at all. I didn’t know anything about filmmaking. I had a degree in social anthropology and I happened to go to an anthropological film festival and got excited about film, and I met Les there and just talked to him at a party for a few minutes. Next thing you know I was working for him nine months later. The first films were Dry Wood and Hot Pepper (1973). That was an inauguration, an incredible baptism into the Les Blank world. Which ultimately included Chris Strachwitz later on.
Chris Simon: I moved next door to Les in Berkeley, after coming back to study folklore and photography, and my roommate said, ‘You need to meet the guy next door.’ We met and hit it off really well, and pretty soon we were living together. At that point I realized that if I didn’t start working with him, I’d never see the guy. Like Maureen, I also learned on the job and did whatever needed to be done. I produced a lot of films, I edited a couple. You started off by saying the spirit of Les Blank permeated the film and I think that’s absolutely right. Neither Maureen nor I believe in narration. We believe in making connections when you’re editing scenes instead of following the storyline. There is no storyline. We make the storyline. And we finished the film while Les was dying, so it was particularly tough.
Gosling: I would add one more thing which doesn’t always necessarily get acknowledged, which is that the films that Les made, a lot of them have a lot of us in them as well. We are part of him and his films. He didn’t make his films by himself.
Fox: The Les Blank ethos was not just Les Blank.
Gosling: Yes. It’s a family.
Simon: He acknowledged that. Eventually. Oh, and I was married to him for 20 years.
Fox: When does Chris [Strachwitz] come into the picture?
Gosling: Chris was already a part of Les’s world by the time I got involved.
Simon: Me, too.
Gosling: Those guys met in the early ‘60s, I believe. During the next film I worked with Les on, the unreleased film about Leon Russell [A Poem Is a Naked Person, 1974], Chris came to visit, and that’s when I first met him. After they shot Chulas Fronteras (1976), Les asked me to come to Berkeley—I was living in Austin at the time—to work on it. That’s when I really got to know Chris.
Fox: One gets the impression from This Ain’t No Mouse Music that you’re a shy person, Chris, when you’re not interacting with musicians. You weren’t especially eager to be the subject of a documentary, perhaps?
Strachwitz: No, I didn’t want to have a movie made about me. I don’t like to be seen, and now I feel sort of weird. Can’t hide any more, after these things are out there. But that’s the way it goes. Anything to try and sell this music to keep it going. I’m very happy to have lived this incredibly happy life that I’m lucky enough to be part of. So I figured, well, what the heck, it doesn’t hurt. Ain’t gonna kill me. (Laughs.) Yeah, I got together with Les Blank quite early on. I think he asked me once about Lightnin’ Hopkins and the way he was and so on and so forth. I didn’t have any money in those days to take part in any of his films, but when he finished that one on Mance Lipscomb (A Well Spent Life, 1971) I was absolutely pleased. I thought that was the nicest film I’d ever seen. I was doing pretty well in my business as a record distributor and Arhoolie was slowly building up and I decided I wanted to put my money into some of these musics that I really liked that had never been touched by anyone. There was the border music, the Mexican-American border music of South Texas and Northern Mexico.
Fox: The tejanos?
Strachwitz: Well, they call themselves tejanos. They’re Texans, you know. Like Jose Morante says in Chulas Fronteras, “When I go to Mexico, I call myself a tejano.” But tejano music in general includes more of the orquestas and the more popular things. I’ve always liked the accordion music the best, which is kind of the lower-class music in a way. And so I thought that ought to be documented. Well, I very quickly realized that I am going to be the song-and-dance man. Les Blank is not the outgoing type who arranges for musicians to make appearances or stuff like that. He follows his eyes, you know. Whatever he sees, he gets turned on to. If it’s a damned flowerbed some place he’ll think, “Give me my camera. I’ve got to go sit in those flowers.” And he did that exactly. What are those Texas flowers called?
Strachwitz: The bluebonnet, that’s right. Near Austin, I remember, he said, “Stop the car. I want to film all these bluebonnets.” I had to quickly realize that I was going to be the one to organize all the musicians and everything else, although I’m generally not, like you say, an outgoing person but if it’s something I want I’ll go after it. No question about it. It was interesting working with him because he really got into it. At first, I think he was a bit reluctant to get into the Texas Mexican thing, but then he liked the idea of the food, and of course the music was pretty extraordinary and it was so family-oriented. I think there’s a shot of him in This Ain’t No Mouse Music that was a small dance hall in San Antonio, very colorfully decorated and this little conjunto was playing there with this little boy playing the drums. I forgot his name—
Simon: Leo Garza.
