Documentarian Maureen Gosling talks Chris Strachwitz, preserving American music culture, and learning from Les Blank.
This Ain’t No Mouse Music! is a passionate documentary about a passionate man. Chris Strachwitz has recorded anything that has grabbed his fancy since the ’60s, and has been doing so via his record label Arhoolie Records. He picks anything that isn’t “mouse” music. While the term itself is fairly vague and subjective, it’s a fun way to get deep into what has made American music so globally powerful in the latter half of the twentieth century. The documentary was made by Maureen Gosling and Chris Simon—they met Strachwitz following all three of them collaborating with the late, great Les Blank.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why film?
MAUREEN GOSLING: Well, I didn’t start with film. I got interested in foreign films, films from Europe, when I was just at the University of Michigan. A boyfriend from high school turned me onto foreign films. I just went nuts for it. I started seeing them all of the time when I was in Ann Arbor in Michigan. I didn’t take any film classes, but I was studying social anthropology. Then, I read in some film magazine [in which] there was this anthropological film conference in Pennsylvania, and I got all excited and decided to go. Les Blank’s films were there, and I thought his films were wonderful. His films were the only ones about people in the US. The other films in this anthropological film festival were about New Guinea, Africa, “exotic” places. His films were very poetic and, about music.
I talked to him at a party, just briefly. I got my nerve up as I was just a student, and I figured I had to talk to somebody who was a little above me. I ended up sending him reviews of his films that were in the paper at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. He started writing to me and at one point. Somewhere along the line, I said, “well, if you ever need an assistant, then let me know.” I saw him at this other conference, and then I actually spent some time with him, and he needed an assistant. He took the risk of taking this total newbie who didn’t know anything. I learned everything on the job. I hit the ground running going to Louisiana and working on the first film with Les, recording sound. I kind of knew I could never turn back on that.
BG: How much of an influence was Les in terms of your development?
MG: He really was my mentor. I totally loved what he did. It really resonated with me. He also influenced me in the sense that his editing style and shooting style was totally based on feeling. He responded very emotionally to things and would shoot things that inspired him. He wouldn’t just shoot anything. He had to be inspired first. When he edited, he edited by feeling rather than by logic or chronology or anything like that. I could see the value of that; the fact that the films he made could transcend time because it was based on human emotion rather than the civil rights movement or a time period. Some of his films were made during that period, but there’s absolutely no reference to that in there, yet what you gain from watching those films is a connection with the people, which is totally valuable in human understanding. He would show his films to people sometimes to gain their trust when we were going to film them. Whenever I watched his films, I felt like I learned something each time. There was something new. I figured I’d love to be able to do that too. When he started to pass on the editing to me—he edited his own films at the beginning, but in the late ’70s he was getting tired of editing—he could see that I got his sensibility and I understood what he was doing. He passed it onto me without worry because he trusted me. There was no fighting over territory and he let it go, and he taught me a lot of things. I found out that editing was really perfect for me.
BG: As an editor, have you found that affects the way you shoot? Do you almost work the opposite way to most filmmakers and think of how it would look edited while shooting?
MG: Yeah, and I learned that from him too. He edited his own films and as a cinematographer it meant that he got coverage. When I started doing my own films, that’s definitely what I tried to do. To get not just an interview or a long shot but really try to think of all of the possible images that would be great to have there, because not only do I want something that’s literal that goes along with the interview, but I also want something that’s also poetic or complementary or a comment on what the person is saying. I found that when a cameraperson is good they usually do that.
BG: What interests you as a documentary maker? You’ve got an eclectic subject mix, is there a type you have?
MG: I’m certainly attracted to films about music and culture and people. I guess I’ve also got really interested in women’s topics. I did this film called Blossoms of Fire (2001) and it showed at a festival here started by this woman called Ellen Osborne, and I ended up finishing it and taking it around, and distributed it. That really got me interested in women’s issues.
There’s this film I’m doing with [Maxine Downs] in Mali and it’s a really tough [one] to raise money for, but both Maxine and I are really excited about it still, and it’s not an easy topic. It’s about women cloth dyers. It doesn’t sound very exciting or sexy, but it’s an incredible story. These women have a huge impact on their culture and their sense of cultural pride is almost a national identity in Mali. How did they do it? How did they create these incredibly beautiful things out of nothing, this incredible poverty? It’s probably one of the poorest countries in the world.
