The Little Village Foundation is a non-profit organization that runs a record label supporting non-traditional music. They’ve put out albums of mariachi, folk, blues, gospel and other underrepresented genres. Since its foundation in 2015, Little Village has released 51 records, including recent releases by Sacred Steel guitarist Da Shawn Hickman, Drums, Roots and Steel, blues belter Diunna Greenleafs’ I Ain’t Playin’ and Canto de me corazón, singer Marina Crouse’s tribute to the songs she heard her grandmother singing around the house when she was growing up.
Little Village was created by Jim Pugh, a keyboard player and visionary with his eyes on the big picture. “There is a wide swath of music, food and language in the Bay Area,” Pugh said. “I grew up around that and loved the way it enriched my life. Immersing yourself in the arts and music builds empathy among musicians and communities. I got into any style of music people wanted. I did Otis Spann songs for African American dance classes and played in Mexican and Latin clubs, with the hope of supporting myself as a musician. That was the beginning of the idea that being involved with diverse musical communities would help build cultural connections and understanding.”
“At that point, I realized nobody wants a 60-year-old piano player. I had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I started thinking about the diversity of the Bay Area and all the great musicians that were going unheard. What would it look like if there was a record label that was in service of the musicians? If all the money albums made went to the artists and they were allowed to keep all their performing and songwriting royalties? If all the production costs, studio time, promotion and manufacturing were paid for? As these ideas were percolating, Rick Estrin and Kid Andersen, from Rick Estrin and the Nightcats, invited me to a session they were doing with a blues singer named Wee Willie Walker. I told them about my idea for the Little Village Foundation, and they jumped on it.”
Walker’s If Nothing Ever Changes became the first Little Village release. The idea of a non-profit label caught the attention of folks like Chris Strachwitz of the Arhoolie Foundation and Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records. “They gave us moral support,” Pugh said. “They were positive about our prospects of continuing. With the work of friends like Maurice Tani, Kid Andersen, Pam Rose, Aki Kumar and Jazmin Morales, we’ve been able to build on that initial success.
“Little Village was my idea, but I take little credit for how it’s growing. It’s been an amazing ride. The work of Little Village can only be done with help from a lot of people. We’re not trying to make pop stars. We just want to introduce music and art that might otherwise go unnoticed, to as many people as possible. Some consider us a blues label, but we’ll help out anyone, in any genre, that we like. We have a relationship with the Hellman Foundation, that puts on the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. They’ve featured some of our acts, including Mestizo, a teenage mariachi band, and the kids from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, who survived a school shooting. They put together an album called Raise Your Voice: The Sound of Student Protest, with songs and spoken word pieces they wrote, alongside songs written by students who were similarly affected by school shootings.
“We also do spoken word and poetry projects. We worked with Betty Reid Soskin, a ranger from the National Park Service. She was assigned to the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front Historical Park in Richmond. She just retired at the age of 100. She did an album with us—A Lifetime of Being Betty. It features her telling stories about her life and times, including an account of the way the migration of Black folks from Alabama, Mississippi and other states to work in the shipyards of Richmond during World War II helped to define how music would develop in the Bay Area. Part of Little Village’s purpose is to paint a picture of what America really looks and sounds like, which might be different than the commercial outlook people are most familiar with.”
For more information on the Little Village Foundation, visit littlevillagefoundation.com.