Cultural Origins.... Early 20th Century - Creoles in Louisiana, United States
Stylistic Origins.... Creole Music, Cajun Music, African American Blues, Jazz
Sub-Genres & International Influence..... Cajun, Creole, Swamp Pop, Funk, Classic Funk Rock, Delta Blues, Deep Delta Blues, Soul, Deep Southern Soul, Deep Northern Soul, Southern Rock, Bubblegum Pop, Deep Motown, Benga, Maghreb, Mande Pop, Ethiopian Pop, Zim, Sinhala, World, Sékouba Bambino, Pagode, Deep Indian Pop, Brazilian Indie, Forro, Balkan Brass, Villancicos, South African Jazz
Zydeco is a musical genre evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends blues, rhythm & blues, and music indigenous to the Louisiana Creoles and the Native people of Louisiana.
Zydeco is a popular accordion-based musical genre - the blues and dance music of Louisiana Creoles, the French-speaking blacks of the prairies of south-central and southwest Louisiana. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Cajun in origin. Rather, zydeco is the music of south Louisiana’s “Creoles of Color,” who borrowed many of zydeco’s defining elements from Cajun music. (In turn, Cajun music borrowed many of its traits from Creole music.)
The word zydeco (also rendered zarico, zodico, zordico, and zologo) derives from the French expression les haricots, meaning "beans." Folk etymology holds that the genre obtained this name from the common Creole expression Les haricots sont pas salés ("The snap beans aren’t salty"). This phrase has appeared in many Creole songs, and serves as the title of a popular zydeco recording (also called "Zydeco est pas salé"). Les haricots sont pas salés can be considered a lyrical metaphor for difficult times: in the past, Creoles seasoned their food, such as beans (les haricots), with salted meat — when times were bad, salted meat became too expensive, which explained why "the beans aren’t salty."
The roots of Zydeco are found in jure, a form of hand-clapping and foot-stomping used by black field hands to pray and give thanks. By the turn of the century, when instruments became available, many of the jure songs had adopted secular themes. This music was called LaLa or la musique creole and was popular at rural house parties in southwest prairie towns like Eunice and Mamou (perhaps best represented by the recordings of Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin.)
Zydeco is actually the most modern form of Creole music from Acadiana, and it first appeared after World War II, when Creoles became influenced by the rhythm, blues and jazz that was heard on radio and juke boxes. The mixture of rural LaLa and urban black music gave birth to a genre that the world enjoys today as Zydeco, when pioneers of the genre like Clifton Chenier and BooZoo Chavis combined more traditional sounds with new R&B elements. In 1954, BooZoo Chavis had the first recording of modern zydeco with Paper in My Shoe on Folk-Star Records. The song was a regional hit, but a dispute over royalties prompted Chavis to leave the music industry. He did not return until the mid-1980’s when he produced string of hits that helped spark a Zydeco revival that continues today.
Zydeco has evolved considerably over the decades, and now draws on pop music sources like soul, rap, and even reggae. It also is increasingly performed in English, instead of in its original Creole dialect. And, oddly, it generally is regarded as "party music" — even though early zydeco drew heavily on "low-down" blues elements, as demonstrated by Clifton Chenier’s repertoire. Zydeco frequently appears in movies, TV, and commercials - even more so than Cajun music, which, unlike zydeco, has retained much of its traditional flavor. It has attracted a loyal worldwide outside Louisiana, as demonstrated by the large numbers of zydeco dancers on the east and west coasts. Despite its commercialization (and Anglization), zydeco remains a relevant cultural expression for the Creoles of Acadiana.
Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a "rub-board," "scrub-board," "wash-board," or frottoir, zydeco music was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.
As a result, the music integrated waltz, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and other dance music forms of the era. Today, zydeco integrates genres such as R&B, soul, brass band, reggae, hip hop, ska, rock, Afro-Caribbean and other styles, in addition to the traditional forms.
Early Creole musicians playing an accordion and a washboard in front of a store, near Opelousas, Louisiana (1938). Zydeco music originated from Creole music — today's rubboard or frottoir ("rubbing the washboard") is a stylized version of the early washboard.