I’m just about to edit a film on recycling. Even though I love the cultural stuff and how it can have impact on people, the stuff I do is more subtle. Or maybe, I just don’t realise how it’s affecting people or people don’t realise how it’s affecting them. A political film is more in your face. I don’t mind doing that once in a while.
BG: How did the idea for this film come about. Did you meet Chris Strachwitz through Les?
MG: I met Chris Strachwitz through Les Blank in the mid ’70s. After I moved to Berkley to work with Les, the first film I worked on was shot by Les with Chris Strachwitz. They did this film called Del Mero Corazón, which was about Texan/Mexican border music. I was an assistant on that, and that was the first time I worked with Chris. Chris Simon [the co-director] started going out with Les in the late ’70s. They went together for about 10 years, and then she married him for another ten years. They broke up but both of us worked with Les. Each of us worked with Les for 20 years. Strachwitz was always there because we worked in the same building. Chris has Arhoolie Records and a record store called Down Home Music in the same room as Flower Films, Les’s film company. I really only got to know Strachwitz even better after I stopped working with Les. I don’t know why that happened.
At the same time, both Chris Simon and I had the same idea to make a film about Chris Strachwitz. It took about a year before he actually agreed to do it because someone got to him first. I said, “no you can’t do it with these people. Chris Simon and I want to do a film with you. Don’t you think that’d be better? We know you, we know the world, we know the musicians.” It didn’t take him too long to realise that he should go with us. I stopped him from signing the contract. He was three days from signing the contract. They weren’t too happy, but they had to deal with it.
BG: Why do you think he was such an intriguing subject? Why did you want him as a documentary subject?
MG: Sometimes, you don’t even realise that something that you know well could be interesting. You’re so used to it. We were in the same building for all of these years. There were all of these musicians. Really thinking about it—the impact, the variety of music, the variety of musicians—this guy has done something amazing. It really hit us. Chris [Simon] is a folklorist and she had that perspective as well. She had this historical view of where he fit in, in the trajectory of people like Alan Lomax and the Lomaxes in their work in recording people in the US. She saw that Chris had something to offer that was different from what those guys did. He was no academic. He was someone as he always said, “just a fan, passionate about the music, lover of the music.” He just recorded what he liked. It just happened to cover a lot of territory.
BG: There’s no conflict in this documentary—it’s a man passionate about neglected music. Was that something you were always aware of? It’s a very uplifting film, nothing to get worked up about.
MG: being in that building meant a lot of the people came by. So suddenly there was Clifton Chenier, and he was going to play a dance at a black church hall just up the road in the Bay Area. He was coming from Louisiana. Or, there would be this incredible woman called Rose Maddox, who was this country singer and she was just really a trip. She was amazing and Chris recorded her and her brothers, the Maddox Brothers and Rose. These people were just around and their music was in the record store, and the label was distributing the albums, and then eventually the cassettes, and the CDs, and Chris kept updating all of the different formats that came along. He just had to go for it.
BG: Where does Chris fit nowadays? There’s so much music on the internet. Arguably, it has never been as accessible, provided you have an internet connection. Where does someone like him fit?
MG: He came along at a certain time historically. There are younger groups on his label even now, but he really came along at a really critical time, before the inundation of everyone running around looking for musicians. When he first heard a record by Lightnin’ Hopkins in the late ’50s/early ’60s, people didn’t even know where Lightnin’ Hopkins lived. There was no way of finding out. There was no internet, it wasn’t written down in a book. There weren’t articles. He learned through the grapevine that this guy might live in Houston, Texas. Rather than listen to the music, and think it was cool, he decided to go there and find the guys. It was almost like an investigation, or as he put it, looking for the Holy Grail.
Also, he knew that it was going to be odd for him to show up in that part of town because it was still segregated. This tall skinny German kid walks into the area and most people are nervous. Is this a nark? Is this a cop? Who is this guy? He would just show up and say,”‘I just want to tape you. I love your music, I’m a fan.” Lightnin’ Hopkins’ reaction was, “a fan? I didn’t know I had a fan.” So, he had enough nerve, maybe naivety, and just sort of a sense. I have a feeling it came from his aristocratic background, even though when he came to the States, after the War, his family basically had lost everything. He had a sense of entitlement that he could do what he wanted to do.
BG: Could he also cut through the racial politics by not being aware of it?
