When Cajun music historian Wade Falcon presents “The True Story of Jolie Blonde” at Festival Acadiens et Creoles at noon Oct. 12, he’ll likely revive memories of the short yet brilliant career of fiddler Harry Choates.
The story of Choates is shrouded in mystery. Likely born at Cow Island in Vermilion Parish and reared in Southeast Texas, Choates was mostly a street kid during the Great Depression, the product of a broken home. He embraced the fiddle from his early teens, wandering Port Arthur’s downtown and playing on borrowed instruments on sidewalks and in barber shops for whatever spare change might come his way.
In his short lifetime, Choates was known both as the “Fiddle King of Cajun Swing” and “Parrain de La Musique Cajun,” the Godfather of Cajun Music. He died at 28 under mysterious circumstances, a hopeless drunk in an Austin jail cell in 1951, where he was being held for non-support.
He recorded his own, distinctive version of the Breaux Brothers song, “Ma Blonde Est Partie,” and turned it into a national hit. Choates’ version of the traditional song reached No. 4 twice on the Billboard country charts in 1947. He barely took notice of his own success, though, rejecting offers to play in Nashville and opting instead to play smaller venues for less pay on his native Gulf Coast.
Choates’ “Jole Blon” — the producer misspelled the name of the song, Jolie Blonde, and, at times, misspelled Choates’ own name — was recorded at Gold Star Studio in Houston and became a hit soon after it hit the radio airwaves, first in his childhood home of Port Arthur and eventually to a wider radio audience.
Jole Blon was distinctive in that it was played in a different key than the traditional version and with a touch of Western swing, courtesy of Choates’ Texas influence. Falcon, the Cajun music historian, said it proved Cajun music was marketable to a wider world.
Sam Monroe, president of the Port Arthur Historical Society, which operates the Museum of the Gulf Coast, said Choates was a “sad figure” whose innovations and talent long outlasted his lifetime. He died flat broke, was buried as a pauper and might have been forgotten, if not for that timeless song and his enduring sound and showmanship.
“His fame really spread beyond Port Arthur. He was well known in Southeast and Central Texas as well as Louisiana. He played in the valley and in San Antonio,” Monroe said.
He said Choates might’ve played on grander stages if he’d have had that ambition, noting that he could draw 2,000 people or more to outdoor settings just by word of mouth.
Ernest Tubbs, the Texas Troubadour, tried to lure Choates to Nashville. Monroe said Choates might have shared stages with some of country music’s biggest names, had he been inclined.
But Choates, a small man with outsized talents, lacked the vision.
Beset by his own demons, chief among them alcoholism, he thought he was doing just fine. In fact, he sold his rights to “Jole Blon” to his contemporary, Moon Mullican of Texas, for 50 bucks and a bottle of liquor; scholar Barry Ancelet, an expert in Cajun music, said Choates had no rights to sell that song, which Ancelet said is ancient.
The man who fashioned “Jole Blon” into a form of his own was a product of his times. He played where he could and with whom he could, oftentimes for only a matter of weeks. His unreliability was notorious. His partnership with the Melody Boys, with whom he recorded “Jole Blon” and more than three dozen other songs, was productive, though.
Much of his life and career was shrouded in mystery. He was born in Rayne or New Iberia or, more likely, Cow Island. His mother was Tave Manard or Edolia Menard or Idolie Choate, depending on the source.
She may have been unmarried or, more likely, was married to Clarence Choate, who might have been her second husband. (Harry later added an “s” to the family name.) He was baptized in Kaplan — maybe — by the Rev. Odilon Brise, but a call to the church suggested it did not exist during Choates’ childhood.
Choates’ family followed a familiar path for Louisiana Cajuns to Southeast Texas in the early 1930s, where his father found work in a refinery. But Harry was expelled from a Catholic school for a lewd joke on a nun and, shortly after his parents split up, he apparently stopped attending school altogether and took to the streets.
While the rest of his life spun out of control, his skills playing the fiddle only grew. Some legends say he picked up the fiddle and mastered it almost immediately, that he never owned his own instrument and only played on borrowed ones. Others say he received some instruction in the fiddle from a barber in the town of Pear Ridge, near Port Arthur.
Anya Burgess, owner of SOLA Violins in Lafayette, said it’s unlikely that Choates found instant success with the fiddle. But she said he might have improved quickly.
“It’s not possible to pick up a violin and play it well immediately,” said Burgess, who also plays fiddle for Cajun music groups the Magnolia Sisters and Bonsoir, Catin. “A piano, you can hit a note and it sounds decent. A fiddle for the first time, for the first weeks or months of playing, is like cat scratching.
“You have to have a deep interest in it. You have to be obsessed with it. But if you are super interested, if you are putting in several hours a day, you’re going to get good quickly.”
Burgess said it’s possible a musician might play solely on borrowed instruments, but it would not have been necessary when Choates was learning to play in the 1930s.
“It would have been common to own your own violin back then. Most families had some kind of musical instrument in their house. They were being purchased and delivered by mail order,” she said. “Factories in Europe churned them out by the tens of thousands. You could get them from Sears by mail order and you could buy the whole outfit for 10 bucks.”
As a teen, Choates both played and haunted the bars and joints of Port Arthur, oftentimes trailing his own musical hero, Cliff Bruner, a Texas swing fiddler and band leader.
Choates’ biographer, Tim Knight, wrote that Bruner was not only an excellent musician but also an innovative showman. A stage move for which many remember Choates, rising on his toes with musical high notes, might’ve been Bruner’s move first.
Choates had his own disciples. Fiddler Hadley Castille of St. Landry Parish, a Cajun swing fiddler of lasting reputation and acclaim, was taken with Choates’ talent from the first time he heard Jole Blon, likely in the late '40s.
“I can give you a story he used to tell about Harry,” said Castille’s son, Blake, this week. Castille’s family members were sharecroppers near Leonville and went to town on a Saturday to shop. They stopped at the Silver Slipper there, an establishment where Cajun music was popular.
“He heard Harry’s version of Jole Blon and it totally grabbed him. It spoke to him. Dad said the Silver Slipper crowd was playing that song, nonstop, and he heard it over and over. It captivated him.
“After that he wasn’t as interested in old, traditional Cajun stuff. Harry’s music straddled what was then Western swing, country and Cajun. Cajun swing is what they call it now.”
Kevin Anthony & G-Town, based in Galveston, Texas, have recorded their own collection of Choates’ songs, which include “Devil in the Bayou,” “Port Arthur Waltz,” “Poor Hobo” and, of course, “Jole Blon.”
They were scheduled to release the collection, "Eh Ha Ha: Tribute to the Original Cajun Fiddler Harry Choates," on Saturday night in a free concert sponsored by the Galveston Historical Foundation in a downtown park there.
Anthony said in an interview this week the collection was recorded at Gold Star, Choates’ old label, in the same studio. He said Southeast Texas icons like George Jones and J.P. Richardson, aka "The Big Bopper," also recorded there.
Over the years, musicians and Choates aficionados spruced up the burial site of the Purrain de la Musique Cajun, adding stones and an historical marker that detailed the influence Choates holds even today.
Monroe says Choates' devoted fans travel from around the world to visit in Port Arthur's Calvary Cemetery. That marker was placed a decade ago, and a small crowd gathered to remember. Monroe remembered that Hadley Castille was among them.
Wade Falcon will present “The True Story of Jolie Blonde” from noon-12:45 p.m. Oct. 12 at Scene Atelier at Festival Acadiens et Creoles in Girard Park, Lafayette.