KEN STICKNEY — Choates: Fame fleeting; talent, eternal

Published 12:09 am Wednesday, August 14, 2019

So I’ll lay it out plain, so there’s no room for misinterpretation: Harry Choates was a heel. A savant, yes. Unforgettable, yes. Of lasting importance, sure enough, for casual fans and for more polished aficionados of Cajun music. Count me among the former.

But short weeks of light research for the real Harry Choates — I was writing a magazine piece — for the boy who played fiddle on Procter Street sidewalks for coins during the Great Depression, for the musician under the fiddle, for the man beneath the soil of Calvary Cemetery, left little doubt in my mind: He was a wretched man. A womanizer. A drunk. An absent father.

We want our heroes to be something more than we are. Sometimes, we want them to be more than they are. We want their talents to be supreme, yet their demeanor humble. We want them to be grand in spirit as well as entertaining in the flesh. As talents go, Choates’ was prodigious. As spirits go, well, he drank whatever spirits came his way.

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I feel almost guilty about writing that, especially because people here remember him as important. Oh, there was a story or two about Harry Choates’ generous spirit, paying a hospital bill for a stranger. There were more stories about the itinerant musician who urinated in the corner of his hotel room rather than use the bathroom — and my father-in-law called me “barely housebroken” — the guy who carried on a two-year affair with a band mate’s wife while neglecting his own family, so devoid of decency that both his wife and his paramour dumped him for catting around.

Colorful? Maybe. But to grown-ups, Harry Choates’ life was pathetic.

His “Jole Blon” was the first Cajun song to crack the Billboard 100 — it rose to No. 4, twice, in 1947 — which landed him club dates and booze money. But his horizons were limited. Music historians say he seldom left the Gulf Coast because he couldn’t understand the impact he’d made by his hit record. He wanted nothing more than to play small clubs from Gulfway Drive and Orange across the Sabine pond to Lawtell and Duson, Louisiana, drinking in the morning, on stage, wherever until his short fuse was consumed.

Still, his was a remarkable story. The legend says he was self-taught; his biographer, Tim Knight, suggested he might have been taught to play the fiddle by a Pear Ridge barber. Maybe.

But the likelihood is he also picked up other instruments — guitar, piano — with little guidance but to relative accomplishment. That’s rare.

That’s what his idol, Cliff Bruner, another self-taught Texas Coast fiddler, did. Like Choates, Bruner was both musical prodigy and consummate entertainer. Choates was, Knight wrote, the guy who stood on his toes while reaching high notes, who danced across the floor while playing, who delighted crowds with his on-stage antics, who uttered guttural sounds while singing.

He may have been a transitional figure, at his peak when the fiddle replaced the accordion in Cajun music, at least for a period. That was a time when Harry Choates inserted his own interpretations of jazz and Texas swing into the void where the accordion had been. Maybe he was lucky, for a few brief years, by falling into brief stardom during that interim between the accordion’s fall and its return. I don’t know enough to tell you.

I just know this: I stood in a grassy field where once stood a barbershop, and Harry Choates used to play there for coins. I stood before a former radio station, where Harry Choates used to play live. I drove down the streets past where his mother lived, and where he sometimes parked his station wagon; I drove past the empty lot — now an industrial site — where his father lived. I stood by his grave and wondered what type of man was this. Despite it all, I’m glad for the journey.

And there’s this: I talked with my son-in-law, an accomplished Cajun musician, who said he learned some about the fiddle by playing old Choates records a half-century after Choates’ death. I talked with some Cajun music historians, whose opinions on Choates varied but agreed on this: His talents as a musician and entertainer were extraordinary. That’s more than most of us will ever achieve.

Those were talents honed and enlarged on our city streets, when you could hear him play for the toss of a coin. That makes him a lasting part of Port Arthur’s history, like him or not.

Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.