Saturday, December 29, 2018

Harry Choates's 1942 Draft Registration Card

Click on images to enlarge.

On Tuesday, June 30, 1942,  a slight young man walked down the stairs and into the basement of the Lake Charles City Hall, sat down, and waited for a clerk to call his name. He had been asked to register for the draft, and probably was joined there by a couple of dozen others around his age. After a short waiting period, the young man was called to the desk by a woman, Alma Kurtz, who calmly told him it would only take a few minutes. After reciting to the government registrar the basic facts of his existence, 19-year-old Harry Choates left for his nightly performance at the nearby Hill Top Club.

Harry Choates's World War II draft registration card simultaneously tells us little about the man, and a lot. The most important piece of information on the card is his place of birth -- Abbeville, in Vermilion Parish. If the teenaged boy casually relating this to the clerk could look into the future, he would have been amused to learn that Rayne would get repeated endlessly as his place of birth, then "corrected" to the equally wrong New Iberia -- never Abbeville -- possibly because his parents actually did live in Rayne for a while when he was young, and his fellow musicians misinterpreted "I grew up in Rayne" as "I was born in Rayne."

The other striking thing is the confusion over the spelling of his surname. The clerk originally spelled his name "Choats," and his father's name the same way. Perhaps this influenced Harry to also sign it "Choats." This must have prompted a puzzled question from the clerk, who thought it looked strange, and she asked, "Is it spelled 'Choates' with an 'e'?" When Harry replied in the affirmative, she changed both her handwriting and Harry's signature. Either she or another official wrote "CHOATES" in all capital letters at the top of the card.

This incident would also presage much future confusion. Early local pressings of his hit record "Jole Blon" would spell it "Shoates," and the national release on Modern would say "Harry Coats" -- perhaps not a typo, but a harebrained decision by the record company to make it sound more Anglicized. His proper birth name was actually "Choate," but for some reason known only to himself, Harry usually spelled and pronounced it with a final "s."

Other than the spelling confusion, Harry's signature here -- as it is on other documents -- is perfectly legible. The notion that he was illiterate was to be yet another myth told and retold about him decades after his death, popularizing the idea of Choates as a wunderkind who effortlessly mastered music despite severe learning handicaps (which did not, in reality, exist).

Harry lists his employer as John Davis (better known by his middle name, Quincy), and his place of employment the Hill Top Club near Westlake. The card asks for a street address, but the best information Harry can offer is "3 1/2 miles from Lake Charles" -- that is, 3 1/2 miles west of Lake Charles on Highway 90, where the Hill Top existed alongside many other night clubs, restaurants, and hangouts, all the way to the Texas border. This stretch of two-lane highway was a buzzing hive of nonstop traffic, noise, people, and activity at this point, being not only the main road into Texas from the east, but the only real entertainment district to be found for miles around. A musician could expect crowds of no less than 300 every night, seven days a week. Life was giddy, and Lake Charles would have seemed like paradise to anyone trapped in the hellish deathscape Hitler had created in Europe. Charles Delaney, a local guitarist, recollected in a memoir that "World War II turned Lake Charles from a one-horse town to a thriving town. The economy ... was based on agriculture before the war. it was a poor, stagnant town, but the war changed all that. The government built defense plants, the Air Force Base, and Camp Polk, pouring millions of dollars into the economy."

The rest of the card is less interesting, though it contains information found nowhere else: Harry's height (5 foot 7 inches), weight (135 lbs.), eye color (brown), and hair color (brown). Such a slight physical appearance on stage would be striking to an audience today, but not at that time, as photographs of Harry standing among his peers demonstrate (he is taller than bandmates like Joe Manuel, and everyone is skinny in those days before processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup). His only physical defect was a "scar on (his) left first finger," possibly incurred while engaged in one of the many fistfights that often broke out in clubs like the Hill Top. Surprisingly, the card does not ask if the draftee was married. Choates's marriage the year before was probably a short-lived affair, as none of the musicians who knew him could recollect his first wife when interviewed later. His second wife Helen would be referred to as his only wife in all writing about Choates until 2002.

Lake Charles drummer Crawford Vincent remembered first meeting Choates at the Hill Top Club during this period. This may suggest that Choates was relatively new to the area in June, 1942. He had spent his early teenage years in Port Arthur, Texas, and was working in Houston with Shelly Lee Alley in the summer of 1940. Choates was gaining a reputation as a promising fiddler, electric guitarist, and electric mandolinist, and indeed he was playing lead guitar with either Happy Fats or Leo Soileau at the time he filled out his draft card. Later researchers would be surprised to learn how highly his peers regarded him as a guitarist, since all but one of his records feature him instead as a fiddler. It seems likely that Choates mostly worked as a guitarist between 1941 and 1945, doubling on fiddle and/or mandolin when needed. This period was the beginning of the emergence of the electric guitar as a major instrument in popular music, and it is intriguing to think of Choates as an important innovator and popularizer of "lead guitar" in Louisiana and Texas -- a role completely eclipsed by his fame as a fiddler, and almost permanently lost after his death.

Harry probably gave no more thought to the matter after leaving City Hall that day. A full year-and-half would pass before he was called up for active duty, in January, 1944. He only served nine months, instead of the usual twelve, and may not have ever left the states. His older brother Edison died during the war, and his father Clarence had passed away in 1943. These deaths possibly explain his early discharge from the army. He was now his mother's sole support, and would soon take on a new wife and try to build a family.

Thanks to Bill McClung for finding this important historical document and making it available to us.



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