Cajun and Zydeco Music
Created | Updated May 21, 2013
New Orleans musically dominates Louisiana and the American Gulf Coast. Its cultural melting pot is synonymous with early jazz and barrelhouse blues piano. However there are other forms of roots music alive and well in Louisiana. This entry concerns two thriving forms of folk music from Southwest Louisiana, Cajun and zydeco.
The Peoples Behind the Music
The folk music of Southwest Louisiana is fundamentally linked to the people of the area. The two cultures that the area is famous for are Creole and Cajun.
The term Creole was first applied to the people of the Louisiana area in the colonial period (1699-1803). It referred to people of European or African decent who were born in the new world. By the 1900s, it was used by the people of Louisiana to distinguish themselves from the Anglo-Americans and foreign born residents.
Within the Creole community, there were various splits along colour and class lines. Creoles of Colour were of mixed race, enjoying many of the same rights as white Creoles. After the civil war, they lost their status and were regarded, along with black Creoles (those with pure African heritage, generally former slaves) as second class citizens. The white Creoles (French Creoles), who were generally part of society's upper class by the time of the civil war, also lost much of their status after the war.
Today, people use the term Creole to refer to different groups of people, some people believe it is just the blacks, or just the whites. As an outsider it is best not to argue, and if somebody refers to themselves as Creole then it is best to go along with it.
Cajuns trace their roots back to France via Canada. The French colony of Acadia was settled in the early 1600s predominantly by the French, but also by some Irish, Scots and other Europeans. Acadia consisted of what is now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island. By the mid 1700s, the few hundred colonists had grown to a population in excess of 12,000.
In 1710, the colony was handed over to the British as a war prize, and everything carried on as normal until 1755 when the Acadians were turfed out for not submitting to the British crown. Around 6,050 were moved out by ship, the others being moved to other parts of Canada and also New England. Between 1765 and 1785, almost 3,000 of them arrived in Louisiana. These intermarried with the residents; the Creoles, French, Spanish, Germans and the Anglo-Americans. It was from this that the Cajun culture emerged.
Many hitchhikers will tell you that the journey is not about where you are going, it is how you get there. European settlers in Southwest Louisiana had travelled many different routes to arrive there, some like the Creoles had their own culture in the area for many generations, while other immigrants had less direct paths. These journeys, the personal history of every resident, gave Southwest Louisiana an incredibly diverse cultural melting-pot. Music was one of the most obvious ways this diversity manifested itself. When the Acadians arrived with their European folk tunes, their music, just like their people, merged, was influenced by and influenced the local culture. Out of this came Cajun music.
The French had brought with them the fiddle. The Germans who had spread from Texas and New Orleans brought with them the accordion. Add to this mix drums, steel guitars, triangle and danceable tunes with near waltz-like rhythms and you get Cajun music. The lyrics were often in French, despite the efforts of oil prospectors to outlaw the language, and the music was played in dancehalls, where the fiddle was notably louder in the arrangement compared with hill-billy music.
In 1928, Columbia Records recorded Cleoma Breaux and Joe Falcon's 'Allons à Lafayette' the first Cajun record. Cajun music sold well regionally, but it didn't feature on a national level as it was too distinct a regional style. Cajun music became gradually more influenced by the Western swing and Country sounds coming out of nearby Texas, with artists like Doug & Rusty Kershaw and Harry Choates merging the styles in an attempt to bring Cajun music to a pop audience.
Cajun's big break came when Dewey Balfa appeared at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. The reaction to the fiddler gave the Cajun movement the momentum to launch a campaign to teach people not only about the music, but the culture. From workshops at festivals to teaching French at schools, the Cajun culture began to reassert itself in the area.
The Hackberry Ramblers
From being the first Cajun band to use a sound system1 in 1934, to attending the Grammies at the turn of the 21st century, the Hackberry Ramblers are probably one of the longest-lasting bands in the United States, let alone Cajun music. They were formed by Luderin Darbone and Edwin Duhon in 1933 originally as a guitar and fiddle line up. They recorded a number of 78s in the 1930s and 1940s including one of the first recordings of the Cajun standard 'Jolie Blone' in 1935. By the early 1960s they were on the verge of disbanding. However, Arhoolie Record's Chris Strachwitz asked them to record a session in 1963 which renewed their interest in continuing as a band.
In 1997, their album Deep Water collected a Grammy nomination for best traditional folk album. Over time, the band's line-up has included bass, drums, trumpet, accordion and saxophone. Darbone, who remained since its inception, is always analysing audience reaction and working out how best to please them. From Cajun, though blues, Western swing and even 60s rock, the band are unafraid to play anything in their raucous, rootsy style.
