Preceded only by an LP released on the County label in the late 1970s, Document's 1998 edition of the complete recordings of the East Texas Serenaders still stands as the definitive resource for this particular brand of high-quality, old-style string band music. The East Texas Serenaders played for dancing, and judging by 24 Columbia, Brunswick, and Decca recordings made in Dallas during the years 1927-1937, what people in that region preferred were even-keeled waltzes and perky rags spiked with an occasional hot stomp. The waltzes are particularly soothing, attractive, reassuring, and beautifully old-fashioned. One can imagine the Serenaders honing their craft at private gatherings in the vicinity of Tyler, Mineola, and Lindale TX, performing at night after knocking off from their day jobs. As fine as the records sound, none of the primary players ever opted for full-time musical work. Fiddler Daniel Huggins Williams served variously as a printer, a florist, and an undertaker. Tenor banjoist John Munnerlyn owned a filling station, guitarist Cloet Hamman operated a truck farm, and three-string cellist Henry Bogan was a postal worker. On the 1937 Decca recordings (tracks 17-24), Munnerlyn was replaced by Shorty Lester and the group became a quintet with the addition of a second fiddler, Henry Lester. Along with their sensibly chosen repertoire what made the Serenaders so unique was the pulsation of Bogan's cello; folks in their part of Texas pronounced it "sell-oh" or "sell-ah".
Ethnomusicologically speaking, Bogan's steady, rhythmic bowing seems oddly reminiscent of the bowed bassline employed in Polish and Ukrainian string bands (Poles referred to the cello in their groups as a "basy"). This is not to say that the East Texas Serenaders were listening to records from half-way around the world, although it is a fact that many Eastern European immigrant string bands were recording in Chicago during the late 1920s and early ‘30s. Influences did trickle down to East Texas from the Great Lakes region, Memphis, St. Louis, and Kansas City, mostly in the form of syncopated rags and the blues, as slightly detectable in "Babe" and the "Louisa Waltz." To some extent, this sort of cross-pollination places them in league with Bill Boyd's Cowboy Ramblers, Milt Brown's Musical Brownies, and Bob Wills' Texas Playboys. A portion of Charles L. Johnson's "Dill Pickles Rag" (1906) is built into the "Three-In-One Two-Step," and "Deacon Jones" contains a quote from Jack Yellen's "Alabama Jubilee" (1915). The waltz, of course, dates back to the late 18th century, and in the hands of this charming little string band, one can almost sense a remote far-western relative of its rustic cousin the Austrian landler. What the East Texas Serenaders left for us to absorb and marvel at is a species of refined, down-home string band music, a blend of old traditions and newer tropes which were in the air at that time and beginning to spread with unprecedented rapidity through the media of radio and phonograph records. This was a very special unit. Thank goodness Document has reissued their complete works on one compact disc.