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July 19, 2013

Groves man pens life of legendary Cajun musician

GROVES — Combining a fascination for history, a love for music and his own Cajun family heritage, Groves author Tim Knight has penned the first book about Harry Choates — a musical genius who wrote the definitive “Jolie Blon,” and is to this day known as “The Godfather of Cajun Music.”

“Harry Choates put Cajun music on the map. He literally introduced Cajun music into a genre that eventually spread to all other parts of the country,” Knight said.

The adjunct history professor at Lamar State College-Port Arthur said writing “Poor Hobo — The Tragic Life of Harry Choates,”  was a fascinating experience, not only because of the many Cajun musicians he interviewed, but also because of the tale’s tragic nature.

“Everything written in the book is well-researched, and much of the content came straight from the musicians he shared the stage with,” Knight said.

The musically gifted Choates lived a life as colorful as his death was darkly tragic. From an early age he spent much of his time in bars, playing and listening to music, but in the end, he died behind bars in an Austin jail cell.

“It was a very sad story. He was a musical genius who could pick up any instrument and play it, yet he could not put the bottle down,” Knight said.

Choates was born in Rayne, La., the day after Christmas in 1923.  By the early 1930s, when his parents were separated, he moved with his mother to Port Arthur — part of the great Cajun migration to the Gulf Coast,  where  plentiful work in the refineries  promised a brighter future.

Though Choates had little, if any, formal musical training, he played the fiddle, guitar and accordion in a way that made people happy.  

During his early days in Port Arthur, Choates is believed to have lived on the corner of Mobile and Nederland Avenue. He  was prone to skipping school and wandering around the 100 and 200 blocks of Procter Street, where he slipped into bars, crawled under tables and listened to music blaring from a jukebox.  

By the age of 13, Choates was so adept at playing typical Cajun music in bands that he traded in his school books for the pocketchange he earned as a musician during The Great Depression.

By that early age, he had already developed what would be a lifelong battle with alcohol.  

Choates and his band, The Melody Boys, rewrote traditional Cajun waltz, “Jolie Blone, and recorded it as “Jole Blon.” The song quickly became a favorite and today is considered the Cajun anthem.

“When Harry came out with Jole, it was wildly popular,” Knight said.

Knight’s new book is laced with stories of philandering and never-before-published photos depicting Choates’ life — from the time he was a youngster roaming the streets of Port Arthur, to his untimely death at the young age of 28.

“If you were a young musician back then and you got to play with Harry, it was the highlight of your career,” Knight said.

In between drinking and making music, Choates married Helen Daenan, a Port Arthur woman, and fathered to children with her.

He was also a drunk and a womanizer — both of which led to his untimely death.

“His wife finally got disgusted with him and divorced him. He never paid attention to child support so she filed on him. He was playing in Austin at the time, and got picked up there,” Knight said.

In the  jail cell, Knight began to go through alcohol withdrawals, became delirious and died, three days after he was incarcerated.

The cause of his death remains a mystery, whether it was directly related to  the alcohol withdrawal, or from a possible beating he took while behind the Austin bars.

It took Knight about 10 years to write the book. During that time he visited with Choates’ musician friends, who all had a story to tell about the Godfather of Cajun Music.

Knight’s book was published with the assistance of the Port Arthur Historical Society, and is available for purchase at the Museum of the Gulf Coast.

“It’s not a huge book, not a “War and Peace,” but there has not been a book written about him before,” Knight said.

E-mail: skoonce@panews.com

Twitter: skooncePANews

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