Often functioning on a shoestring budget and then eking out just enough surprise successes to stay afloat, Arhoolie is a small Bay Area record label that by the early 1960s cast a much larger shadow than its sales figures would suggest. If its sole claim to fame were rescuing blues artists from obscurity, Arhoolie would have done the world a huge favor—but it accomplished a great deal more than that. A 4-CD set accompanied by a full-color hardback book, Hear Me Howling! does a fine job of illuminating how, during the 1960s, Arhoolie breathed new life into traditional styles at the same time that it supported artists who embraced the free- spirited ethos of that period.
Almost half the cuts on the retrospective consist of acoustic blues, and roughly half of those songs were previously unreleased. Highlights include the opening cut, “Hump in My Back,” a fine country blues number with raunchy lyrics and raspy singing courtesy of Jesse Fuller. The stream-of-consciousness narrative Bukka White delivers on “Bald Eagle Train” is as tangential and zany as Tristram Shandy, and Lightning Hopkins’ encounter with a good-looking hippie on “Up on Telegraph (Avenue)” also warrants a laugh. When Mary Williams joins her husband Big Joe Williams on “Oakland Blues,” the warning she delivers to other women—“Pin your man to your side/Cause if he flag my train, baby/ Sure gonna let him ride”—is delivered with so much chutzpah that no doubt everyone complied. Previously unreleased recordings also appear by Sonny Terry, Fred McDowell, K.C. Douglas & Band, Rev. Gary Davis, Skip James, and Mance Lipscomb. It’s amazing that Arhoolie had this music sitting in the vaults, and the combination of newly released gems plus a 136-page book packed with wonderful anecdotes about the artists confirms that, true to the spirit of the label, Howling! is a well-thought-out labor of love.
Because the impresario behind Arhoolie, Chris Strachwitz, simply recorded the music he liked regardless of genre, Howling! also includes country, gospel, bluegrass, electric blues, folk, rock, zydeco, and jazz. On a CD devoted primarily to folk music, the men provide the humor (Country Joe and the Fish, Bob Neuwirth, Merritt Herring) while the women show a more lyrical side. Toni Brown appears as a solo artist and in tandem with another fine singer, Terri Garthwaite, in the ground-breaking Joy of Cooking. The performances by them, Debbie Green, Janet Smith, Alice Stuart, and Barbara Dane are potent reminders of what a great era the 60s were for folk music.
A more turbulent sound surfaces on the final CD, some of which ventures into free jazz. At first blush avant-garde jazz might seem at odds with the downhome blues at the heart of Arhoolie, but the NOW Creative Arts Ensemble, Smiley Winters, and Sonny Simmons were in their own way as soulful and impassioned as the most intense blues players.
Sonics on Howling! vary wildly—some acoustic guitar performance impressed me with their clarity while others were definitely lo-fi—but even the most audiophile among us would agree that the first order of business was simply documenting overlooked artists. Other labels were sometimes guilty of overproduction, but Arhoolie had the good sense to let musicians do their thing—and at that they excelled.