Strachwitz: Yeah, Leo Garza, that’s right. And I’ll never forget, Les totally was enamored by that club, the way it was decorated, because he was so visually oriented.
Fox: There’s a particular challenge shooting and editing a film like No Mouse Music when the ostensible main subject doesn’t want to be on camera. Was that a problem?
Simon: Well, certainly it was a problem while we were shooting it because we would turn the camera on Chris and he’d go “No, no, shoot the musicians.” (Laughter) He really did not want to be the focus of the film. He wanted the music to shine. Of course, when we got back to the editing room that was reflected in our footage. We cut out a lot of great music so we would have a little more of Chris and make him the throughline.
Gosling: We had over a hundred hours of footage that we shot and the music, and we also had the archive of his home movies, Les’s films, and Chris’s massive photo archive. Plus all the CDs. I don’t know how many hours, [but] if you added all that up it would be a huge amount to choose from, so it was painful to have to leave out whole musical traditions that couldn’t fit.
Fox: That’s a lot more than a DVD extra or two. Is there a plan to establish an archive centered around the film?
Simon: Not really. Chris has his archive. I’m just going to say that Chris is a fabulous photographer and I do hope that, at some point, we get to drag a lot of those photos out—more than we used—so that the world can see them. The footage will certainly be kept for posterity, and many different films and videos can be made from it. I’ve salvaged some of it and it’s kind of just sitting there waiting for money to edit more stuff. We do have a half-hour of extras that will be on the DVD, and we also have others that we put up on the Internet.
Fox: I’m going to be impolite and point out that last year’s Academy Award for Documentary Feature went to a music film [20 Feet From Stardom] that is, shall we say, much slicker than yours,and certainly not the kind of film you make. It’s generally unfair to compare films and filmmakers, and in this case you film the musicians in their element while that movie [20 Feet From Stardom] puts them in a studio, which some would say is their element.
Simon: I have actually thought about that a lot. We have a much more down-home style. It fits the music that we’re shooting, and I will say that that film also fits what they were shooting. The one I have a little more problem with is that other music film (Laughs) that was about Alabama (Muscle Shoals), which is pretty hokey in my personal opinion. Although it’s more of a down-home shooting situation, and more like ours.
Gosling: We know This Ain’t No Mouse Music is not going to be the Academy’s cup of tea. Luckily, we have enough experience to have the big-picture view. We know that there’s a place for this film, and we know there’s a community and there are people that love this kind of music, and that’s what we’re going for.
Simon: We also know there’s a bigger community than is probably recognized. We know there’s a hell of a lot of people out there that want to see this film from all stripes and it’s just a matter of getting it to them. That’s a problem because film festivals don’t necessarily want this film. We’ve had a lot of success, but there have been a lot of rejections, too. Which is probably what any filmmaker can say. We want it to get out to the people that really want to see it, which is not necessarily in the big cities.
Gosling: We’re in negotiation right now, and you don’t have one distributer that does everything. You have to divide up all your platforms. If we’re lucky we can do the broadcast, we got the DVD, we got the educational, we got the VOD, now we have the theatrical. Argo Pictures has been doing a great job. The film is going to be seen around the country, starting with the big cities. We’re starting with San Francisco, home base, five theaters, that’s petty darned good.
Fox: That’s terrific, but I feel we live in such a mediated world that the film, and its musical performances, almost feels like Alan Lomax stuff. It’s all great quality but it eels like an act of preserving something that no longer exists.
Simon: Oh, but that’s so not true, Michael, I’m sorry. The music still does exist. Sure, there are people that are dead in the film. Quite a few. But this type of music is always changing, it’s always evolving and, for instance, the music that Wilson Savoy [of the Pine Leaf Boys]—who is Marc Savoy’s son—is not the same as what Marc plays, not the same as Marc’s grandfather played. It’s something different but it’s still continuing on the same passion, the same tradition. So we like to think that this is very modern. I also think, and I can speak for Maureen and probably Chris, the most exciting time for us is not when we’re preaching to the choir—all the people that do love Alan Lomax and what he did—but when we reach some young person who’s happened to wander in off the street and is absolutely blown away. Those are the people we really would like to reach.
Gosling: The non-mainstream culture has always been there and is there now, contemporarily, but it doesn’t get recognized. If you hunt on the dial, and now on the Internet, you can find this stuff. It takes a lot of hunting, but it’s there. It’s definitely there, and those people deserve to have just as much of a platform as all these other mousy musics that are out there.
