East Texas Serenaders was a musical group of four East Texans from Smith and Wood counties and one of the most unusual bands of the 1920s and 1930s. Their rare left-handed fiddle player, Daniel Huggins Williams, won contests all over East and Central Texas. The guitar player was Cloet Hamman, with a gift of good bass runs and a faultless rhythm. On the group's first recordings Patrick Henry Bogan, Sr., played an upright bass, but later played a three-string cello with a bow; the bass didn't travel well on top of the car in bad weather. John Munnerlyn played tenor banjo with a steady colorful style.
The Serenaders first recorded two pieces on December 2, 1927, in Dallas for Columbia Records. They subsequently recorded fourteen songs for Brunswick about 1928. Finally, in 1937 they recorded eight songs for Decca. Munnerlyn left the group about 1930 and was replaced by Shorty Lester, whose brother Henry played second fiddle on later recordings. The rags and breakdowns the group played were clear steps toward swing and string-band music, a departure from the standard fiddle-band tradition. Some critics have given the Serenaders credit for the beginning of western swing. Hamman, Bogan, and Munnerlyn made one of the most forceful rhythm sections in string-band history.
Bogan was born on January 5, 1894, and died on June 24, 1968. He started playing guitar early and then took up the bass fiddle and chorded the piano. He decided to play the cello later because it was smaller; he removed a string, he said, because he didn't need it. He worked for a time on a ranch near Happy, Texas, in the Panhandle, served in the United States Navy during World War I, then worked for Wells Fargo and the post office in Mineola.
Huggins Williams was born in 1900 and died in 1974. His father, originally from Milan, Tennessee, played fiddle, and Huggins would sneak the fiddle off the shelf to practice when he was nine years old. He began to learn several tunes before his father became aware. Since he was left-handed, the boy was reaching over the lower strings to play the upper ones. His father bought him a left-handed fiddle and arranged lessons from a local teacher. Williams played with Lew Preston in the Tyler area in later years. He also tutored one of the really great jazz and swing fiddle players of all time, Johnny Gimble of Nashville—a fact related by Gimble to Bill Malone.
Cloet Hamman was born on May 5, 1899, and died in June 1983; he was the last of the Serenaders to die. His father, Will, was a famous breakdown fiddler and piano tuner from near Lindale, Texas, who won every contest he entered until he was about seventy years old. Cloet learned guitar backing him up. While working on his tractor in later years, Cloet got his fingers hung in the moving machinery and subsequently lost some fingers in the accident and was unable to play thereafter.
John Munnerlyn, of Mineola, worked for the United Gas Pipeline Company west of Mineola. He moved to Houston about 1930. Shorty Lester, on tenor banjo on later recordings, was said to be from the Garden Valley area in Smith County west of Lindale. His brother Henry, second fiddler on later recordings, was from somewhere in North Texas.
Many of the Serenaders' recorded pieces were written by Williams—"Acorn Stomp," "East Texas Drag," and "Arizona Stomp," for instance. The group got "Shannon Waltz" and "Sweetest Flower Waltz" from a northern fiddler named Brigsley who taught Huggins to play several ragtime tunes as well. Hamman composed "Adeline Waltz." "Mineola Rag" and "Combination Rag" include bits of other tunes. The Serenaders so refined their music that they set the stage for other western and Texas bands by relying on their ragtime, waltzes, and tin-pan-alley style, using syncopations, flatted notes, and a fast tempo. From the radio they picked up some of the influence of Cajun music, Chicago jazz, and the new swinging sounds of popular music.
The members of this band were not full-time musicians and did not care to travel far and wide but preferred playing house parties, social events and Chamber of Commerce functions, rather than honky-tonks. The night spots could get pretty rough, although Bogan had been a bouncer in a dance hall and could handle difficult situations. The group turned down an opportunity to travel the states when an agent named H. M. Barnes offered to represent them and book them into ballrooms around the country. Their popularity, however, did spread as far as Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma. They played some large hotels—the Adolphus and the Baker in Dallas, for example—for a fee of $8 to $15 a night. They also played at the Ashby Cafe in Tyler for a six-month job.
Although their recordings were instrumental, the group occasionally sang such songs as "Five Foot Two," "Roseta," "Somebody Stole My Gal," and other popular tunes of that era. They had no vocalist good enough to record, however. When Bob Wills was asked in an interview about his success in the music business, he said that his only early competition was the East Texas Serenaders. Wills and his Playboys took up western swing where the Serenaders left it. The Serenaders' "Shannon Waltz" is included in the Smithsonian Collection of Classic Country Music, annotated by Bill C. Malone (Washington, 1981). In 1998 Document Records released East Texas Serenaders: Complete Recorded Works In Chronological Order, 1927-1937.