MG: Exactly. He didn’t really understand it, because he wasn’t from the US, so he didn’t know what the etiquette was or the baggage that he should have, so he just went in there. He also travelled with this British blues scholar called Paul Oliver early on, and this guy had an English accent and Chris had a German accent, and people in the South actually had had some good experiences in the war, when as African-Americans they went to Germany, they were treated better there than they were in the States. So when this German and this British guy show up, they think, “they’re okay, they’re not from around here.”
BG: So much of the rock‘n’roll cross-over happened because immigrants from Poland, Germany, Turkey, bought it and sold it to a bigger mass market. He fits into that.
MG: Yeah, that’s true.
BG: Was he a difficult subject? In the film he comes across as very single-minded, he knows what he wants. Was he difficult as a director to keep control of?
MG: Because he was our elder and we were younger than him and we were women, he sort of felt like we were pushovers, he could boss us around. We were constantly having to remind him this was our film, we were producing it, we were directing it. There was a certain amount that we accepted. He organised some of the music events, which was great, but we wanted to film him and the musicians. We didn’t just want to film concerts, which is what he wanted us to do. We wanted to do both. But we definitely wanted him interacting with the musicians. So, sometimes we had to argue with him. On other occasions, which you witness a bit of in the film, you see how he complains about food. You have to be careful when you go out for dinner with him. He would loudly complain if he doesn’t like something. I go out to dinner with him every once in a while. Half the time it happens. It really does. The other half, I say, “where do you want to eat, I will go with you. I don’t want to choose because you’ll think it’s too yuppie.” It wasn’t always easy.
The other thing was he always wanted the film to be done now or tomorrow. We constantly had to tell him, if we had the money then we would finish it in six months, but we have to raise the money, and he just kept begging us. At one point, he actually got some money from someone we were courting. He was actually working on another film himself. He produced this other film. He went to two funders that we were planning to go to. We didn’t get money from them. I brought that up, more than once, when he was saying, “why haven’t you finished the film?” I would say, “you got to the money first.”
BG: Was it a fun shoot?
BG: I mean food and music!
MG: We were so lucky. We filmed in New Orleans before Katrina hit. We were there a few months before and had just a wonderful time. When Katrina happened, it was just devastating knowing we had just been there and what was happening to our friends and the musicians there.
BG: I know Chris views himself as preserving this kind of music. Did you feel your role as filmmaker was also to preserve the music in a visual sense?
MG: Sure. We knew we had this opportunity to bring people back on the radar but there was so much. We really had to be selective. There was so much we would have loved to have included but had to leave out. Once this is out there, then people can explore and learn about the other music.
BG: How much did you shoot?
MG: 120 hours.
BG: A lot of good music then.
MG: Yeah, that doesn’t include the archival footage and the stills, which is thousands and thousands of photos, and the hundreds of CDs to pick from. So the resources were pretty immense.
BG: How did you make that choice? On ‘feel’, like you had trained to do, or a thematic idea as you moved from older music to more contemporary music?
MG: Sort of. It’s a little bit like that on the film. We knew that we needed to begin with the foundation of the blues, which was the biggest part of what Chris first started with. And after that it isn’t an easy chronology, because he was interested in Cajun music and Tex-Mex and jazz, and you couldn’t separate that out chronologically. So then it just was by feel, as in Les’s approach. We did keep it in terms of genre because it was a little easier for people to grasp what Cajun music is if they saw a section about Cajun music, or a section about Tex-Mex music, or Appalachian. It was a little bit like we were travelling to these places, but it’s both in time and place.
BG: Do you have the same definition of “Mouse Music” as Chris [Strachwitz]?
MG: Probably. Maybe there’s music that I like that maybe he’d regard as mouse music. I don’t know how much he thinks world music is “mousey,” but I love a lot of world music, African music, raï. There’s definitely some things that I like that either he doesn’t like, or doesn’t know about, or care that much about. But we share a lot of common ground and I get what he’s talking about when he’s saying it isn’t mouse music.
BG: In many respects, this documentary is a back-roads ethnography, marginalised communities, music that never hit the mainstream, but is clearly very American. It can’t be from anywhere else. Are you proud about this?
MG: I think that is wonderful. It’s the music that really makes our culture rich. It’s not appreciated, it’s not known. I remember when Les and I had this opportunity to take films on tour in Latin America for two months. We went to ten countries in Latin America and took films. People were fascinated to learn that there were poor people in the United States. All they had seen was Dallas and Beverley Hills types, and they were just blown away because it was much more familiar to them to their own culture. They were very aware of the poor people in their communities and that was a big part in the US too—but what amazing music they make [in the US], as well as the cool food and amazing traditions.