Henry Lester

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A pair of front-line fiddles is about as valuable in either old-time string band or Western music as a pair of aces in poker. One of the most interesting historic string bands, the East Texas Serenaders…
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A pair of front-line fiddles is about as valuable in either old-time string band or Western music as a pair of aces in poker. One of the most interesting historic string bands, the East Texas Serenaders got along with just one fiddle, thank you, for quite awhile, bolstering the amount of flailing bows on-stage by employing a cellist. In 1937, however, the group added a second fiddler, Henry Lester, to play both in unison and counterpoint to the parts played by David Huggins Williams, who had founded the ensemble out of his Linsdale, TX, base in the late '20s. The new fiddler's brother, Sonny Lester, also joined the group in 1937, replacing tenor banjoist John Munnerlyn, who had moved to Houston. Neither of the Lesters ever made other recordings. With one foot in the early history of bluegrass and the other in Western swing, the East Texas Serenaders recorded a total of some two dozen sides beginning in the late '20s for the Brunswick, Decca, and Columbia labels, and these sessions with the Lester brothers turned out to be the last. While most string bands of the time stuffed their repertoire faces on square dance tunes, the East Texas Serenaders had always avoided this part of the smorgasbord and the material organized for these final recordings was no exception, including up-tempo numbers such as "Arizona Stomp" that were precursors of the "hot" Western swing instrumental, as well as a generous serving of waltzes, one of the group's musical comfort foods for sure. As had always been the case, the group strayed well outside the easy square dance keys of G, D, and A, into the technically more difficult keys such as F. Some Western swing philosophers return a jaded verdict on some of this fiddling, claiming that later Western swing giants of the fiddle, such as Bob Wills, Jesse Ashlock, and the exhausted Sleepy Johnson, were much more influenced by groups such as the Smith's Garage Band, the black Dallas String Band, and the innovative bands of fiddler Prince Albert Hunt. Other groups that performed many rags and waltzes included the Texas Nighthawks featuring the fine steel guitarist Roy Rodgers and the Humphries Brothers. The East Texas Serenaders bandleader Williams' playing style had always been marked by a duality of so-called "legitimate" and "folk" influences. He was a performer who could and did present both ends of the spectrum, ranging from funky blues-influenced material to waltzes that displayed formal violin techniques he learned from local music teacher Ellen Cannon. While his musical background and upbringing are obscure, Lester's fiddling seems up to the high standards set by his company. Playing in counterpoint to the Huggins part, the second fiddler makes the action-packed "Serenaders' Waltz" seem the most direct link to the Western swing bloodline as any of the group's material, meaning even when waltzing the East Texas Serenaders went out with a flourish.