Harry Choate and “Jolie Blon,” Cajun Music’s Founding Father
by Tim Knight
Harry Choate was the total and complete musician and entertainer. All of this life he ate, drank and slept music. It is sometimes very difficult to unravel the facts and myths surrounding the life and times of the man who wrote what has been called the Cajun national anthem, “Jolie Blon.” What Jimmy Rogers was to country music, Harry Choate was to French music.
Little is known about his early life other than he was born in Rayne, La. the day after Christmas in 1923. He had no formal education or musical training. He played the fiddle, guitar and as he called it, “An Abbeville Air Compressor,” or as the layman would call it, the accordian.
In his youth he moved with his mother to Port Arthur, where it is believed they lived on the corner of Mobile and Nederland Avenues. During the hard times of the depression, Harry would wander around on the 100 and 200 blocks of Procter Street and wander into bars, crawl under a table and listen to the music. Even then it was his passion. He was always small, so he would slip in and out of these establishments almost undetected.
At the age of 13 he started playing in bands; in most cases they were playing the typical Cajun French music composed of a fiddle, guitar and accordian. As the years passed, French music was confined to mostly family gatherings. There were a few attempts at recording Cajun music in Lafayette, La. but nothing of any significance until 1946 when Harry recorded the infamous “Jolie Blon” at the Quinn Recording Studios in Houston. For the French people of this area it was an instant success. Harry began to receive fan mail, none of which he ever answered. He had a naive innocence about himself, and said he was only interested in making people happy. according to his daughter Linda Cable, “My daddy just loved people with an almost childlike trust.”
With “Jolie Blon” a hit, he recorded other popular French songs as “Big Mamou,” “Catting Around,” and “Poor Hobo.” His music was directed at the audience, it had good rhythm and was just right for dancing. Harry even danced as he played his fiddle.
Harry had no interest in financial gain. He sold the rights to “Jolie Blon” for $100 to Quinn Studios. His one burning desire and interest was to please the crowds of people who would come to listen to his music. In the early part of his career he played at such night spots as Speedy’s Broken Mirror in Sulphur, La., The Old Kentucky Inn and the Old Light House, located in Port Arthur on 16th Street.
As his fame grew he teamed up from time to time with such local musicians as Earl Rebert, Louis Oltremari and Ivy Gaspard. In 1950 he and his band traveled to San Antonio and played one night stands in Kerrville, Austin and Banderas. His famous “Crying Fiddle” became very popular throughout the Austin Hill Country. Not only did he play French Music but the special brand of music known as Texas Swing, which had been made famous by Bob Wills.
All of this he accomplished with a borrowed fiddle; in fact, he never owned a musical instrument of any type.
The dark side of his life was that he drank, but this never seemed to diminish his ability as a musician. While appearing on KOAI-TV in San Antonio, on the Red River Dave Country & Western Show, some of the members of the studio band attempted to write down the lyrics of “Jolie Blon.” To their surprise they were unable to put his special brand of French music down in standard notes.
In 1951 Harry ran afoul of the law and ended up in jail in Austin, which during the late 40’s and early 50’s was very serious for the lawbreaker. The events of his death are both sordid and shrouded in mystery. On July 17, 1951, Harry Choate was beaten to death in a hot Austin cell block. His family was given no information as to the circumstances of his death, and to add to the tragedy they had no money to bring him back to Port Arthur for burial.
Gordon Baxter, then with KPAC radio, went on the air and raised enough money from Harry’s many fans to bring him back home for a decent burial in Greenlawn Cemetery. Today there is no marker on his grave, just the small bronze funeral home marker. But then perhaps that’s the way Harry would have wanted it; he was just a simple Cajun boy filled with love for his music and his hundreds of fans and friends.
Harry Choate is gone now, but his name is legend among the French people of this area. His famous “Crying Fiddle” was never played after his death and was destroyed in 1961 when Hurricane Carla brought havoc and destruction on Jade Avenue in Groves.
His old recordings are all that is left, but if one can just listen to these old records, one can appreciate the pure talent of his Acadian music. If you are apt to like this brand of music, just sit back and listen and let the good times roll.
[Editor’s Note: Harry Choate is buried in Port Arthur. Gordon Baxter was responsible for getting his body from Austin where he died in the jail cell. Years later, Tim Knight and Roy Dunn raised the funds to place a marker on the unmarked grave.]