The rumors are still out there some 70 years later.
Harry Choates, the godfather of Cajun music, was beaten to death in his jail cell by Travis County police officers on July 17th, 1951.
It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
Harry was set to command the stage at Dessau Dance Hall in north Austin when police took him into custody. He was arrested for being in arrears on child support payments.
Choates had been ordered by a judge to send $20 a week to his estranged wife, Helen Daenen Cundiff, to help care for their two children.
Those who knew Harry well laughed at the notion of their honky tonk-loving wildman being financially responsible enough to save up $20 a week, make his way to a post office and send a letter containing the money back home to Beaumont.
Choates was too busy boozing it up, chasing women, and playing his fiddle to concern himself with familial duties. Live fast, die young was Harry’s raison d’être.
Hell, Harry didn’t even have a bank account.
I doubt that Helen knew her contacting of authorities would be a death sentence for the man who many reckoned was the love of her life.Born in Cow Island, Louisiana on Dec. 22nd, 1922, Harry Choates got his start in the music business at an early age. His mama moved the family to Port Arthur, Texas when Harry was a child and it didn’t take the youngster long to borrow a $7 fiddle from a buddy, learn a few licks, and start busking on the notorious Procter Street.
Southeast Texas was booming due to the Spindletop oil field’s massive production. Cajuns from Louisiana poured into the region by the thousands as good jobs were plentiful and Port Arthur was a bustling city filled with opportunity.
By the end of 1934, the 12 year-old Harry had dropped out of school and devoted himself fully to earning tips in the barbershops and barrooms of the then-bustling downtown.
While most kids were making their way through high school, Harry was committing himself to the wild life of raging alcoholic and Cajun swing musician. By the time he was 16 he’d drawn the attention of Leroy “Happy Fats” Leblanc and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers.
Harry quickly made a name for himself with the group as they routinely tackled Le Valse De Gueydan or Jole Blon as many Cajuns called it. Beginning in 1929 when it was first recorded as Ma Blonde Est Partie by the Breaux Brothers. The song slowly became known as the Cajun national anthem. Its importance to the genre is difficult to overstate.
If you ever find yourself in a dancehall in Acadiana when the song comes on you’ll quickly find this to be true. It rouses the crowd like no other.
In February, 1940, Fats and his outfit carried Harry to Dallas, Texas where the young fiddleman was first committed to shellac on the RCA label.
Just a month later Harry quit the Ramblers and signed on with Shelly Lee Alley and the Alley Cats as their mandolin player.
The life of a road musician in that era was a peripatetic one.16 year-old Jessie Mae Morris met Harry at a Alley Cats show and they were married on June 10, 1941. The couple produced a son but it mattered little to Harry. He had shows to play and liquor to drink.
Uncle Sam came calling in January of 1944 when Harry was drafted into the Army. Just 10 months later he was discharged. His love for the bottle reportedly led to his release. Choates made his way back to the Gulf South and quickly latched on with Leo Soileau’s Rhythm Boys.
Ever the wildman, Harry nearly died when he fell asleep with a lit cigarette in his room at the Sikes Hotel in East Orange, Texas in 1945. Soileau saved his life by dragging the passed-out-cold Choates to safety.
Harry found a day job at a local shipyard but continued his rough and rowdy ways in the nightclubs of the Golden Triangle. It was in this milieu Harry met, fell in love with, and married his second wife Helen Daenen Cundiff. They made a hell of a pair with Helen working the door of the venues where Choates played and the two taking turns driving Harry to his gigs in a 1938 Ford Station wagon emblazoned with Harry Choates on the side.
By 1946 Harry was determined to get a record out with his name stamped on it so he could better promote his live concerts. Gold Star Records honcho Bill Quinn saw Choates perform at a tavern on Beaumont Highway in Houston and coaxed Harry into the recording studio to lay down Jole Blon backed with Basile Waltz.
It was a runaway smash going all the way to number four on the Billboard charts. Harry knew it was a hot number and as a dedicated alcoholic he quickly cashed in by selling the rights to the record for $50 and a fifth of whiskey.
But his keening attention to the bottle also led him to miss gigs. Lots of gigs. This led to Harry being blackballed by the Musicians Union. Choates’ band splintered but the young outlaw was not done. Not by a measure.
Harry landed on his feet and began playing with Jesse James and All The Boys, a swing outfit that had found success in the Texas Hill Country surrounding Austin. Choates’ myth reached its peak in this region, and it also reached its nadir.
Following Harry’s arrest for non-support of his wife, his bandmates went to visit him at the downtown jail and they found a sorry sight.The fiddle master was in late-stage delirium tremens, his eyes glazed over and even his ability to walk compromised. Fellow fiddler Junior Burrow would tell journalist Michael Corcoran “(Choates) didn’t know us. He didn’t know anything… I’d never seen anything like it.”
The Jesse James boys begged the jailers to help their stricken friend but they refused. Harry’s bandmates left the jail house to seek help at the nearby radio station, KTBC, where they routinely performed but it was too late. As they walked down the block they heard the ambulance’s sirens
The premiere outlaw folk musician of his era was declared dead in his cell at 2:45 p.m.
The official autopsy would claim that Choates died of inflammation of the kidney and fatty metamorphosis of the liver. But in the mythos of Harry Choates’ life there are still whispers that the young fiddler from Cow Island was beaten to death by police officers working at the jail.