More than anything, the film is about the wondrous effect music has on the soul.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music
The setting is an outdoor blues concert in Louisiana. Sitting in a chair in the middle of the audience wearing earth tones and a baseball cap is Chris Strachwitz, the 83-year-old founder of Arhoolie Records, one of the leading roots music labels in the world. It’s an intermission in between sets, and there’s some modest music playing on the speakers. “God!” he screams, plugging his ears with his fingers. He’s visibly frustrated with the sound, mocking the middling tune openly, for everyone around to hear. “Hah! I think Stravinsky would have dug this crap!”
What’s causing the aged but vivacious Strachwitz such agony is what he calls “mouse music”, middling, commercial pop tunes lacking any real guts. Fittingly, the clip is the sole trace you’ll find of it in This Ain’t No Mouse Music, a heartfelt music doc by filmmakers Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon. The rest of the film is full of footage of Strachwitz smiling from ear to ear, happy as a clam, listening to what he lovingly refers to as “the hardcore stuff”: Down home blues. Minority roots music. Sounds born of pain and hard labor that kick you in the chest and leave you bruised, inspired, and stricken with the irresistible urge to bob your head and tap your feet.
Strachwitz grew up in Germany and was forced to move to the US at 15 after WWII. He quickly fell in love with the blues, and in 1960 at age 29 he founded Arhoolie for a simple reason: He wanted to find obscure blues artists, record them in their natural environments guerrilla-style (often recording outdoors), and spread the joy of these undiscovered musicians with the world. “I just fell in love with making records,” Strachwitz recalls in voiceover as we see vintage photos of him with a full head of hair, standing next to old tape recorders, wearing a sunny grin. It’s that smile, maybe more so than the music, even, that leads us through the film and sticks in our minds long after. More than anything, the film is about the wondrous effect music has on the soul.
From Mance Lipscomb, the legendary blues guitarist who was the first artist Strachwitz discovered; to Clifton Chenier, the Cajun “King of the South” who played the most soulful accordion sounds you’ll ever hear; to one of Strachwitz’s new discoveries, a young roots band called No Speed Limit led by a teenage girl with an old-school country wail, the list of artists explored is exhaustive. Strachwitz’s love of Mexican and Tejano music is represented as well, through artists like Lydia Mendoza and Flaco Jiminez. We see him gush in a vintage TV clip: “I think it’s fascinating music. The songs are the poetry of the people.”
The access Gosling and Simon have is incredible, following Strachwitz from his home in California (where he runs his shop, the Down Home Music Store), through Texas, the Appalachians, down into Louisiana as he meets up with his musician buddies and records them doing their thing, hanging microphones over their heads. It’s a lot of fun to watch him have a ball, bouncing up and down to the jams, despite the film being somewhat cinematically flat. Friends Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Richard Thompson are interviewed and elaborate further on the Strachwitz as a man, as well as his significance to the down home movement.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music accomplishes two primary things: It chronicles Strachwitz’s life and career and celebrates American and Mexican roots music, weaving them seamlessly into a cohesive picture. This cohesion likely came naturally to Gosling and Simon, as Strachwitz and the music he loves are so deeply intertwined. The racial dynamics of a white man acting as an evangelist for minority music are barely grazed upon here, which is the right choice; this isn’t a political film, but an emotionally charged portrait of a man’s love affair with an art form, a culture, a community. Strachwitz never got married or raised a family. But says friend Davia Nelson in the film: “He might not have his own kids and his own wife, but I think he makes family out of everyone that he loves.”