Make 'em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers' Story

Oldest Performing Band in America, Who Have Been Making Music Together for Seven Decades, Still Going Strong with Their Unique Sound

Film by John Whitehead Premieres Nationally on "Independent Lens,” ITVS's Acclaimed Series on PBS, January 13, 2004 at 10 P.M. (check local listings)

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"The Ramblers sound as spry and spicy as they did back in ‘36.”
—Rolling Stone 

"These agin‚ ragin‚ Cajuns are party animals who traffic in jubilation.”
—Dallas Morning News 

"One word: hot.”
—The New Yorker 

(San Francisco, CA) —Since 1933, The Hackberry Ramblers have played a toe-tapping blend of Cajun music, western swing and classic country, with a dash of blues, Gulf Coast "swamp pop,” R&B and rockabilly. Amazingly, the Ramblers's co-founders—fiddler Luderin Darbone, age 90, and accordionist, Edwin Duhon, age 93—are still leading the band today, bringing its infectious sound to a new audience of fans young enough to be their great-grandchildren. John Whitehead's MAKE ‘EM DANCE: The Hackberry Ramblers' Story airs nationally on the PBS series Independent Lens, hosted by Don Cheadle, on Tuesday, January 14, 2004 at 10 P.M. (check local listings). 

Equal parts biography, social history and road movie, MAKE ‘EM DANCE tells the story of the band's incredible 70 year odyssey. These real-life "Soggy Bottom Boys” recall in rich detail the wild and woolly early days of live radio, touring in a 1928 Model-A over unpaved roads, and playing in honky-tonks where "they checked if you were carrying a knife, and if you didn't have one, they gave you one.” 

Intercut with these rich anecdotes are scenes of the band playing such diverse venues as the MTV studio in New York, a Louisiana crawfish boil, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and their debut appearance on the Grand ‘Ole Opry, ("It took us 70 years but we finally made it!”). It's a wild ride filled with spicy memories, colorful characters, and interviews and performances by Marcia Ball, Rodney Crowell, Michael Doucet, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Richard Thompson. 

At the heart of MAKE ‘EM DANCE is a portrait of the enduring friendship between the band's co-founders, Darbone and Duhon. In some ways the two make an unlikely pair: Luderin Darbone is a clean-living, devout Catholic who never swears; Edwin Duhon is outspoken, or as one friend describes him, "downright ornery.” Despite their differences, the two have built a lasting partnership that has survived both their marriages and countless career left-turns. 

The sons of itinerant oil field workers, the pair met as teenagers in 1933 in Hackberry, Louisiana. Luderin Darbone grew up in and around East Texas and played fiddle tunes in the "hillbilly” style. Edwin Duhon grew up in Broussardville in the heart of French-speaking Louisiana, playing Cajun songs on the accordion and guitar. 

At first, the two disparate musical styles didn't mix very well. As Edwin recalls, "I was playing French music and Darbone played hillbilly. It sounded so bad, goddamned bad, my Daddy chased us out of there.” They must have improved quickly, because before long, performing as a trio with Luderin on fiddle, Edwin on rhythm guitar, and Lennis Sonnier on lead guitars and vocals, they landed a weekly show on the area's first radio station, playing everything they knew—Cajun waltzes and two-steps, Texas fiddle breakdowns, blues, rags and popular hits of the day. This new hybrid—Cajun string band music—appealed to Anglo-American, Cajun and African-American listeners. They soon had a following and on weekends were playing to packed dancehalls. 

By 1935 their growing renown led to a long-term recording contract with RCA Bluebird, a historic label that also featured such prominent blues artists as Tampa Red and Memphis Minnie. Before they recorded their first record, Edwin Duhon left the band to work in the oil fields. Later he would rejoin the band, but meanwhile Luderin forged ahead—indeed, Luderin estimates that he's played with 72 different sidemen under the Ramblers moniker. As the players changed, so did the band's sound. As Cajun culture authority Barry Ancelet explains, "Part of the band's longevity can be attributed to their ability to continually reinvent themselves.” 

By the 1940s they had evolved into a Western Swing big band. As the ‘50s dawned, both Edwin and Luderin had steady day jobs and families to raise. They limited themselves to weekend gigs at the Silver Star, a honky-tonk in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In the late 1950s, 22-year old Glenn Croker joined the band as lead singer and guitarist. A generation younger than Darbone and Duhon, Glen brought new energy and material into the mix, adding pedal steel and bluesy country to the Ramblers style. 

