The call of rootsy Arhoolie: How John Leopold’s passions turned to American music

John Leopold (right) with blues legend Charlie Musselwhite (left) and Charlie's wife, Henrietta.
(Via John Leopold)

Since losing his bid for reelection as a Santa Cruz County supervisor in 2020, John Leopold has reemerged as a champion for overlooked American roots music.

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The connection between music and politics, as a calling or a mission, is not as incongruous as you might think. There are plenty of examples of musicians who dabble in politics and (fewer) politicians who dabble in music. But that’s not exactly what I’m talking about.

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In my mind — or more accurately in my heart — the bridge between the two is built on the specific foundation of a uniquely American idealism. Patriotism, for example, is almost always expressed in political terms, which makes a lot of sense. But when I think of love of country, I hear music, glorious, one-of-a-kind American music.

I was meditating on the link between politics and music when I called up John Leopold, the former Santa Cruz County Supervisor for the First District. After a dozen years in office representing Live Oak/Soquel, Leopold lost his race for reelection in 2020. What’s he been up to since then? Turns out he was crossing that bridge from politics to music. And it turns out he’s been spanning that bridge for years.

Leopold is no newbie when it comes to his passion for music. He grew up steeped in the idealist folk music of the 1960s and graduated into blues, acoustic folk, and other homegrown forms of American music. For decades, he’s been a tribal member in good standing of Deadhead Nation. But where you and I might buy records and go see shows to scratch our musical itch, Leopold pushes the ball forward in more prominent and visible ways. Before he was elected supervisor, he served on the board of the Grateful Dead’s philanthropic arm The Rex Foundation. Since he’s left office, however, a central focus of his life has been Arhoolie.

Arhoolie has been a potent force in the preservation of American music for more than six decades. As both a record label and as a foundation, it has worked to preserve, promote, and produce particular forms of American folk music that most of us recognize as “roots” music and that Arhoolie itself likes to refer to as “down-home” music. That means nearly anything from many forms of acoustic and electric blues, cajun, bluegrass, jazz, zydeco, klezmer, country, gospel, and several styles of Mexican/American folk music.

“My wife would say anything with an accordion in it,” cracked Leopold when I asked him to describe the Arhoolie sound. “She’s still getting used to that as a regular part of the household.”

John Leopold (right) talking music with country singer Miko Marks (center) and musician Josh Lippi
John Leopold (right) talking music with country singer Miko Marks (center) and musician Josh Lippi
(Via John Leopold)

From its base in the East Bay city of El Cerrito, between Berkeley and Richmond, Arhoolie champions the kind of indigenous American music that doesn’t always find its footing in the highly commercial recording industry. Arhoolie was founded by German-born Chris Strachwitz in 1960, shortly after he first heard the music of the great Texas blues guitarist Lightnin’ Hopkins. A few years ago, the Arhoolie empire split when Smithsonian Folkways acquired Arhoolie Records. The Arhoolie Foundation is the nonprofit organization on which John Leopold serves on the board. The foundation’s mission is to archive and preserve materials having to do with American folk music, share these materials with the public, and provide funding and other support to other groups or individuals working to sustain traditional music.

Leopold has been an Arhoolie fan for more than 20 years. He was first caught in its orbit when he visited Arhoolie’s Down Home Music record store in El Cerrito and picked up the Arhoolie catalogue of recordings.

“I looked forward to reading it every year,” he said. “It was like a class in ethnomusiciology. Anyway, I pick up a catalogue and out pops a one-page copy of minutes from a meeting of the Arhoolie Foundation. I didn’t even realize Arhoolie had a foundation.”

Leopold cold-called Strachwitz and offered to help. He ended up writing a successful grant proposal to the National Endowment of the Arts on Arhoolie’s behalf. From there, he went on to play a fundraising role on Arhoolie’s board, and, after his election loss, assumed the managing director’s role at the foundation.

Since then, he helped conceive and establish the Arhoolie Awards, an online awards presentation that nicely captures Arhoolie’s mission and aesthetic. Hosted by blues legend Charlie Musselwhite and featuring archival and more recent performances from a wide array of well-known and lesser-known musical artists.

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The awards show itself has been going on since 2018, but the idea to turn into what amounts to a documentary film showcasing new and not-so-new Arhoolie artists came about in the wake of the pandemic when a traditional awards show wasn’t possible. The result is a lively and fast moving encounter with a multi-colored quilt of American musical styles, from old-school California country to Mississippi blues to the “sacred steel” tradition of gospel to Mexican mariachi, with such artists as Maria Muldaur, Lalo Guerrero, Rose Maddox and others. (Santa Cruz based music producer Jon Luini played a central role in the film’s production as well).

This year, Leopold will work closely with the 90-year-old founder of Arhoolie to catalogue Strachwitz’s old photographs going back to the label’s beginnings for a book to be published some time next year. And he’ll help put together an exhibition on regional Mexican music with the Grammy Museum to open in the fall.

All the while, Leopold is keeping alive the flame originally lit by Chris Strachwitz, an immigrant and amateur record collector who established an American treasure.

“(Alexis de) Tocqueville wrote about America (in 1835), and we still use that as a way to understand that time period,” said Leopold. “Chris Strachwitz was spirited out of Germany at the end of World War II, this tall, lanky 15-year-old kid who doesn’t speak English. And he hears this Mexican border music and hillbilly music blasting out of the radio and he falls in love with American music. And he basically documented all this American forms of music. But it took a German immigrant to do it. Patriotism can be defined in a lot of ways, but sometimes it’s the outsider who tells us what we’ve got because we don’t always recognize it ourselves.”

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