Harry Choates’ career was short lived but his name will be forever associated with Cajun fiddle. He died in 1951 at the age of 28 however the impact that he made on Cajun music is indisputable and two of his recordings, Jole Blon and Devil in the Bayou, are classics of the genre.
Harry Choates’ place of birth is disputed. He was born 1922 in Cow Island, Louisiana (according to his Baptism record) or New Iberia, Louisiana (according to his death certificate). At some point in the 1930s he moved with his mother to Port Arthur, Texas. Most accounts say that Choates didn’t attend school but instead started playing fiddle for tips in barbershops from around the age of twelve. He hung around bars, listening to music wherever he could and soon also developed a tasted for alcohol. Music and alcohol were to become the two defining elements of Choates’ tragically short life.
Rise to Fame
By the early 1940s Harry Choates was performing in the bands of two greats of cajun music, Leo Soileau and Leroy Leblanc. In 1946 he started his own band, The Melody Boys. Later that year they released Jole Blon, which became the first super hit of cajun music, reaching number 4 in the country billboard charts. Jole Blon (pretty blonde) was a traditional cajun waltz that had probably been written in the 19th century. The earliest known recording was by Breaux Brothers in 1929. Although the song was popular within cajun circles, Choates’ version introduced a distinctly country music style. The public seized on this fusion sound and Jole Blon quickly sold out, publisher Moonstar Records unable to keep up with demand. Choates later recorded an English language version which set a trend for a series of country music versions to follow.
One of Harry Choates’ most enduring compositions was ‘Devil in the Bayou’. Not a great hit in its day, the song somehow embodies the stereotype of sinister, supernatural Louisiana. The manic violin coupled with a relentless piano backing and interspersed with demonic laughter, has a spooky appeal to modern listeners. More than novelty, it demonstrates Choates’ extraordinary musical ability, achieving a huge range of sounds on the fiddle.
The death of Harry Choates
Harry Choates’ career was cut short by his alcoholism. Arrested and put in county jail for his failure to pay child maintenance, he reportedly banged his head repeatedly against the prison bars until he became concussed and fell into a coma. He died several days later, apparently from the effects of his alcoholism. He left a limited but impressive legacy to the music of Louisiana and will always be remembered as the troubled, fiddle king of cajun swing.
Masters Of Louisiana Music: Harry Choates – Offbeat Magazine
Choates, Harry H. – Texas State Historical Association
Book details life of Port Arthur musician with ‘dark side,’ mysterious death – Beaumont Enterprise
Harry Choates, Godfather of Cajun Music – The Record Live
Harry Choates – Museum of the Gold Coast