Aspen Times Weekly: Roll Over Mouse Music
September 26, 2013
One night over dinner, in 2003 or thereabouts, Chris Simon mentioned to her filmmaking colleague, Maureen Gosling, that she had an idea for a project — a documentary on Arhoolie Records. Gosling was completely receptive: "She said, 'I've been thinking about that too. I was going to ask you,'" Simon recalled.
A phenomenal coincidence, that the two filmmakers both happened to be thinking about a tiny, quirky music label that focused on the rootsiest of niches — Cajun, old acoustic blues, the Mexican norteño style? Perhaps not. For some 25 years, beginning in the late '70s, Simon and Gosling worked for another filmmaker, Les Blank, whose studio was in the same building, in the East San Francisco Bay town of El Cerrito, that housed Arhoolie and its owner, Chris Strachwitz. Simon and Gosling weren't only neighbors of Arhoolie; they shared Strachwitz's attraction to home-grown music styles.
"It wasn't like it wasn't obvious," Simon said of the project. "We looked at this and went, 'These are like home movies.' We lived that all the time."
The biggest reason neither Simon nor Gosling had thought to make a film about Arhoolie earlier was a shortage of experience. The two had not established themselves as filmmakers; instead, they were known as associates of Blank, who specialized in portraits of American musicians. (Simon had also been married to Blank, who died earlier this year.)
But in 2004, Simon and Gosling realized how ready they were to make a film of their own. They had approached Strachwitz with their idea, and Strachwitz was reluctant. "He's a very shy guy. You wouldn't think that, meeting him, but he doesn't like fuss," Simon said from her home in Salt Lake City. Not long after, the filmmakers got word that Strachwitz was going to do a documentary with PBS. "We said, Wait, what about us? We were part of that scene, that musical scene — roots music in America and how it got there."
Simon and Gosling's documentary, "This Ain't No Mouse Music!" is a story not only of music, but of home, family and community. The film, which shows Thursday, Sept. 26 at Aspen Filmfest, tells of how Strachwitz, a member of an well-to-do German family, was forced to resettle in the U.S. following World War II. In the States, he began collecting jazz records, and then had his ears spun around by hearing Southern folk blues players. From the time he saw Lightning Hopkins play in a tiny club in Houston, and soon after that recorded Hopkins, Strachwitz made a habit of befriending the people he worked with. The musicians — including Cajun fiddler Michael Doucet of the band Beausoleil, zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier, and the West Texas accordionist Flaco Jiménez, all of whom appear extensively in the film — became Strachwitz's extended family. Simon and Gosling, being essentially insiders to the Arhoolie history, were able to instill that sense of familiarity into "This Ain't No Mouse Music!"
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"We got that comfortableness from Chris. We were comfortable with everyone else in that film, too. We knew everyone," Simon said. "It's hard to beat that kind of access and familiarity. That crystallizes how important that family around him is. I hope the audience comes out of the film feeling like they're part of the Arhoolie family."
Having been friends with their subject, the filmmakers come off as protective of Strachwitz in the documentary. There is occasional mention of how fiercely opinionated Strachwitz can be — especially when it comes to "mouse music," his derisive term for the commercial, mainstream pop music that dominates the cultural landscape — and autocratic in his musical choices for Arhoolie. "He's super charming, really enthusiastic," Simon said. "But you don't want to eat with him. He's really opinionated." Simon brings up an incident with California singer-guitarist Dave Alvin. Strachwitz wanted Alvin to deliver a message to Los Lobos, the celebrated Los Angeles Mexi-rock band — that Los Lobos played too fast. "He's that kind of guy," Simon said.
Onscreen, however, Strachwitz, now in his 80s, is portrayed as paternal and generous with his artists and a gentle lover of soulful music.
Still, the intimate and good-hearted approach feels appropriate for the film, given the subject matter. Much of the music-making that gets onscreen takes place not in theaters or even clubs, but at family picnics and casual rooms that were clearly not designed for stellar acoustics.
"This is back-porch music. You hear the real thing," said Simon, who, along with Gosling, will be in attendance for the screening. "Authenticity is a big buzz word — but this is authentic. You hear community. That's not something Justin Bieber is talking about much."
Without forcing the point, "This Ain't No Mouse Music" draws a sharp line between the music manufactured by the recording industry — detached from its origins, well-packaged — and the music that gets Strachwitz's stamp of approval, which springs from a foundation of history, culture and community. Arhoolie, it is pointed out, by recording and releasing insular music styles, has helped connect younger generations to the music of their parents and grandparents.
Regarding Cajun music, Simon said, "Chris brought it out of the community, and doing that restimulated the community. If he hadn't done it, it might not have gotten done. That music creates bridges, made us aware of a multi-cultural society and not just a melting pot."
Simon at one point claims that Strachwitz "really did change the world." (He did take home an award for lifetime achievement last week at the Americana Music Awards.) Simon says that America sees itself in a much different way than it did 30 years ago, and music has played a big role in that shift. People are aware of smaller subcultures that exist alongside the mainstream in a way they didn't in the 1980s.
"They're aware of Cajun culture, blues music. They're aware of these cultures," she said. "And music makes that bridge in an emotional way. It goes to their guts. Even if they love Justin Bieber, they love this kind of music.
"And it's thriving. Old-time music is safe. As Joe Wilson, the folklorist, says in the film, there are a lot of young people playing this old-time music."
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