When Cajun music waned during the 1960s, The Hackberry Ramblers contemplated retirement but Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records encouraged the band to stay active, recording them anew in 1963 and reissuing some of their Bluebird classics. The pace quickened with the Cajun-music renaissance that began in the early 1980s and continues today. In 1987, drummer, producer and road manager Ben Sandmel joined the band. Recording the band anew, he has introduced the band to a worldwide audience through CDs, TV appearances and festival gigs. As Barry Acelet puts it, "Ben has been herding these old guys around like cats since the early 80s, and in the process has introduced the world to this amazing connection to the past.” 

It's every country act's ambition to appear at least once on the Grand ‘Ole Opry. The Ramblers missed their chance back in the ‘50s when they suspended touring. However, they got a second chance in 1999, and MAKE ‘EM DANCE follows them backstage as they make their Opry debut. That the band waited nearly 70 years for the opportunity only makes it sweeter. 

As feisty and energetic as its subjects, MAKE ‘EM DANCE is a heartfelt tribute to a band that has had the rare ability—and privilege—of making three generations of Americans swing and smile. 

Director: John Whitehead
Producers: John Whitehead, Ben Sandmel
Executive Producer: Gabrielle Vetter
Director of Photography: Matt Ehling 

About the Filmmaker Producer/Director John Whitehead's work has appeared on PBS, The Discovery Channel, The FX Network and The Learning Channel. He began his career as a cameraman and editor, first in TV news and then in documentaries. As a cinematographer, his credits include programs for Frontline and P.O.V. 

From 1989 until 1996, Whitehead was senior producer for arts and culture at Twin Cities Public Television (TPT) in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he wrote, produced and directed a wide variety of programs for PBS. His TPT credits include the documentaries Not Quite American: Bill Holm of Minnesota; Mississippi, MN; A State Fair Scrapbook; Showcase: Paul Cebar and The Milwaukeeans and the television adaptation of Howard Mohr's best-selling How To Talk Minnesotan. Whitehead produced the pilot season of the series Portrait and the second season of TPT ‘s award-winning Tape's Rolling! 

In 1996, Whitehead left TPT to pursue independent projects. His independent work includes Clay, Wood, Fire, Spirit, a video portrait of potter and environmentalist Richard Bresnahan, broadcast nationally on PBS (winner, two 1997 Midwest Emmys); and Wannabe: Life and Death in a Small Town Gang, which aired nationally on PBS on Independent Lens. Most recently, he wrote, produced and directed Death of The Dream: Farmhouses in the Heartland, a documentary about abandoned farmhouses and the lives of those who lived in them. He is currently in production on UnCommon Ground: Minnesota's Once and Future Landscapes, a four-part documentary series on the environmental history of the state. 

Whitehead's work has won numerous awards including the Chicago Film Festival Award, a Corporation for Public Broadcasting Award and six regional Emmys. He spent 1993-94 as a William Benton Fellow, a year-long study program for media professionals at the University of Chicago. 

About Independent Lens 
Independent Lens 
is a weekly series airing Tuesday nights at 10 P.M. on PBS. The acclaimed anthology series features documentaries and a limited number of fiction films united by the creative freedom, artistic achievement and unflinching visions of their independent producers. Independent Lens features unforgettable stories about a unique individual, community or moment in history, which prompted Nancy Franklin in THE NEW YORKER to write "Watching Independent Lens ... is like going into an independent bookstore-you don't always find what you were looking for but you often find something you didn't even know you wanted.” Presented by ITVS, the series is supported by interactive companion websites, and national publicity and community outreach campaigns. Further information about the series is available at lens. Independent Lens is jointly curated by ITVS and PBS, and is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), a private corporation funded by the American people, with additional funding provided by PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts. 

About ITVS 
Independent Television Service (ITVS) funds and presents award-winning documentaries and dramas on public television, innovative new media projects on the Web and the weekly series Independent Lens on Tuesday nights at 10 P.M. on PBS. ITVS is a miracle of public policy created by media activists, citizens and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television. ITVS was established by a historic mandate of Congress to champion independently produced programs that take creative risks, spark public dialogue and serve underserved audiences. Since its inception in 1991, ITVS programs have revitalized the relationship between the public and public television, bringing TV audiences face-to-face with the lives and concerns of their fellow Americans. More information about ITVS can be obtained by visiting ITVS is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American People. 


Posted on November 17, 2003