Monday, November 17, 2014

"Jole Blon" - Harry Choates

Jole Blon is a traditional cajun waltz, often called "the cajun national anthem" because of the popularity it had in cajun culture. The song was then later popularized on a nationwide scale by a series of renditions and references in late '40s country songs. It has been the subject of occasional cover later in the 20th century by cajun and classic country revival bands. Becoming a part of the band's repertoire in 1951, "Jole Blon" became the official fight song of McNeese State University in 1970, and it is played by the "Pride of McNeese" band upon scoring at athletic events. It's a swing and dance tune that and became the first and only Cajun record to reach the Billboard Top Five.

The original Cajun version is a brief address to a "pretty blonde" who had left the singer and moved back in with her family, and is also now in the arms of another man. The singer concludes that there are plenty other women, and pretty blonde women out there that he can find. The fiddle-based, instrumental melody of this song dates back before the 1900s.  It's influence can be found in the Guidry Brother's "Homme Abandonne" introduction, Angelas Lejeune's "La Valse De La Veuve", and the Segura Brother's "La Fille De La Veuve". 

As discussed in a previous article, the earliest recording of the song is believed to be a 1929 version by the family trio Breaux Brothers entitled "Ma blonde est partie", recorded in Atlanta.  The title "Jolie Blonde" was first given to the melody by two bands separately: the Hackberry Ramblers version of "Jolie Blonde" and J. B. Fuselier and his Merrymakers' version of "Ta Ma Lessa Jolie Blonde", both during a New Orleans recording session in 1936.  The melody also appears in "La Valse de La Lafayette" by the Jolly Boys of Lafayette  and Happy Fats' "Nouveau Grand Gueydan" in 1937.

Harry Choates
Bill Quinn had a background in electronics and experience working as a sound man for a carnival show. In Houston, he started repairing radios, and as another twist of fate would have it, everything changed one day when a customer brought in a disc-recording machine that needed repair. Quinn became fascinated with the concept, and purchased one for himself.   By 1941, he started the Quinn Recording Company and did custom recordings and commercial jingles for radio stations, but soon ventured into the record business, with the short-lived Gulf label. 

É ha ha!

Jolie blonde, jolie fille

Chère petite, jolie cœur

Tu m'as laissé pour t'en aller

Avec un autre, mais chère petite fille

Dans l'pays de la Louisiane

Mais malheureuse

Oh, mais jolie cœur

Ca t'as fait à ton pauvre papa

Tu m'as laissé, mais, chère petite

Mais moi tout seul

Mais malheureux

Quelle espoir, mais quel avenir

Mais moi j'peux avoir?

É hé hé!

Oh ha ha!

Chère petite, jolie blonde

Mais ca t'as dit, ma malheureuse

Quoi t'as fait? Tu vas avoir

Tu serais pitié

Daily Advertiser
Nov 16, 1946

The popularization began in 1946 with Harry Choates and his French version of "Jole Blon" for Gold Star records (#1314). Harry Choates had his first stint playing with Leroy "Happy Fats" Leblanc and the Rayne-Bo Ramblers in 1939 in which Happy's band performed the song as "Nouveau Grand Gueydan".  Eventually, Choates made his recording debut as fiddler with the band at a 1940 session in Dallas.  Afterwards, Choates next started playing electric mandolin with Shelly Lee Alley and the Alley Cats. Later in 1941, he was playing guitar with Pancho and the Farmhands over in Beaumont.  Around this time, Choates also played guitar and second fiddle for Leo Soileau’s Aces with Joe and Abe Manuel, and Francis “Red” Fabacher. Harry had been playing with Leo Soileau when he was exposed to their song "La Valse De Gueydan".  According to Happy:
Harry had first performed the tune in Soileau's band but on his Gold Star recording he stepped up the key from G to A.4  
It was about this time when Happy Fats began toying around with the idea of recording "Jole Blon" with his group the Rayne-Bo Ramblers.  According author to Andrew Brown, with the onset of WWII, Steve Sholes of RCA Victor records told a disappointed Leblanc that the session had to be cancelled because of wartime shellac rationing.13 

In January of 1944, Choates was drafted into the army and shipped to California for basic training.  After being discharged, back home, he played off and on with Leo Soileau’s Rhythm Boys, Toby Kelley’s Kings of Swing, Dean Rasberry’s Streamliners and as a solo performer. One night Choates passed out with a lit cigarette in his mouth and his bed caught on fire. Soileau and another bandmate pulled him, still unconscious, to safety. By late 1945, he quit the Rhythm Boys for good.  Choates began playing jazz guitar with guitarist Esmond “Eddie” Pursely at The Club Irving, one of East Orange’s many nightclubs. His first wife, Helen Daenen Cundiff, drove their ‘38 Ford station wagon with “Harry Choates” painted on the side to performances where she sold tickets.10
Bill Quinn

Pursely, now in Jimmy Foster & His Swingsters, tracked Choates down and convinced him to join that group. They consisted of James "Jimmie" Foster on bass, Eddie Pursley on acoustic lead guitar, B.D. Williams on rhythm guitar, Charlie Slagle on banjo and Bill Slay on piano. Before long, Choates took over the group’s direction. One night, whilst playing a honky-tonk on Beaumont Highway in Houston, a local record producer, Bill Quinn, caught a performance and, impressed with Choates’s playing, convinced the band to record for his pioneering independent label, Gold Star. 

