Bowing Up: Archie Albert Hunt, pictured here not long after he returned from World War I, got his royal nickname from an audience member who called him the “prince” of fiddlers.

Music

The Wild Life (and Death) of Terrell’s Greatest Fiddler, Prince Albert Hunt

Prince Albert might not have been the best fiddler in the region, but what he lacked in talent he more than made up for with energy.

Having grown up in Terrell, Texas, just a bit east of Dallas, I’ve been intrigued for years by a story about a fiddler. Now, as an old retired guy living in a pandemic-driven lockdown, I finally found the time to put it all together and write about what has to be the most colorful character ever to come out of my hometown.

Terrell in the 1920s was a typical small East Texas town, except that it and surrounding Kaufman County were part of one of the world’s largest cotton-producing regions. Itinerant workers brought with them a kaleidoscope of musical heritages. Black workers from the Deep South brought mournful country blues and field hollers. Those from the Louisiana bayou brought their squeezebox-driven Cajun tunes. And Mexican workers from the border brought their polka-influenced música norteña to the mix.

But old-time fiddle music was the genre supreme, having been brought to America by immigrants from England, Scotland, and particularly Ireland. Barn dances were a big draw, particularly on Saturday nights, when sweaty dancers worked out a week’s worth of frustrations to polkas, reels, and waltzes. Bootleg liquor and choc beer flowed freely.

Archie Albert Hunt was thought to have been born on the outskirts of Terrell on December 20, 1896, though in the 1974 documentary about his life by Dallas filmmaker Ken Harrison, Memories of Prince Albert Hunt, his son, Prince Albert Hunt Jr. (aka P.A.), remembered the birth year as 1900. Archie’s father, Archibald Hunt, was Irish, and his mother, Manasa Emma Lee Skates, was full-blooded Cherokee. Music ran through the family, and relatives described both Archibald and Manasa as “White blues singers.” Archie was the youngest of four siblings.

In the documentary, Archie’s family remembered him as smart and a good student, but he dropped out of school in the sixth grade. According to local legend, at a very young age Archie would hone his musical skills by stealing his father’s fiddle and practicing through the night in a cemetery. P.A. said his father had a natural musical talent, able to play anything by ear. 

By the time he’d reached his teens, Archie was playing rodeos and barn dances. He often went door to door, offering his services for weekend house parties. These house dances were commonplace in the rural South during the 1920s and ’30s, with many starting at sunset and lasting through the night.

On one such night, an audience member was overheard saying that Archie was the “prince” of fiddlers. The name stuck, and from then on he was known as Prince Albert Hunt.

After a stint in the military during World War I, Prince Albert joined a traveling medicine show before settling down in the Terrell area in the late 1920s. He married a young Indian woman named Laura, but according to his son, she disappeared one day and no one heard from her again. It’s not clear if he ever got divorced, but he went ahead and got married a second time to an old sweetheart named Mary Cook. He never held a real job. In the documentary, Mary pointed out that he wasn’t around very much, although he evidently came home with enough regularity to father four children.

It was during this time that he formed Prince Albert Hunt’s Texas Ramblers, which included him on fiddle, guitar, and vocals; his new best friend Harmon Clem on second fiddle; and an additional guitarist whose name has been lost to history. They played traditional fiddle music mixed with elements of jazz, blues, and a bit of Cajun, referred to at the time as “fast fiddle” or “hot fiddle,” a precursor to the hybrid form later known as Western swing.

Prince Albert might not have been the best fiddler in the region, but what he lacked in talent he more than made up for with energy. He would run, slide on his knees, and play his instrument behind his back. An oft-quoted account from an unknown source described Prince Albert as “the fiddler who growls through dirty teeth, rolls on the floor, punches his fist through his stovepipe hat, passes out, gets up, falls again, and after each verse kicks up a dance-call with a single down-stroke so fat and sweet you’re ready to hire him to clean up your yard.”

He often performed in blackface, a practice condemned as offensive from its beginning, nearly a century before. But it was common at the time among country and Western swing performers, including the likes of Emmett Miller and Bob Wills.  

Eventually Prince Albert made his way to Dallas, and many an evening he could be found entertaining at one of his favorite haunts in Deep Ellum. Originally a freedman’s colony, the Black enclave drew musicians from all over Texas. Some merely sang in the streets, including gospel singer Blind Willie Johnson and blues singer Blind Lemon Jefferson, both from Central Texas, and Dallasite Whistlin’ Alex Moore. Others entertained in the dozen or so nightclubs and theaters sprinkled around the neighborhood. Even legends such as Robert Johnson and Bessie Smith were rumored to have played Deep Ellum dives. Prince Albert also performed regularly on the radio, most likely on WBAP in Fort Worth. The station broadcast live country music acts beginning in January 1923, showcasing such early musicians as The Light Crust Doughboys.

On June 26, 1929, Prince Albert, Harmon Clem, and, as before, an uncredited guitarist entered a Dallas studio to record for the last time. Six sides were cut, one of which was never issued and is presumed lost.

“Wake Up Jacob” is an upbeat dance tune, arguably Prince Albert’s most skilled performance, and just maybe an influence on Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo.” Harry Smith included it in his iconic 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music.

During the winter of 1931, Prince Albert was listed as residing at 1723 St. Louis St., just two blocks from the heart of Deep Ellum, near where the Bridge Homeless Recovery Center stands today. He and Harmon eked out a living playing the clubs around central Dallas, Oak Cliff, and Deep Ellum. Prince Albert had a regular weekend gig playing in the orchestra at the Confederate Hall, a dance hall near Harwood and Bryan streets.

The fiddler had a reputation as a boozer and womanizer, which he tried his best to live up to. He took up with a woman named Hattie Douglas, who was married but separated from her husband. Her spouse was a part-time fireman named William M. “Bob” Douglas. On a Saturday in 1931, Hattie accompanied Prince Albert to the Confederate Hall, despite strict warnings from her husband to leave the fiddler alone, at least until they were officially divorced.

In the early evening, Bob showed up and saw his wife dancing with Prince Albert. According to Hattie, he approached them and told her that she had better dance with him and enjoy herself, because this would be her last dance. Taking this as a direct threat, Hattie called the police, who arrived and searched Bob for a weapon but found none. He was ordered to leave the premises, which he did.

Prince Albert played his usual gig with the orchestra until about 11 o’clock. In the meantime, Bob had retrieved a .25-caliber pistol and returned to the dance hall, waiting for Hattie and Prince Albert to make their exit. When the couple finally emerged onto North Harwood, Bob jammed the pistol into Prince Albert’s left side and shot him. Hattie let out a high-pitched scream. Prince Albert clutched his chest and crumpled to the ground. Not a lot of blood was present, due to the small entrance wound, but the low-velocity slug had bounced around inside his chest, damaging his lungs and heart.

Confederate Hall employees tackled Bob and held him on the ground until he could be placed under arrest and led to a squad car. All the while he explained to anyone who would listen, “He broke up my home and took my wife clear away.”

Prince Albert was pronounced dead on arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital shortly before midnight. The Sunday edition of the Dallas Morning News carried a headline that read, “Radio Player Killed as He Leaves Dance.” He was 34 years old. 

Some weeks later, a Dallas grand jury exonerated Bob Douglas for lack of evidence, despite the fact that his guilt was without question. Even he admitted it. But the jury must have figured Prince Albert knew he was consorting with a married woman, so he got what was coming to him. His body was returned to Terrell, where today he lies in perpetual repose in Oakland Memorial Park.


The recordings mentioned here can be heard on YouTube. The 1974 documentary, Memories of Prince Albert Hunt, can be viewed on folkstreams.net.

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