The original French settlers came to Louisiana in the late 1600s, sent by the Regent of France, Philippe d'Orléans, Duke of Orléans, to help settle the Louisiana Territory. Arriving in New Orleans on seven ships, the settlers quickly moved into the bayous and swamps. There the French culture permeated those of the Irish, Spanish, Native Indian and German peoples already populating the area.
For 150 years, Louisiana Creoles enjoyed an insular lifestyle, prospering, educating themselves without the government and building their invisible communities under the Code Noir. The French created the Code Noir in 1724 to establish rules for treatment of slaves, as well as restrictions and rights for gens de couleur libres, a growing class of free people of color. They had the right to own land, something few blacks in the American South had at that time.
The disruption of the Louisiana Creole community began when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and Americans started settling in the state. The new settlers typically recognized only the system of race that prevailed where they came from. When the Civil War ended and the black slaves were freed, Louisiana Creoles often assumed positions of leadership. However, segregationist Democrats in Louisiana classified Creoles with freedmen and by the end of the 19th century had disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites under rules designed to suppress black voting (though federal law said all black men had the vote from 1870). Creoles continued to press for education and advancement while negotiating the new society.
Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was also often just called French music or le musique Creole known as "la-la." Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of Creole music in 1928. This Creole music served as a foundation for what later became known as zydeco. Sometimes the music was performed in the Catholic Church community centers, as Creoles were mostly Catholic. Later it moved to rural dance halls and nightclubs.
During World War II with the Great Migration, many French-speaking and Louisiana Creole speaking Créoles from the area around Marksville and Opelousas, Louisiana left a poor and prejudiced state for better economic opportunities in Texas. Even more southern blacks migrated to California, where buildup of defense industries provided good jobs without the restrictions of the segregated South. In California blacks from Louisiana could vote and began to participate in political life. Today, there are many Cajun and zydeco festivals throughout the US.
Zydeco music pioneer Clifton Chenier, "The King of Zydeco," made zydeco popular on regional radio stations with his bluesy style and keyboard accordion. In the mid-1950s, Chenier's popularity brought zydeco to the fringes of the American mainstream. He signed with Specialty Records, the same label that first recorded Little Richard and Sam Cooke for wide audiences. Chenier, considered the architect of contemporary zydeco, became the music's first major star, with early hits like "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" ("The Snap Beans Ain't Salty" — a reference to the singer being too poor to afford salt pork to season the beans).
In the mid-1980s, Rockin' Sidney brought international attention to zydeco music with his hit tune "My Toot Toot." Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Sidney and Queen Ida all garnered Grammy awards during this pivotal period, opening the door to emerging artists who would continue the traditions. Ida is the only living Grammy award winner in the genre. Rockin' Dopsie recorded with Paul Simon and also signed a major label deal during this time.
John Delafose was extremely popular regionally. The music made major advances when emerging bands burst exuberantly onto the national scene, fusing new sounds and styles with the music. Boozoo Chavis, Roy Carrier, Zydeco Force, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, the Sam Brothers, Terrance Simien, Chubby Carrier, and many others were breathing new life into the music. Zydeco superstar Buckwheat Zydeco was already well into his career, and also signed his deal with Island Records in the mid-1980s. Combined with the national popularity of Creole and Cajun food, and the feature film The Big Easy, set in New Orleans, zydeco music had a revival. New artists were cultivated and the music took a more innovative direction and enjoyed increased mainstream popularity.
Young zydeco musicians such as C. J. Chenier (son of Clifton Chenier), Chubby Carrier, Geno Delafose, Terrance Simien, Nathan Williams and others began touring internationally during the 1980s. Beau Jocque was a monumental songwriter and innovator who infused zydeco with powerful beats and bass lines in the 90s, adding striking production and elements of funk, hip-hop and rap. Young performers like Chris Ardoin, Keith Frank, and Zydeco Force added further by tying the sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called "double clutching."
Hundreds of zydeco bands continue the music traditions across the U.S. and in Europe, Japan, the UK and Australia. A precocious 9-year-old zydeco accordionist, Guyland Leday, was featured in an HBO documentary about music and young people.
In 2007, zydeco achieved a separate category in the Grammy awards, the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album category.