Fox: I appreciate that the film, and Chris’s entire career, resist and reject the all-too-common process by which anything authentic or organic in our culture is massaged and shaped and branded.
Simon: What you are saying is true. Stuff is taken over and it’s co-opted. Of course, that’s always happened. You could say the same thing about the Rolling Stones taking [blues] songs, or Alan Jackson taking that Cadillac song. It’s been happening since day one and it will continue to happen. so we’d like to get our story out there. It’s not exactly an antidote, but it’s a way to make sure that that’s recognized, too.
Strachwitz: I feel very strongly about that. I was very lucky in meeting the American blues world as it appealed to lower-class African Americans in its best form ever, I think. That has unfortunately disappeared very, very quickly. I was able to catch maybe the end of it. It was magnificent stuff—gorgeous poetry, fantastic music, and it will never be the same because there will never be an audience like they had, that they grew up with. I remember [folk blues guitarist and music historian] Elijah Wald really made this plain to me. He said, “There’ll never be another Lightnin’ Hopkins because they’ll never be another guy who comes out of that part of Central Texas, and he won’t have the kind of audience that were his peers, that felt the way he did, used the same vocabulary, had heard the same music in their past.” That is unlike rock and roll, which to some degree does have a continuum in it but not really; it’s all these variations that contribute to it. But blues today has pretty much become a white person’s music, and those blacks who are still playing it, they have certainly—I hate the use the word “condescended”—to play to the white kids’ tastes. Buddy Guy, to me, used to be one of the most tasteful musicians ever. He’s still tasteful in his scene, but he knows he has a different audience today than he had back then. Those things are changing. That’s why I think it is perhaps more like what you say: It’s an archival presentation. But there are always those cultures that do continue on, like the Appalachian one to some degree, although they’re also influenced now by urban musicians. But this is getting away from the film.
Fox: I appreciate that context. Obviously that’s where you began and that’s where the film begins, going back to the roots and uncovering things that were ignored and overlooked.
Simon: But things change and tradition changes. No, there’ll never be another Lightnin’ Hopkins. Chris is entirely right about that. Nor should there be. So that’s just the way it is. It keeps going.
Fox: Yes, but something is lost.
Strachwitz: There’s a whole form of New Orleans jazz that has disappeared that was tremendously popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It has died out with the people that were playing it at the time because they were playing it without learning how to read music, they didn’t get musical training, they learned from others that were older. They learned tunes. The kids today, they don’t play tunes any more. All they want to do is jam. Jam bands are the thing. They’re just endless boogies, you know. I think John Lee Hooker probably got it right when, for the white folks, he just did the endless boogie.
Gosling: It’s like the mariachis always playing the same songs in the little Mexican restaurant instead of what we’d really like to hear.
Fox: The music in the film is wonderful, and wonderfully presented. What’s different about your approach?
Simon: I think it’s a beautifully handcrafted film. In all ways, in the shooting and the sound and the editing. It’s down home. I think that documentaries today are character or story-driven or political-driven. Our film is beautiful in all aspects and a lot of people don’t recognize the craft in it because now it seems like it’s all about the subject. Chris, of course, is a great subject, but there’s a lot more going on in this film than just the story.
Gosling: It took us a long time to edit because we had to create the story out of the footage rather than writing a script. Chris always tells stories in a winding fashion, he goes off on tangents, and trying to hook that all together wasn’t necessarily an easy thing. The one thing that people do say is that the film moves, it doesn’t get bogged down, the music really carries it through. The music is one of the characters. The other thing is how you get from scene to scene, as well as having an overall structure that you can follow, that makes sense, where one section is not too long. You can say the Tex Mex section is roughly the same length as the zydeco section. Our focus was to get the best moments, the little jewel moments of Chris’s stories as well as the musicians. But we didn’t want it to be a puff piece. We didn’t want people saying [on camera], “Chris is great.” If you don’t get that by watching the film, you just don’t get that.
Simon: When we were trying to fundraise, we were driven berserk calling up people and they’d say, “What’s your story arc.” It’s what they teach in film school. Now, Maureen and I never went to film school. We went to the Les Blank school of filmmaking, which I think is more poetic, more of a portrait. Although our film did end up with a beginning, middle and end, that was not our goal.
Gosling: The other thing, which is also what Les tried to do, is you experience it rather than being told what to think about it.
Simon: We wanted to make it like the folks that are watching the film are part of the film. To me, that’s very different than most of the didactic films nowadays.