In 1946, Choates recorded his song "Jole Blon".  It struck a nerve with the record-buying public and reached #4 on the Billboard charts in 1947, twice!  Later, he would record an English version and several different versions, playing off of the name name Jole Blon, such as "Jole Blon's Gone" and "Mari Jole Blon". None of these garnered the success he had with the first recording.   

At the time Quinn, a transplanted New Englander, entered the record business, however, the manufacture of phonograph records was a closely guarded secret by the major companies. It was something he had to largely figure out for himself, which took a lot of trial and error. He even tried melting down other people's records for his need of shellac materials.  Quinn admits that many of the fragile acetate masters never materialized out of his homemade processing tank — and with no backup of any kind (audio tape was not in widespread use at the time) — the recording was simply lost forever.  
Harry Choates '&&' His Fiddle

Bill Quinn, "required at least a dozen takes" before he was satisfied with Choates’ rendition of “Jole Blon.” Choate's version took the traditional waltz and accelerated the tempo, adding a prominent piano accompaniment.  Bill was not prepared by the response he got from that record. After a Houston DJ began playing the “Jole Blon,” the song exploded in popularity and Gold Star was unable to meet the public’s demand.  A Galveston-based jukebox operator, Lester Bihari , convinced Quinn to license the track to his Modern Records, managed by Bihari's family.  Harry's recording shows up on multiple labels and even multiple releases on the same label, such as Modern Music (#20-511), Starday (#187) in both English and French, D Records (#1024) and the Deluxe label (#6000).  

The song appears in at least 3 different "Gold Star" labels, #1313, Quinn's address number on Dumble Street.  The originals with the red/yellow label with gold print were on non-flexible acetate.  A few have the mistaken double-ampersand "& &" printed on the label.  Later, the ones on the red/yellow label with black print were pressed on vinyl.  D-issues are recent and were pressed by the H.W. ‘Pappy” Daily distribution concern in Houston.  The Modern Records version, outsourced to the Bihari Brother's label in California, was released listed as Harry Coates & his fiddle.

E ha ha!

Pretty blonde, pretty girl,

Dear little pretty heart,

You left me, went away,

With another, my dear,

Into the countryside of Louisiana,

Oh my! I'm miserable.

Oh, my pretty heart,

You did this to your poor papa,

You left me, but, my dear,

Oh my! I am all alone,

Oh my! I'm miserable,

What hope, what future can I have?

E heh heh!

Oh ha ha!

Dear pretty blonde

Oh my! I told you I'm unhappy

What did you do? Have mercy, would you?

Lake Charles American Press
Oct 24, 1947

Jimmie Foster sued and was subsequently awarded a half cent for the first 50,000 recording sold, amounting to $250.  An acute alcoholic, Choates sold the rights to "Jole Blon" for $100 and a bottle of whiskey. His habit of missing concerts led him to be blacklisted by the musicians union in San Antonio and resulted in his band breaking up. Quinn would go on to record other artists, including the famous Lightnin’ Hopkins, however, by 1952, Bill Quinn had simply had enough. With Lightnin’ recording for anyone who had the cash, the government breathing down his neck seeking to collect excise taxes on his record pressings, plus the untimely deaths of his big star, Harry Choates, and his first wife, Lona, to cancer — he folded up Gold Star and called it a day.  His studio, however, stayed open for business.   

By 1955, Harold "Pappy" Daily of Starday Records purchased the masters from Quinn and released them on his label in both French and a "new" version in English, even having Moon Mullican record it.   The English version seems to be an unissued Quinn recording, which Daily decided to press.  However, it's success was over.   The last release was on Daily's "D" Records in 1959 on a 45. Billboard magazine listed it as:

A familiar country and Creole subject gets new treatment, although the voice is weakly recorded.  Limited sectional appeal.

The song comes in at #99 out of Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time".

NOTE: Don Pierce claimed that Buddy Dee (whose name appears on several Mercury-Starday 45s as writer) was actually a pseudonym for D. Kilpatrick and used to give monetary thanks to the man who created Mercury-Starday, though Kilpatrick (the former head of Mercury’s country division, who left to become the manager of the Grand Ole Opry in 1957) remembers nothing of the alter-ego. It very likely could have been used as a pseudonym for Pappy Daily instead.

  1. Poor Hobo: The Tragic Life of Harry Choates a Cajun Legend by Tim Knight 
  2. House of Hits The Story of Houston's Gold Star/SugarHill Recording Studios By Andy Bradley and Roger Wood
  3. Lightnin' Hopkins: His Life and Blues By Alan B. Govenar
  4. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous By John Broven
  5. “Jole Blon”—Harry Choates (1946) Added to the National Registry: 2005 Essay by Ryan Brasseaux
  11. Billboard Magazine, Apr 23, 1955
  12. "Harry Choates: Devil in the Bayou".  Liner notes.
  13. Cajun Breakdown: The Emergence of an American-Made Music By Ryan Andre Brasseaux
  14. Lyrics by Neal P and Bryan L
Jole Blon (D, 1959)
Fiddle King of Cajun Swing (Arhoolie, 1982)
Cajun Fiddle King (AIM, 1999)
Jole Blon - 23 Artists One Theme (Bear, 2002)
Harry Choates: Devil In The Bayou - The Gold Star Recordings (Bear, 2002)

The Beginner's Guide to Cajun Music (Proper/Primo, 2008)
J'ai Ete Au Bal - Vol. 1 (I Went To The Dance) (Arhoolie, 2011)
GOLD STAR LABEL Classic Country Music (BACM, 2018)

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