Arhoolie Records was acquired by the Smithsonian Institution in 2016, but its spirit is very much alive at Down Home Music, its former home in El Cerrito, California. (KCAW/Portello)

Earlier this spring, one of the most influential producers in music passed away. Chris Strachwitz was born in Germany at the end of World War II and emigrated with his family to the United States, where he grew to love the distinctive jazz and blues of his new home. His label, Arhoolie Records, put artists like Lightning Hopkins and Mississippi Fred McDowell on the map, and fostered the careers of big names like Taj Mahal and Ry Cooder.

For Sitkan Suzanne Portello, the passing of Chris Strachwitz was an invitation for a pilgrimage back to the Bay Area, and to Down Home Music, the record store where Arhoolie was formerly housed.

KCAW’s Robert Woolsey suggested that Portello make an audio postcard of her journey.

Music – “Amari Szi Amari” by Cskólom.

Portello: “Hi, Robert. I’m sending you the song that started my journey down the Arhoolie wormhole. This is Suzanne Portello.”

KCAW: This the Hungarian Gypsy band Cskólom, performing “Amari Szi Amari.” It’s good background for a road trip, or in this case, a pilgrimage.

Portello (on a bus): I’m here in Half Moon Bay, starting on my journey by way of a series of buses and trains to get to Down Home Music in El Cerrito.

KCAW: The final leg of this journey, as with all pilgrimages, is on foot.

Portello (walking down San Pablo Ave.): So I’m passing by the Good Stuff Thrift Shop on my way to Down Home Music on San Pablo Avenue in El Cerrito, and it’s been quite a journey.

Portello (entering Down Home Music): “In the background you’ll hear music playing pretty much all the time here. And I’m back looking at the selection of LPs that were produced by Arhoolie back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and it encompasses Cajun, Zydeco, Country, Folk, Norteño, Blues, Gospel, Jazz, and World.”

KCAW: Down Home is a kind of music heaven for Portello – for anyone, really. Her father played the accordion, and amassed an impressive collection of 78’s – a vinyl record which spun at 78 revolutions per minute, which preceded the 45 rpm singles of the rock ‘n roll era, and the LPs – or long-play albums that followed those.

And who do you suppose sits behind the counter in Music Heaven?

J.C.: “J.C.”

Portello: “J.C., right.”

The counter at Down Home Music is staffed by J.C. — “Not to be confused with the other J.C.,” he says. In “Music Heaven” we’d expect no less. (KCAW/Portello)

J.C.: “Anything phonetically close I will respond to. Not to be confused with the other J.C.”

Portello: “But no pretensions to divinity?”

J.C.: “No. Not at all. If anything I’m the complete opposite.”

KCAW: J.C. has worked at Down Home for the last 20 years, much of that time as co-manager.

Portello: “So the storefront opened in ‘76, and Chris started the company in ‘60?”

J.C.: “Yeah, that’s right. The record company.”

KCAW: Arhoolie may have long since disappeared, an obscure record label promoting obscure artists, but for Country Joe and the Fish. That may sound like a jug band, but Country Joe and the Fish was a psychedelic rock group fronted by Joe MacDonald and Barry “The Fish” Melton. Portello was there.

Portello: “I never personally knew Joe, but I did know ‘The Fish.’ When Barry Melton lived in San Francisco, I lived in the same building as he did in the Mission, and we were neighbors.”

KCAW: As Country Joe’s label, Arhoolie owned the publishing rights to his songs. While no one would have considered this a gold mine, as luck would have it, Joe was invited to Woodstock – yes, that Woodstock in 1969 – where he performed “Rock & Soul Music.”

Music: “Rock & Soul Music” as performed by Country Joe and the Fish at Woodstock.             

KCAW: “Rock & Soul Music” made it into the Woodstock movie, onto the movie soundtrack, and into the money. That’s why Suzanne Portello can pick up an Arhoolie release of American classics like Elizabeth Cotten or Earl Hooker – or the Hungarian Gypsy band Cskólom – 63 years after the label was founded by the recently departed Chris Strachwitz.

Portello: “Doesn’t it ever smack you in the face, this history that you know about, and are a part of with this store?”

J.C.: “I guess it’s been so long…”

Portello: “It’s really neat, really neat. I appreciate your talking to me and letting me look around. I’m going to turn this (recorder) off.”

Suzanne Portello’s pilgrimage to Down Home Music was a chance to reflect on the life of Arhoolie producer Chris Strachwitz, and beef up her own vinyl collection. (KCAW/Portello)