More recent zydeco artists include Lil’ Nate, Leon Chavis, Mo' Mojo and Kenne’ Wayne. Wayne has fused zydeco with up tempo southern soul and smooth ballads to create a sound which he calls "zydesoul," while torchbearer Andre Thierry has kept the tradition alive on the West Coast.
While zydeco is a genre that has become synonymous with the cultural and musical identity of Louisiana and an important part of the musical landscape of the United States, this southern black music tradition has also now achieved much wider appreciation. Because of the migration of the French-speaking blacks and multiracial Creoles, the mixing of Cajun and Creole musicians, and the warm embrace of people from outside these cultures, there are multiple hotbeds of zydeco: Louisiana, Texas, Oregon, California, and Europe as far north as Scandinavia. There are zydeco festivals throughout America and Europe. Zydeco music is performed at festivals, schools, performing art centers and large corporate events. It is performed for presidents and celebrities, heard on cinema soundtracks and used to advertise everything from vehicles to toothpaste to antacids, pharmaceuticals and candy bars. Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, Time Magazine among many others have featured it. It is played on radio stations around the world and on Internet radio.
Cajun music, an emblematic music of Louisiana, is rooted in the ballads of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada. Cajun music is often mentioned in tandem with the Creole-based, Creole-influenced zydeco form, both of Acadiana origin. These French Louisiana sounds have influenced American popular music for many decades, especially country music, and have influenced pop culture through mass media, such as television commercials
Cajun music is relatively harsh with an infectious beat and a lot of forward drive, placing the accordion at the center. Besides the voices, only two melodic instruments are heard, the accordion and fiddle, but usually in the background can also be heard the high, clear tones of a metal triangle. The harmonies of Cajun music are simple, basically I, IV, and V, tonic, sub-dominant, and dominant with many tunes just using I and V. The melodic range is just one octave, rising a fifth above the tonic and descending a fourth below. Because the Cajun accordion is a diatonic instrument (do-re-mi or natural major scale) it can only play tunes in a few keys. For example, a "C" accordion is tuned such that the entire C scale is available on the ten buttons (over two octaves) and it can play a tune in the key of C with all the notes of the C scale available (C-D-E-F-G-A-B). A "C" accordion can also play a tune in the key of G, however one note of the G scale will be missing which is F#. So tunes played in the key of G will not have an F# note. A "C" accordion can also play a few Cajun songs in the key of F however the Bb note will be missing. Also it can play in the key of D with a bluesy sound since the F natural note becomes a flat third or minor third in the key of D. However a skilled accordion player can play in these other keys and still make good music whereby the notes missing (because of the limitations of the diatonic tuning) are not needed by the melody. Since an instrument must match the singer's range, much Cajun singing is sung in the singer's upper range. The accordionist gives the vocal melody greater energy by repeating most notes.
The first form of traditional cajun music began before the 20th century in south Louisiana. When the Acadians came from New Brunswick & Nova Scotia to Louisiana in 1764, they brought with them many beautiful ballads that told stories of bygone years. Many of these songs can be traced back to France and many songs from France drifted to the bayou and the prairie region via Nova Scotia and New Orleans. These ballads are not widely performed today, but were the basis of what is now accepted as cajun music.
In the late 19th century, affordable accordions were introduced into Louisiana and were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. Cajun and Creole musical styles at this time grew in parallel: mostly two-steps and waltzes meant for dancing, played by accordion and fiddle.
Some of the first accordions imported in America were "Lester", "Pine Tree" and "Bruno" brands, but they were bulky, cheaply made and hard to play. It was not until the beginning of the 20th century that Buegeleisen & Jacobson of New York City brought in from Rudolph Kalbes of Berlin, Germany the "MONARCH", then the "STERLING", in the key of C and D. These were assembled in Klingenthal, Saxony, Germany by several different families. They were "les 'tit noirs", meaning "the little black ones". They were a bit smaller than some of the older brands and were all black with pewter trim. They were the best ever at that time. Later the Sterling family bought the factory in about the 1920s, then the Eagle family operated the factory, but both were virtually the same instrument as the Monarch, except for the name. During World War II, the Nazi government focused on building its war machine and closed down the accordion factories. Eventually, the factories were bombed by the allies effectively ending the production of these accordions. Today, they are collectibles.
