Mainstream radio stations and media outlets will never play the kinds of songs that roots music icon Chris Strachwitz has championed for more than half a century.
Fortunately for local audiences, however, Star Hall will be shaking next week with the sounds of New Orleans-style jazz, country blues, Cajun and Zydeco tunes that live on, thanks in part to his efforts.
On Thursday, June 18, at 7 p.m., the Utah Film Center and the Grand County Public Library will present a free Star Hall screening of “This Ain’t No Mouse Music!,” a documentary about the founder of Arhoolie Records. Co-director Chris Simon will be appearing in person for the film’s local debut.
The record label’s name is an homage to the “field hollers” that farm laborers in the Deep South would sing as they worked, and it says a lot about the kinds of music that Strachwitz has recorded since 1960.
Simon and co-director Maureen Gosling describe Strachwitz as an “obsessive sonic sleuth” who sought out regional and backcountry pockets of blues, ballads, hymns and hip-shaking stomps as an alternative to the “merciless steamroller” of pop culture that prevails today.
It might seem like an unlikely career path for a German count to take.
Not long after he arrived in the U.S. as a teenager, the former royal family member had an epiphany when he watched a movie that featured jazz greats Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong.
After he settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, he met a record producer who helped him learn how to make recordings; he eventually quit his job as a high school teacher to pursue his passion full time.
Armed with a tape recorder, he set off to visit little-known musicians at plantations and prisons; sharecroppers’ shacks and cantina dives; roadhouses and brothels; and churches and juke joints throughout “flyover country.”
The birth of Arhoolie coincided with the rise of the folk music scene in the early 1960s, and Strachwitz introduced new generations of young Americans and Europeans to virtually unknown country blues musicians, such as Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.
The filmmakers have known Strachwitz for more than 35 years, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that they came up with the idea of making a movie about him.
In the spring of 2005, they packed up their camera equipment and began to follow Strachwitz as he visited friends in Texas and Louisiana and recorded in New Orleans. Their journey continued to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and finally reached Strachwitz’s home in Berkeley, California.
“If the film seems to have the intimacy of a home movie, that’s because it was also a journey into the places, music and lives of people we know and love, as well,” they said in a joint statement about the movie.
The opportunity gave them the chance to delve into Strachwitz’s “treasure trove” of personal photos and home movies, and then share that wealth of material with everyone.
“It was a fun and fascinating adventure and we want to make sure the audience has the same intimate experience,” they said.
As a sign of Strachwitz’s influences on roots music, the movie features appearances by some famous fans, including Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, the Treme Brass Band and Flaco Jimenez, among many others.
Utah Film Center Artistic Director Patrick Hubley and Utah Film Center Marketing Coordinator Sallie Hodges call “This Ain’t No Mouse Music!” one of the best music documentaries of the past year.
“Directors Chris Simon … and Maureen Gosling have crafted an engaging and wonderful portrait of Chris Strachwitz,” Hubley said. “With a foot-tapping soundtrack, the film captures and exudes the passion with which Mr. Strachwitz pursues, records and shares the endangered sounds of American music.”
“This is a must-see documentary for music lovers, in the vein of ‘Searching for Sugar Man,’” Hodges said. “And to cap it off, our very own Chris Simon will be in attendance for a Q&A after the screening.”
That’s right: Simon lives in Grand County. She came here with some serious bona fides in the documentary filmmaking industry.
Both she and Gosling worked with the late documentary filmmaker Les Blank, whose film “Burden of Dreams,” told the story of director Werner Herzog’s Herculean struggle to make a movie in the jungles of South America.
After working with Blank for 15 years, Simon launched her own production company, Sageland Media, and she went on to make documentaries about the poet Wilma McDaniel, local backcountry legend Kent Frost and blind mandolin player Kenny Hall.
“This Ain’t No Mouse Music!” comes to Star Hall on June 18
“This is one of the best music documentaries of the past year.”
When: Thursday, June 18, at 7 p.m.
Where: Star Hall, 159 E. Center St.
For more information about the movie, go to thisaintnomousemusic.com. To find out about upcoming Utah Film Center screenings at Star Hall, go to utahfilmcenter.org/events/category/moab/upcoming/.
Star Hall is located at 159 E. Center St.