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Lydia Motion

If the Alamo is San Antonio's most famous attraction, then Lydia Mendoza is the city's greatest star, a true living legend of Mexican American culture. My interest in Lydia was initially sparked by Les Blank's film Chulas Fronteras (Beautiful Borders) which introduced my teenage self to the flavours of Tex-Mex music - Lydia's performance in Chulas being one of many highlights. I then came across Lydia's music through Arhoolie Records' reissues of her recordings from 1934 through to the 1950s: Mal Hombre (Arhoolie 7002), First Queen Of Tejano Music (Arhoolie 392) and Live! In Concert (Arhoolie 490). Lydia's bell-like voice, fluid 12-string acoustic guitar picking and pioneering conjunto style bowled me over and I've been a fan ever since. Yet as Lydia made her most famous recordings in the 1930s, I felt she surely must have since left this world. Interviewing Mexican cabaret diva Astrid Hadad for fRoots in Spring 2004, I pestered her for tales of Mexico's many musical legends. Astrid was generous but nothing surprised me more than when she informed me Lydia was still alive. "She's had a stroke and isn't playing music any more, but beyond that I hear she's well," said Astrid. My heart skipped a beat.

Someone else who believed Lydia to have passed from this world is cartoonist/ 78-fetishist Robert Crumb. On his wonderful CD Hot Women (Kein & Aber), Crumb not only spells her name 'Lidya' but also writes "I believe she died sometime in the 1980s". If Crumb had called his old friend and Arhoolie Records founder Chris Strachwitz to check, he would have found that Lydia lives. As San Francisco was my US landing point, I made the call and gained an appointment to meet my roots music industry hero, Chris Strachwitz.

An elegant, silver-haired 73-year-old, Strachwitz has developed an adolescent passion for American roots music into a life's calling. Anyone interested in checking out the Arhoolie legacy should initially invest in The Journey Of Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000. Across 5-CDs the Arhoolie box offers fabulous musical riches (Lightnin' Hopkins, Clifton Chenier, Flaco Jimenez. Big Joe Williams, Rose Maddox and, of course, Lydia), a huge smorgasbord of US roots music, and all the artists are produced by Chris. Sitting in his cramped office above Down Home Music (fab' roots music store), Strachwitz remains fired with enthusiasm for music while despondent about the state of the US body politic and its effect on American culture.

"After the Second World War, the working class got work in factories and pretty good money and they could support bands out of that. 50 years before that, people didn't have money to spend in nightclubs, but in the post-war years it was going ahead. And this raw energy was out there, so much great music was being made. You didn't have the huge difference between rich and poor; people made good wages, unions were strong. Now... now it's almost like slavery, it's disgusting; people working so hard just to earn a living wage and they've got them hooked on all this crap they want to sell them. The Anglo world is totally the same everywhere. San Francisco and Chicago are still unique because people live in them, but Houston and Dallas and cities like that are awful, completely deserted; people go and huddle in their yuppie areas and eat the same crap and drink the same wine and listen to new age crap. It's a completely soulless existence."

This feature first appeared in fRoots 261, March 2005


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