The first recorded Cajun song, "Allons à Lafayette" ("Let's Go To Lafayette") was recorded in 1928 by Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux. Standard versions of songs started to emerge due to the increase in the availability of phonographs. Some of the earliest recordings of Cajun music that exist were done in Louisiana during the late 1920s by noted historian and American folklorist Alan Lomax.
Notable musicians during the time period include Falcon, Breaux, Amédé Ardoin, Breaux Brothers, Segura Brothers, Leo Soileau accompanied by accordionist Mayuse (Maius) Lafleur or Moise Robin, and Dennis McGee accompanied by fiddler Sady Courville or Ernest Frugé.
By the mid-to-late 1930s, a large influx of English speaking people came for the oil fields in Southwest Louisiana. Also, a large migration of French speaking Cajuns expanded to Texas. It was common for performers to sing in both French and English and borrow heavily from the popular country music and Texas swing music on the radio.
Harry Choates recorded the first national Cajun hit song, Jolie Blonde, in 1946. Other groups from the 1930s and 1940s that were able to garner national attention include Leo Soileau and His Four Aces, the Hackberry Ramblers, Happy Fats and the Rhythm Boys, the Alley Boys of Abbeville, the Dixie Ramblers, and J. B. Fuselier and His Merrymakers. Choates' Jolie Blonde, and Hank Williams' Jambalaya (On the Bayou), which both used the melody of the Cajun song Grand Texas, spawned regional and national interest in the music, opening the door to Nashville country music careers for Cajun musicians Jimmy C. Newman, Rufus Thibodeaux, Doug Kershaw, Jo-El Sonnier, and others.
This era is named for the cultural "Cajun Renaissance" movement of the late 1960s to the present, a period in Louisiana of burgeoning pride in the local Cajun and Creole culture and interest in preserving the French language and uniquely Louisiana traditions.
Important musicians in the years after World War II brought back the accordion as the lead instrument, following the string band era of the late 1930s and 1940s when the accordion was not featured on recordings. During the 1970s and beyond the trend continued, sometimes with elements of country-western music of the day and rock added to the sound.
A performance by Dewey Balfa, Gladius Thibodeaux and Vinus LeJeune at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival was one major reason behind a revived interest in traditional Cajun music in the mid-1960s. In 1972, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana started an annual festival that came to be known as Festivals Acadiens.
When bands like the Balfa Brothers, Octa Clark and Hector Duhon, and the black Creole band Bois-Sec Ardoin and Canray began to appear and perform at prestigious national folk festivals like the Newport Folk Festival, the University of Chicago Folk Festival, the National Folklife Festival, etc., they inspired renewed interest in Louisiana in Cajun and Creole music, leading to the contemporary Cajun music scene.
Musicians of note from the classic period of the 1940s through the 1960s include Iry LeJeune, Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker, Aldus Roger, Austin Pitre, Joe Bonsall, Adam Hebert, Robert Bertrand, Phil Menard, The Sundown Playboys, Badeaux and the Louisiana Aces, Rodney LeJeune, Belton Richard, and many others. Musicians such as Walter Mouton, Paul Daigle, Sheryl Cormier, Johnny Sonnier, Ed Gary, Jackie Callier, and others continue the tradition.
This style of Cajun music is well documented by regional records producers such as Floyd Soileau (Swallow), J.D. Miller (Feature, Fais Do-Do), Eddie Shuler (Goldband), Lee Lavergne (Lanor), Carol Rachou (La Louisianne), George Khoury (Khoury, Lyric) and others. Jukeboxes, radio programs and TV spots in Cajun French helped publicize a band's work, making it easier to get jobs performing on the dance-hall circuit in southwest Louisiana and East Texas.
By the 1980s, a new sound of cajun music mixed with elements of rock, blues and R&B was introduced to south Louisiana with Wayne Toups and Zydecajun.
A new respect for Cajun culture developed in the 1990s. Among the most well-known Cajun bands outside of Louisiana is the multi-Grammy-winning BeauSoleil, who have joined several country music artists in the studio, and served as an inspiration to the Mary Chapin Carpenter hit, "Down at the Twist and Shout".
