[Preamble: These notes were written for the brand new release of the complete recordings of one of the finest old timey groups to record - namely the East Texas Serenaders - on Document DOCD-8031. The first draft was twice as long as the CD booklet would accommodate, so I offer the extended essay as an adjunct to the abbreviated version. Both versions are, of course, designed to be read in conjunction with listening to the music, which, I may add (impartially) is excellent.]
One photograph of the East Texas Serenaders shows five musicians gazing out at the lens. Fiddler Daniel Huggins Williams, tenor banjo player John Munnerlyn, guitarist Cloet Hamman, cellist Henry Bogan, and an unidentified second guitarist are clad in open necked shirts and overalls, and you could well be forgiven for thinking that here is a hick band whose music must be as rough-hewn as they themselves appear. But you would be very wrong, for another photo, taken on the same occasion, is much more representative. In this they wear suits and ties and seem about as suave as you might expect from men who worked, not on the land, but in florist shops, post offices and gas stations.
In fact, their music is quite sophisticated, with little of the hard edge of string bands from neighbouring states. Williams' long bow Texas fiddling style, particularly evident in some of the slower numbers, contributes something to this, but the main factor proves to be their choice of material. Not for them the standard square dance tunes; practically the entire recorded output consists of rags and similar raggy numbers, and waltzes. In addition, their biographer Nancy Fly Bredenberg observes that the band often strayed outside the conventional square dance keys of G, D and A, into the technically more difficult key of F; as did the Dallas String Band, their black counterparts from the other side of the tracks, whose complete output may be heard on Document DOCD-5162.
Precedence for this dualistic Texan form of recorded repertory had been established by Alexander Campbell 'Eck' Robertson, the first southeastern fiddle player to commit to wax, in 1922. In addition to the widespread Ragtime Annie, he also had a high proportion of waltz tunes. The output of A L Steeley's Red Headed Fiddlers was similar, but like Robertson also included several standard square dance tunes. But this specialised duality was not simply a quirk of the East Texas Serenaders. Hugh Roden, both with his Texas Nighthawks and with steel guitarist Roy Rodgers, also recorded nothing but rags and waltzes, as did the Humphries Brothers. The recording companies themselves may, in fact, have dictated the recorded repertory to some extent, as we know they did elsewhere, with certain blues performers, for instance. Oscar Harper's output for OKeh, including an unissued Ragtime Annie, featured mainly rags and waltzes, but when recorded on behalf of the Library of Congress in February 1942 he was in more conventional mould, with The Girl I Left Behind Me and Sally Goodin. Indeed, Serenaders leader Williams recalled in an interview how, during their performances,
...in between the square-dance tunes and the jazzier rags, they frequently sang song hits of the day, such as Five Foot, Two in the early days, and Rosetta and Stardust later on... (Carr)Despite the ethnic melting pot that was the Texas of their time, on the recorded evidence alone the East Texas Serenaders had no recognisably 'foreign' tunes, such as the schottisches of the Lewis Brothers or the polkas of the Massey Family. That said, one of two unissued numbers from the 1937 Decca session was German Waltz, which suggests that such influences were certainly not unknown to them.
Smith's Garage Band had recorded the widespread Beaumont Rag in November 1928, albeit at a more moderate tempo, as had Oscar Harper twelve months later, at a greater lick but ironing out the bluesy inflections of both the unidentified fiddler with the Smith band and Huggins Williams himself (sound clip). The popular version by Bob Wills' Texas Playboys followed that of the Serenaders almost two years later. A number of writers have, in fact, observed how the Serenaders' style and repertory reflected to a great extent that of the burgeoning Western Swing genre evolving in the state around the time of their first session. Indeed, Johnny Gimble, veteran of several such post-war combos (including a late incarnation of the Texas Playboys), told Bill C Malone that he had visited Huggins Williams for lessons. There is clearly some truth to the observation, but I think the assessment has been somewhat overstated. If Playboy fiddlers Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock and 'Sleepy' Johnson had indeed been influenced by any previously recorded version of Beaumont Rag, for example, it must surely have been the relaxed tempo, high register fingering and bluesy inflections of the Smith band.
Unlike, say, the Humphries Brothers, the East Texas Serenaders never recorded the more hackneyed waltzes such as After the Ball or Over the Waves. Every one of their numerous 3/4 tunes are of great interest. Some, such as Adeline Waltz, attributed to Cloet Hamman, showcase particularly fine melodies; while during the B music of Sweetest Flower Waltz (sound clip), Williams, in a real tour de force, crams in more notes per bar than almost any other fiddler.
Similarly, their rags, stomps and two-steps (practically all of which share the same syncopated 4/4 rhythm) are real corkers. Though bearing unfamiliar titles, many feature familiar-sounding strains, as if their composers (and recomposers in transmission) had conflated a snatch from here and another from there. Three-in-One Two-Step (sound clip), for example, includes a chunk from Dill Pickles; Deacon Jones contains strains of Alabama Jubilee; and Mineola Rag has the odd theme reminiscent of Dallas Rag.
Blues influences may be found in the stylistic nuances of numerous recorded Texas fiddlers, with Prince Albert Hunt's Blues in a Bottle perhaps the best-known example. Classic ragtime demands the frequent use of modulation and flattened tones also. Huggins Williams uses the technique extensively - on Louisa Waltz, for example - but it may be heard to best advantage on the moderately paced yet exhilarating Babe. He is well aware, however, of its inappropriateness in tunes such as Shannon Waltz, whose B strain features lush sweet bowing in second or third fingering position. Here, if anywhere, may be heard the formal techniques he had learned from local music teacher Ellen Cannon. Additional classical stylings were probably derived from a fiddling outsider 'from the north', only the surname of whom - Brigsley - was recalled when Bredenberg was undertaking her fieldwork. This man taught Williams 'several rags, some of the popular tunes of the day, and some of his own compositions, such as the Sweetest Flower Waltz and the Shannon Waltz.'
Of the supporting musicians, guitarist Cloet Hamman has a good line in single string runs. John Munnerlyn offers solid but unremarkable plectrum banjo, chorded for the most part, though he comes into his own on the Tin Pan Alley song Before I Grew to Love You, where he replaces the fiddle as melodic lead. Henry Bogan saws away at his three string cello, underpinning the whole and propelling it along nicely. The scarcity of the instrument within the recorded old time corpus has, however, led some commentators (Bill Malone, for instance, describes it as 'truly unique') to overestimate the value of his style. On their final session, in 1937, Shorty Lester replaced Munnerlyn - who had migrated to Houston - on tenor banjo, without missing a beat. And Henry Lester added a second fiddle part, playing either mainly in unison, as on Arizona Stomp (sound clip right), or in counterpoint, on Serenaders' Waltz (sound clip left). If the proto-Western Swing tag can indeed be applied to the group it must surely be most overt on this latter number.
This then is the East Texas Serenaders. Fine musicians, superb tunes, and a technique which allowed them to weather the depression and record again in a period when most of their string band contemporaries had long since been abandoned.
Keith Chandler - 5.6.98
Patrick Carr (editor) The Illustrated History of Country Music (New York: Doubleday, 1980), p.116.
Bill C Malone, Country Music, U.S.A. (University of Texas Press, 1985), p.160.
Charles Farout's outstanding sleevenotes to the vinyl album Texas Farewell (County 517) offer a comprehensive contextual overview of pre-war fiddling in the state.
East Texas Serenaders - Daniel Huggins Williams (vln), John Munnerlyn (tenor bjo), Cloet Hamman (gtr), Henry Bogan (cello):
Keith Chandler - 5.6.98
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