This Ain’t no Mouse Music – Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling remind us things need to be captured or they will be lost. (Sydney FF Film Review)

This Ain’t no Mouse Music was shown at the Sydney Film Festival but has now completed its run there.

There are those who consider the “capturing” of art to be a bourgeois form of colonization.  Music, stories, art works and even to a lesser extent film and photography, are deeply personal creative responses that belong to the world of their audience.  Each performance is a singular moment, it’s value in its immediacy. If you record, publish or frame these works, you are taking them out of their context, and forcing a relationship that is somehow artificial, not to mention separating the artist, the work and the community it serves so that each become cogs in an abstract concept called “influence”.

And yet, if it were not for the capturing of music and stories I would never have read Shakespeare, I would never have seen an image of the Sistine Chapel and I would never have heard Lightnin Hopkins and his chordy rhythmic blues. To whom does culture belong? Am I experiencing something stolen when I listen out of context?  These are the sorts of questions that the great documentary This Ain’t No Mouse Music evokes. There is something very strong about the image of a tall German immigrant, who simply could not look more Aryan, in America recording wizened, toothless Negroes, sun-scorched and life-smacked as they eek out their tunes among their closest friends. Chris Strachwitz couldn’t look more out-of-place than If I were sitting there myself.

And yet – and this is one of the important points of the documentary, Chris Strachwitz is as much a part of the music as the instrument, because despite his color, heritage and oddness, he is a collector, one of those unique humans that just want to feel it, taste it, listen to it and above all keep record of it. We all get a little like this about art – “my favorite book” that is “our song” and “I know that film inside out” but the collector is the person who can see past “reality” to a world where the value they recognize so easily will be understood by a broader world. It’s an astonishing conceit, and in the case of Chris Strachwitz it turned out to be exactly on the money.

Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling have made a warm tribute of a film to Chris and his treasured Arhoolie Records.  Since 1960 Chris Strachwitz has been recording deep-rooted music in communities throughout America. The performances he’s shared on Arhoolie records have changed American music forever. The story goes he came to America at age sixteen from a war-torn Germany, separated from his family. Already attracted to swing music, he saw a film called New Orleans that starred Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong. This was his road to Damascus conversion to a new kind of sound, a sound he describes in the film as having a soul and the very breath of life in it. Chris wanted more of this, and like a miner following a thin vein of gold, carried his recording equipment around the country to record folk as they played in their small local bars, sometimes the size of rooms, or at small back yard parties. Names he captured in this fashion include Mance Lipscomb, Lightnin Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Big Mama Thornton and Big Joe Williams.

And then everything changed when he saw a small band called Country Joe and the Fish.  He loved a song of theirs called Feels like I’m Fixin’ to Die rag.  He had the band around and recorded them before they’d done much else with themselves.  As the story goes, they were about to leave and Country Joe asked Chris if there was anything they could do for him, they were so pleased with all his attention and interest. Right on the spot Chris asked for the publishing rights to Feels Like I’m Fixin’ to die rag.  He was given the rights with a smile as the artists left. Several years later Country Joe was to perform a landmark version of the song at Woodstock when they made it in after a late scratching. The song was an instant hit and Chris became rich enough to pour money into his dream of the record store and the proper business known today as Arhoolie Records.

Since that day Chris has had the means to be able to do what he loves full-time, wander the country and search in the darkest channels for music with guts. It’s Chris’ expression – This Ain’t no mouse music – mouse music being “Micky Mouse” or “popular” or simply music that is commercial, made to make money or made without a soul. It will come as no surprise there is more music Chris hates than likes, and his work has become almost a crusade against the ugly, dull and soul-less. The documentary is peppered with comments from greats Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt,  Taj Mahal and Richard Thompson who act as a singing Greek chorus of praise to the work of Chris and those like him working the land and appreciating its bounty. But really, its the music that captures you in this lovely homage film. If you know anything about music, if you have a love for dark blues, folk, or creole, you’ll find yourself toe-tapping in gratitude to the tireless efforts of Chris and his kind.

The documentary ends on a somber note regarding the future of the collector. At eighty years old, Chris has watched the record industry dramatically expand and contract in his life time.  Artists are being recorded in their homes now, and most of this bounty is “stored” in the endless bounds of the internet. The collector today is a new kind of breed – it can all be done from the bedroom. The days of the tall white German looking like a fish out of water as he makes his way to where the music lies are fading as we “find” everything electronically at our keyboards. This Ain’t No Mouse Music doesn’t offer us any answers to this phenomenon, just an acknowledgement that it exists.