Today, all forms of Cajun music can be heard, including those considered "modern traditionalists" who draw on a variety of elements from the broad history of Cajun and Creole music. From the 1990s to the present, artists such as Lee Benoit, Cory McCauley, Jason Frey, Mitch Reed and Randy Vidrine, Balfa Toujours, Ray Abshire, the Lost Bayou Ramblers, the Pine Leaf Boys, Chris Miller and others, have been popular with contemporary audiences while maintaining a connection with traditional forms.
On June 7, 2007, The Recording Academy (NARAS) announced a new Grammy category, Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album, in its folk music field.
Zydeco music is featured in the video game The Sims: Unleashed when traveling to Old Town on the Shuttle Bus (while the game loads Old Town), during building mode in Old Town, as well as other scenarios. The songs are in Simlish, but certain Zydeco tracks such as "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" are clearly recognizable. The theme of the game, with its new lots and music, is considered cajun or zydeco.
Zydeco music is also a central theme in the German award-winning 2003 film Schultze Gets the Blues. The film is about a retired polka-playing miner living in rural eastern Germany, who hears zydeco music on the radio and, without knowing a word of English, embarks on a tragi-comical odyssey to Louisiana
Zydeco’s instrumentation centers around an accordion and a rubboard or frottoir (originally a domestic washboard), now made of corrugated metal worn like a vest. The frottoir is scratched usually with spoons and used to provide rhythm. Generally, button accordions are played (although some musicians like Buckwheat Zydeco and CJ Chenier play piano accordion exclusively).
The first zydeco vest frottoir (rubboard) was designed by Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco," in 1946 while he and his brother, Cleveland, were working at an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. The first zydeco rubboard made to Chenier's design was made at Chenier's request by their fellow Louisianan, Willie Landry, a master welder-fabricator, who was also working at the refinery. The zydeco rubboard, designed specifically for the genre solely as a percussion instrument, is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Other instruments common in zydeco include the old world accordion which is found in folk and roots music globally, guitar, bass guitar, drums, Cajun fiddle, and occasionally horns and keyboards.
Traditional zydeco dancing is done in closed position, with an 8-count footwork generally counted slow/quick/quick, slow/quick/quick with footwork: step pause/step/step, step pause/step/step – each of the steps is a weight shift from side to side The dance does not travel around the dance floor. “Club style” zydeco features the same footwork done in open position, with a variety of lead & follow improvised variations. Waltzes are also occasionally played by zydeco bands, and you can do a Cajun waltz for these. In Louisiana, zydeco dancer attire is often jeans and cowboy boots.
Button Accordion, fiddle, triangle (aka ’tit fer, bostrang), guitar (sometimes slide guitar/peddle steel), bass, drums. Often, the accordion player can also play the fiddle, and some of the hauntingly beautiful older tunes feature “twin-fiddling” with no accordion.
Cajun music has typically always been played as music for dancing – not just for listening… After the accordion was imported and available in the United States, it became a great asset for Cajun bands because, unlike the fiddle, it could be heard over the noise of the dancers feet, in the era before amplification.
“Two-step” songs (4-beats)
There are several options for dancing to Cajun two-step music:
“8-ct two-step” quick/quick slow, quick/quick slow - travels around the line-of-dance.
“6-ct two-step” quick/quick slow, slow - travels around the line-of-dance – this is known as “Mamou Two-Step,” and is the same thing as Texas or C&W Two-Step.
“Mamou Jitterbug” This is basically an adaptation of single-rhythm swing dancing, done in the center of the dance floor, leaving the perimeter open for the traveling dancers to use. It has the same count as the Mamou Two-Step - quick/quick slow, slow – and the quick/quick is equivalent to the “rock-step” in Swing dancing.
“Cajun Jitterbug” Traditional Cajun Jitterbug features a “hobble step” alternating feet like you are stepping on and off a curb, and lots of underarm turns popular with C&W dance.
“Waltz (3-beats)” Cajun or zydeco waltz is generally a simple progressive waltz that travels around the “line of dance” of the dance floor. A Mamou Waltz variation actually features the Mamou two-step footwork pattern, and you can count it “step, step, step / hold, step, hold”.
Click on any of the names below to hear samples: