The first time Ben Sandmel saw the Hackberry Ramblers was on a music stage at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. A son of a music-making biblical scholar and rabbi, Sandmel had a bachelor's degree in folklore from Indiana University and several years under his belt as a blues drummer in Chicago. Having worked his way to New Orleans as a deckhand on the Delta Queen, he was writing freelance pieces on music when the Ramblers took the stage that night. The band's leaders were fiddler Luderin Darbone and then-guitarist Edwin Duhon. The pair had co-founded the group in 1933.
From the dawn of rural electrification in the Great Depression to the landing of men on the moon and beyond, more than 70 musicians moved through the Ramblers' ranks. In the 1930s, the band became a hot item in the rural clubs and halls of southwest Louisiana and east Texas, playing in some places where only French was spoken.
Sandmel had never encountered a band with a 51-year history.
"Their style was frozen in time," marvels Sandmel, now 51. "They had a late 1940s sound, a combination of Cajun music and western swing, the blending of French and Anglo music -- that's their trademark -- with a little honky-tonk country thrown in. It was old, yet vital and contemporary. On a big dance floor they had everyone dancing."
Over the next several years Sandmel got to know Darbone and, in 1987, joined the Ramblers as drummer and manager. Since then, he's helped put the band on the media map. A 1988 Jazz Fest appearance led to bookings at other festivals and concert trips to Europe. Sandmel produced two CDs of the band -- Cajun Boogie and the Grammy-nominated Deep Water -- that sparked national television coverage and a capstone performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
Sandmel's journey with the Ramblers -- a "labor of love would not be an understatement," he says -- is a leitmotif in John Whitehead's grand documentary, Make 'Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers' Story, which debuts Jan. 13 on PBS stations nationwide as part of the Independent Lens series. Whitehead, a longtime cinematographer and documentary filmmaker, first saw the band at the 1998 Jazz Fest and became intrigued with the story behind the music. The film work began in 1999 with Sandmel eventually becoming co-producer.
The film chronicles the history of the band, setting the Ramblers' earliest recordings to historic black-and-white imagery of oil fields in south Louisiana, intercut with contemporary scenes of lush pastures and dreary industrial vistas of Lake Charles. The narrative unfolds through profiles of Darbone, 90, and Duhon, 93. The two men grew up in families who traveled from job to job in the oil patch of south Louisiana and east Texas. They began trading musical licks in 1932. Darbone was 19, playing fiddle and influenced by the Mississippi blues yodeler Jimmy Rodgers. Edwin, then on rhythm guitar and now on accordion, explains in the film: "I was playing French music and Darbone played hillbilly. It sounded so bad, goddamned bad, my Daddy chased us out of there."
Whitehead's film has an easy, lilting flow. The story also has a good measure of wit, as when Glen Croker, the 69-year-old lead vocalist and guitarist, explains: "I remember one club we played, they searched me to see if I had a knife. I didn't, so they gave me one."
The film captures high notes of the band's rejuvenation under Sandmel with backstage moments before the coveted appearance at the Grand Ole Opry. There are tender moments, too. Darbone, the leader of the band, has attended Mass every morning since 1957. He relies on Sandmel to find church schedules when they are on the road.
Darbone and Duhon are widowers who live alone, but always room together when the band travels. As individuals they could not be more different. Darbone is a mild-mannered gent; Duhon has a veneer of braggadocio. "I don't do alcohol, I don't do drugs, I don't do slot machines," Duhon announces in an interview sequence. "What about women?" comes the off-camera question. He shoots back: "Oh, I do that. I do that. I'm hot as a firecracker!"
In the film, Sandmel says of the band, which also features 78-year-old bass player Johnny Faulk: "None of them drink. I don't have to worry about anyone stealing the TV out of a hotel room ... none of the horror stories you hear about taking bands on the road. There have been times, bless them, when I ask them to be at my house at noon and they show up at eight in the morning."
In all, the Hackberry Ramblers recorded more than 100 songs on the RCA Bluebird label in those mid-century years. With Make 'Em Dance bringing a three-dimensional portrait of the band to a national television audience, one hopes that a complete anthology of all their recordings is not too many years behind.