Friday, June 15, 2012

My Father's Childhood Autograph Book on the History Channel?*

Last night I was grocery shopping near my home in New Iberia when a woman I know came up to me and said, "Yesterday I was watching the History Channel and saw the episode of 'Cajun Pawn Stars' that mentioned your father."

I shook my head and replied that I didn't know what she meant. Surprised I was unaware of the program, she explained, "On the show a man went into the pawn shop with a battered little booklet, and inside the front cover was written 'My autograph book, Rodney Bernard, Opelousas, Louisiana, 1950.'"

Dad around the time he met
Hank Williams Sr. (ca. 1950).
(Author's collection)

"Well, yes," I replied, "that's my father's name and he did have an autograph book when he was a kid."

"And in the book," she continued, "were the autographs of Hank Williams Sr. and all the members of his band, the Drifting Cowboys, and also the autographs of Hank Snow, Ray Price, Grandpa Jones, and other Grand Ole Opry stars."

"That's right, too" I responded, amazed at the unfolding story. "My dad did have such an autograph book."

In fact, I explained, I kept it for him for many years. But about four years ago he asked me to sell it on eBay, so I put it up for auction for approximately $5,000.  No one bid on it, so he asked me to return the book to him. Dad ended up trading it to a friend for something or another. This friend is a Hank Williams' fanatic and, last Dad saw the autograph booklet, it was framed and hanging on this friend's wall in Lafayette, its pages opened to Hank Williams' autograph.

Hank Williams Sr.'s signature in my father's autograph book.

The woman told me that the pawn shop owner estimated the value of the book — mind you, I'm getting all this second-hand, and have not seen the show for myself — at $15,000 if the book were kept together, $18,000 if it were cut up into individual autographs. "The man with the book offered to sell it then and there," she told me, "but the pawn shop owner thought the price too high. So the man left with the book."  [I've now seen the episode, and — if I remember correctly — the prices were $15,000 if cut up and sold as individual autographs and $10,000 if kept together.]

Interestingly, this man was not the person to whom my father gave the book.

During the episode the show properly identified my dad as a south Louisiana singer and mentioned the need to authenticate the autographs.

If "Cajun Pawn Stars" had contacted Dad, however, he could have explained that he met Hank Williams Sr. backstage at the Yambilee Festival in Opelousas around 1950, and got the autograph of Williams and his band at that time.  As Dad told me in 1991, and as I quoted him in my book Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues (University Press of Mississippi, 1996):

I met Hank Williams Sr. when I was about eight years old, I guess . . . no, I was probably about nine, 'cause he died, what, 1950?  [Williams died in 1953.]  It was probably about a year before he died.  He played at the Opelousas High School gym. . . . Mr. Dezauche [a local businessman] took me backstage and Hank Williams was standing there in his underwear.  I'll never forget that.  And I walked up to him and that was my god at the time — or a god, it was like Elvis later on.  Man, to see Hank Williams Sr. in person standing there!  And he shook hands with me and I had an autograph book and he signed my autograph book and I found out later that he never signed many autographs, that he didn't really like to sign autographs. . . (p. 146).

Dad also could have explained that as a member of the Cajun swing band the Blue Room Gang, he visited the Grand Ole Opry around the same time and collected many of the other autographs in the book.

Dad (at front center) with members
of the Blue Room Gang, ca. 1950.
(Author's collection)

Regardless, how Dad's childhood autograph book ended up on national TV remains unknown at present.

There is, however, a companion autograph booklet that belonged to Dad as a child, and that one I still have in my possession.

Addendum of 15 June 2012:

A number of websites have picked up on the autograph book's appearance on 'Cajun Pawn Stars,' including The Huffington Post, where you can see a video clip from the episode.

In addition, here is a list of all the notable signatures in Dad's autograph book:
Hank Williams Sr. & His Drifting Cowboys, including band members Floyd Cramer, Don Helms, Jimmy Day, Tommy Bishop and Jerry Rivers
Chet Atkins
Roy Acuff
Eddie Hill
Hank Snow
June Carter (Cash)
George Morgan (signed twice; Lorrie Morgan's father)
Goldie Hill and Tommy Hill
Red Sovine
Ray Price
The Duke of Paducah (comedian)
T. Texas Tyler
Little Jimmy Dickens (signed twice, once in pencil, once in pen)
Ott Devine (WSM Radio Grand Ole Opry MC)
Oswald (comedian)
Faron Young
Marty Robbins
Cowboy Copas
Webb Pierce
Mother Maybelle Carter
Carl Smith
Grandpa Jones
Martha Carson
Moon Mulligan
Autry Inman
Hank Williams III (2001 autograph in same ca. 1950 autograph book)
Finally, I learned late today that the autograph book is still in the possession of my father's friend and that it was never really up for sale.  How it ended up on the "Cajun Pawn Stars" show, however, is a complicated matter and one I don't want to discuss here.  Suffice it to say, the book is safe and in no danger of being dissected and sold off piecemeal . . . at least, not for now.

*Yes, I know, technically the network's name is not "the History Channel," but simply "History."  No one, however, calls it that.  Who says, "I was watching History last night"?