Albert Hunt’s Mongrel Eccentricities

by
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painting by John Flaming

Excerpt from Christopher King (www.oxfordamerican.org):

“Prince” Albert Hunt, born Archibald Hunt, was delivered unto the world on December 20, 1896, in Terrell, Texas, the youngest of four children. His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee from Alabama, his father a full-blooded Irishman, and the fiddle music their son played was an amalgamation of the lilting bow figures of the Celts and the untamed war whoops of the Indians.

The raspy forcefulness of Hunt’s violin tone reflected the coarse huskiness of his singing, making it easy to imagine his music as the soundtrack to barroom knifings and shoot-’em-ups in dance halls throughout the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas.

The drunken swagger of his voice seems to infect the rhythm in his 1928 and 1929 recordings for OKeh records in San Antonio and Dallas. On “Blues in a Bottle,” the guitar accompaniment stalls, elongates the beat, and then spreads the measure so Hunt can drawl out the verse, in effect both capturing and modifying, or marring, time.

Hunt learned to fiddle by stealing his father’s violin and sneaking away to play in graveyards late at night, cousins and bottles of whiskey in tow. His recorded music is perfectly consistent with this autodidactic approach: teach oneself while drunk in the cemetery such that one must be wasted and wading in death in order to play. One could scarcely anticipate something bad resulting from this methodology.

Prince Albert recorded only nine sides (one remains unissued and is presumably lost), about a decade after he was discharged from serving in the Army during the Great War. Most are vexingly rare—I only have one: “Wake Up Jacob,” with the flip side being “Waltz of Roses,” in “E” condition—and they are fiercely sought after due to their forceful, bluesy nature.

Though his recorded repertoire contained the usual suspects—the medicine show tune “Traveling Man,” a Jimmie Rodgers–influenced “Waltz of Roses,” the breakdowns “Wake Up Jacob”and “Houston Slide,” and the show stopper “Blues in a Bottle”—none of his performances were slavishly imitated by others.

Even so, Harry Smith thought enough of Hunt to include “Wake Up Jacob” in his seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (Social Music, Dances No. 1, Band 30). Rich Nevins issued “Blues in a Bottle” in his masterful series Times Ain’t Like They Used to Be, Volume 1, and Marshall Wyatt included “Traveling Man”in his Good for What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows, 1926-1937.

Hunt’s best pieces, in their best sound, are anthologized in Texas Fiddle Music, Vol. 1, on County Records. Although Hunt didn’t alter the course of vernacular folk music, and his influence on Western swing is minimal, he did leave a testament etched in the shellac grooves of his few recordings to an idiosyncratic sound that reflected the mongrel eccentricities of his time and place. Hunt played exactly what the people of Deep Ellum wanted: uninhibited fiddle dance pieces and an occasional waltz. 

See also here.

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