Various Artists

Arhoolie-label founder Chris Strachwitz spent 40 years combing the nation in search of idiosyncratic ethnic music. His travels are traced in the five-CD set, The Journey of Chris Strachwitz, Arhoolie Records 40th Anniversary Collection: 1960-2000. Strachwitz was attracted to songs lit with an earthy honesty that commercial music just can't touch. Some of the artists here made their living as musicians at some point in their lives, but the rest, in true folk tradition, consist of drifters, day laborers, jailbirds, dreamers, whiskey lovers, and common sufferers. Every hard-won note they play is genuine, because their instruments are hot-wired to their hearts.

Unlike scholarly ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, whose folk recordings from the Forties through the Sixties soon will fill 150 CDs, Strachwitz nixed hoary notions of musical purity. In his Lightnin' Hopkins recordings, for example, the enthusiast told Lightnin' he didn't have to play the old-style "spooky" acoustic material that the artist regarded as old hat. Instead he let Hopkins unleash quirky electric blues, such as the comical "Bald Headed Woman" included here. Although other labels limited Bukka White to three-minute re-creations of what Strachwitz called "them goddamn 78s he had made back in the Thirties," Arhoolie gave the bluesman free rein to stretch out in long discursive improvisations. Such freedom drew performers to the spunky label even when the label couldn't afford to pay much.

Among the rarities onboard is Twenties-era boogie-woogie relic Piano Red, whom Strachwitz rescues from a lounge orchestra, presenting him solo in all his ragged glory. The raucous New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, recorded in 1963, tips a lead violin at "Creole Belles." Strachwitz personally recorded every cut on the 40th anniversary box. The songs are presented chronologically, and it's a kick noting how his passions expanded over the years. Arhoolie was one of the first labels to give national exposure to zydeco, and Clifton Chenier turned out to be a smash. "Allons a Grand Cotteau" shows him at his vocal and accordion-rippling peak in a one-take feather-light slice of Louisiana joy. The Cajun and zydeco musicians multiply as the set progresses, with entries from Nathan Abshire, the Balfa Brothers, and Michael Doucet. Arhoolie also helped put norteño on the map by recording Flaco Jimenez and his father, legendary Tex-Mex innovator Don Santiago Jimenez, Sr. Both are featured on the peppy ranchera "Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio." A few cuts were captured abroad, such as a couple of weird Austrian yodeling selections, lovely Mexican huasteca and jarocho music, and back in the U.S.A. again, a cut here each of Colombian-style cumbia and vallenato, Eastern European klezmer, Afghani folk, and Belizean garifuna.

The best tracks on Journey are so good, they're like a full-course dinner. Play a couple, and you won't crave any other music for a while.