Micheal Doucet grew to appreciate Cajun music while playing in France. He formed Beausoleil on his return to the US in 1975. Beausoleil have been described as 'the Grateful Dead of Cajun music', and mix influences from jazz and rock into their sound.
Zydeco takes Cajun music and infuses it with the sounds of the blues and R&B. A modern zydeco band is generally electric, but also features the accordion and the washboard, also known as the frottoir. The form is generally more danceable than Cajun. Zydeco bands tend to use a keyboard or multi-rowed accordion while Cajun musicians use simpler instruments.
The first zydeco recording was attributed to Amadie Ardoin in the 1930s, however this sounds to many exactly the same as Cajun. Many claim that Clarence Garlow's 1949 recording of 'Bon Ton Roula' ('Let the good times roll') was the first proper zydeco piece, sounding like a R&B band playing at Mardi Gras.
The term zydeco was first used to refer to this music form in the mid-1950s, when the legendary Clifton Chenier appeared on the scene. He is quoted as saying that the name zydeco was based on how the first two words of the song 'Les Haricots Sont Pas Salé' were pronounced. This may have been a joke, but still became the generally accepted derivation of the word. Other musical historians say the name came from a form of African dance, zodico.
Little zydeco recording was done in the 1950s, as like Cajun, many of the labels didn't see a market for the music outside its little corner of Louisiana and eastern Texas. Chenier and his rival Boozoo Chavis continued to play the dance halls, enjoying enviable reputations as live performers.
In the 1980s, Zydeco came to national attention. Rockin' Sidney's novelty hit 'My Toot Toot' reached the national charts in 1985. Clifton Chenier and Terrance Simien were guest artists on Paul Simon's Graceland. Zydeco music also featured heavily on the soundtrack to the movie The Big Easy, gaining it attention to a mainstream audience.
Zydeco became in demand at festivals and soon people were flocking to see artists of this previously forgotten style of roots music. Clifton Chenier shared the national spotlight with younger artists like his son C.J. Chenier as well as Buckwheat Zydeco and Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Nowadays, Zydeco musicians will appear on the bill of folk, Cajun and blues festivals. Many artists, especially overseas play a mix of Cajun and zydeco.
Accordionist Clifton Chenier is probably the biggest name in zydeco history. The rise in popularity of the music style is primarily down to him. His first recording, 'Clifton's Blues' was made for Elko records in 1954. He went on to record for Chess and Arhoolie records, winning a Grammy. However it is as a live artist that he will be remembered. The self-proclaimed King of Zydeco died in 1987, aged 72.
One can't talk about the music of southern Louisiana without mentioning swamp pop. Primarily played by white musicians, swamp pop blends both black and white pop styles with rock ballads and Cajun sounds. It's actually quite difficult to define swamp pop as a style because the genre is based on mood. Imagine a long, hot, steamy night on the bayou. A good example of swamp pop is the Beatles' track 'Oh Darling'. Notable artists in the genre are Danny James and Floyd Soileau.
Record companies like Arhoolie do not get enough recognition for their contribution to American music. It was founded by Chris Strachwitz to sell 'down-home blues'2 artists to white folk fans. However Strachwitz was happy to record other music as long as it was regional and as long as he though it was of merit. This meant that on his field recordings he got jazz, country and Tejano3 as well as Cajun and zydeco. Clifton Chenier and Beausoleil have recorded for the label. It was also responsible for revitalising the career of The Hackberry Ramblers.
Where to Listen to Cajun and Zydeco Music
Capturing American roots music on record has never been easy. The energy and spontaneity of live performances where the band is driven by the eagerness of the audience just can't be recreated in a studio. Also, most of the older recordings were made for the singles market, so when an artist's recordings are grouped together there can be little variety between the tracks. Most larger record shops sell compilation albums, these are a good introduction to the music, especially some of the bigger Cajun CDs, where record companies tend to include a smattering of zydeco tunes in the track listing.
The best places to hear Cajun and zydeco are the dancehalls of the area surrounding Lafayette and Baton Rouge in Louisiana4. Here you can get the music in its natural home. Originally the venues in New Orleans did not employ musicians from Cajun Country, looking down on the unreliable rural artists. However, tourist demand lead to a few Cajun bars opening up in The Big Easy.
Folk festivals will occasional have Cajun or zydeco artists on the bill, and zydeco bands sometimes pop up at Blues festivals. These days, many Cajun bands will play some zydeco and vice-versa. There are a number of zydeco and Cajun style bands doing the rounds in the United Kingdom and Europe.