Origins of Zydeco and Cajun music
by Tom Dempsey, Seattle, Washington
My love for zydeco dancing inspired researching the history of zydeco music. I learned that over several generations, Acadians became “Cajuns” and the word “Creole” changed meaning several times. In rural isolation, the music of Creole and Cajun people evolved roughly in parallel until about the 1940s. After the end of World War II, rural Creole musicians of Southwest Louisiana adapted urban blues and jazz to their La La house party music and gave birth to what we now call zydeco. The roots of zydeco grow deep in the history of the various groups who have intermixed in Southwest Louisiana . . .
Acadian settlers were expelled.
Back in the early 1600s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval France. In 1755, they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love to their music.
The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use in bedding and insulation).
- Spanish Moss is not really a moss, but a member of the pineapple family (bromeliads).
- The Spanish called it “Frenchman’s wig,” while the French termed it “Spanish beard.”
- Spanish moss is not a parasite, but lives off of air and water.
“Creole” changes definition.
In the early Louisiana settlements, the term “Creole” referred to people of French or Spanish parentage who were born in Louisiana. As the slave trade grew in the late 1700s, the word “Creole” referred to slaves born in the colonies (esclavos Criollos, in Spanish), versus those brought from Africa (esclavos Africanos). “Creole” also meant “homegrown, not imported.”
Many non-enslaved Creoles, light-skinned blacks, or mulattos formed an aristocratic society in New Orleans during the time of slavery. However, it was the isolated Creoles of the rural prairies of Southwest Louisiana who would later invent zydeco music in the 1940s.
Today, the nouns “Creole” and “Cajun” have the following common interpretations in Louisiana:
- “Creole” usually refers to “a French-speaking black of Southwest Louisiana.” However, some whites also call themselves Creole. For example, some white Cajuns may call themselves “Creole” when speaking French, and may call themselves “a French person” when speaking English. Furthermore, “Creole” has different meanings outside of Louisiana.
- “Cajun” commonly refers to “a usually French-speaking white who traces heritage back to Acadia and France.” However, some people having Afro-Caribbean heritage also call themselves Cajun.
Different people may have strong feelings around their chosen usage of the words “Creole” or “Cajun.” Intermixed heritage blurs any attempt at defining labels such as Creole, Cajun, black, or white. When you meet someone from South Louisiana, etiquette suggests that you find out what they call themselves before you call them Creole, Cajun, or any other label. For the sake of consistency, I use the most common meanings in the remainder of this article.
- In West Africa, gombo refers to okra (the sticky green pod of the okra plant).
- In Louisiana, gombo can refer to the okra-thickened soup or stew called gumbo, as well as to the name of the regional Creole spoken dialect, Gombo (or Gumbo).
- French-speaking people of South Louisiana use the word gumbo to refer to okra when speaking French, but the soup called gumbo in English does not necessarily contain okra.
Acadian becomes “Cajun.”
Isolation, close family ties, and strong Catholic faith knit the Acadians into a tight cultural group whose style mixed with their close neighbors: Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean refugees from the West Indies, non-enslaved blacks, and various European immigrant groups. Isolated families had only themselves for entertainment, so most learned how to play musical instruments. Many Acadians made their own fiddles. The mostly-illiterate Acadians didn’t write down their French language, which necessitated passing on stories and legends through songs. The name “Acadian” slowly evolved into “Cajun.”
As the people of rural South Louisiana mixed, the “Cajun” musical style was shaped in important ways by Creoles, Native Americans, and others. In the late 1800s, German settlers introduced affordable accordions which 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.
Internal and external influences on Creole and Cajun music.
Many black field workers prayed and gave thanks by singing, clapping their hands, and stomping their feet in a syncopated style called juré, which is an important root of zydeco music. By 1900, the juré songs merged with Creole and Cajun influences into a musical tradition called La La. Rural Creoles held musical house parties known as La La’s in prairie towns such as Opelousas, Eunice, and Mamou.
|A Contemporary Anecdote
- In 1995, I met a a Cajun craftsman, Johnny, at Acadian Village in Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
- As a child, Johnny was not allowed to speak French in school. He couldn’t even leave class for the bathroom unless he asked in English.
- Over the course of his lifetime, public attitudes reversed towards speakers of Louisiana French. Ironically, his son could not graduate from high school without completing the four-year French requirement!
In 1928, phonograph companies began to record Cajun and Creole music to sell more record players. These early recordings melded French contredanses and Anglo-American jigs and reels with the syncopated rhythms and vocal improvisation of black Louisiana slaves and the wails of local Native Americans. “Ah-yeeeee! … Et toi!”
The inflow of oil workers and their love for country and western music began Americanizing Cajuns and Creoles. From about 1935 to 1950, Cajuns and Creoles replaced the accordion with fiddle and steel guitar, and added bass guitar and drums. After World War II, a yearning for “old time” music brought the accordion back to Southwest Louisiana, about the same time that rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll caught fire nationwide. Creole and Cajun musicians also influenced each other, for example Creole musicians Amade Ardoin and Canray Fontenot made essential contributions to Cajun music.
CODOFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, was founded in 1968 by the Louisiana state legislature. CODOFIL is empowered to “do any and all things necessary to accomplish the development, utilization, and preservation of the French language as found in Louisiana for the cultural, economic and touristic benefit of the state.”
In 1974, Lafayette began a Cajun music festival which expanded into the present-day Festivals Acadiens held every September.
The beginning of Zydeco.
In the late 1940s, Louisiana’s Creole musicians became inspired by the rhythm and blues and jazz played on radio and juke boxes, so they eliminated the fiddle and brought out the rubboard. From then on, the music of Creoles diverged from Cajun music. Rural Creoles combined La La with the blues and jazz of urban blacks to create the rollicking and syncopated sounds of zydeco.
|History of the Rubboard
- The vest frottoir, or rubboard, helps drive and define the music of traditional rural zydeco bands in Southwest Louisiana.
- Precursors to the rubboard evolved in Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a scraped animal jaw, a notched stick, and later, a washboard.
- In the pre-zydeco 1930s, sheet metal was introduced to Louisiana for roofing and barn siding.
- The first rubboard was created for Clifton Chenier’s brother, Cleveland, in the 1940s.
In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded the first modern zydeco song, “Paper in My Shoe,” a regional hit. Unfortunately, a royalty dispute provoked Chavis to leave the music industry.
After Chavis left, Clifton Chenier popularized songs such as “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”). This title was a common expression describing times hard enough to provide no salted meat to spice the beans. The French words for “the snap beans,” les haricots (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco,” which named this new musical genre. Clifton Chenier reigned as the “King of Zydeco” with a career lasting 30 years, featuring a Grammy earned in 1984. By the time of his death in 1987, Chenier had brought zydeco to international attention.
Boozoo Chavis returned in the mid-1980s with a series of hits which helped ignite a zydeco revival that continues today. After the mid-1980s, both zydeco and Cajun music and dance burst into worldwide popularity.
Comparing contemporary Zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
The rubboard player often drives the energy of zydeco music by emphasizing strong, syncopated rhythms. Zydeco usually has no fiddle, and the music resonates with sounds from jazz, rhythm and blues, and more recently, hip hop. Cajun music, which usually has no rubboard, sounds closer to country music, often melodic and sweet. Cajun musicians tend to play two-steps and waltzes in alternation, whereas zydeco musicians play mostly two-steps, and few waltzes.
The distinctions between zydeco and Cajun music affect the dancing styles. Cajun jitterbug, with its many turns and unique broken-leg step, is smoother and more precise; but zydeco dancing is more soulful, as expressed through greater hip action. Small, crowded dance halls have kept zydeco dancers in place on the dance floor, rather than circling the room like Cajun dancers. Dancing in a tight space to the pulsing and syncopated zydeco beat promotes a bouncy, vertical style with few turns. In contrast, dancing around the room to melodic Cajun music encourages smooth, horizontal movements with more turns.
Dancing into the future.
When I danced in Richard’s Club near Lawtell, Louisiana in 1995, I noticed that older dancers danced zydeco more subtly. Younger folks danced zydeco more conspicuously, sometimes adding moves such as hip hop in the apart position, sometimes dropping their single held hand. One young couple gyrated with a flamboyant African style in the apart position. The hip hop variations spun off from the “New Zydeco” style, where they stepped on every beat and embellished with small kicks.
From Creole family dance halls in Southwest Louisiana, a two-step and a waltz evolved into the many styles of zydeco dancing found today across America. Traditional zydeco dancing is done subtly, smoothly and upright by couples in a closed position. But the “Boozoo Evolution” of the 1980s (named for Boozoo Chavis), made the dance bouncier, often open, bent-kneed, and lower to the ground. In the 1990s, the “Beau Jocque Revolution” added the flamboyant flavor of hip-hop. Zydeco dancing appears to be evolving from a couples dance towards individual free-style.
Just as the dancing styles change over time, zydeco (and Cajun) music continues to evolve as musicians tour the world and absorb new influences. This vibrant music will assuredly thrive as we dance in the new millennium.
— by Tom Dempsey, May 1996 — with books and link references updated on April 2012, below:
Recommended Cajun and Zydeco books and music:
Search for the latest “Louisiana travel books” on Amazon.com.
2003: 1999: 1999:
Other research used to write this article:
- Rounder Records (buy on Amazon.com) (info on flyer for the 1995 “Red Hot Louisiana Music Tour”).
- Tabasco home page: www.TABASCO.com
- Cajun Music and Zydeco, photographs by Philip Gould with an introduction by Barry Ancelet (Louisiana State University Press, 1992). Dance-hall sights. The sounds can be savored in a Rounder compact disc with the same title.
- “What Is A Creole: One Creole’s Perspective” by Herman Fuselier, Creole journalist from Opelousas, LA, 1995.
- What Is Zydeco?” by Herman Fuselier, 1995.
- “What Is A Cajun: One Cajun’s Perspective” by Shane K. Bernard, a Cajun historian of Cajun culture and regional music, 1995.
- The Times-Picayune newspaper, September 9, 1995: “Steppin’ Out” by Katheryn Krotzer-Laborde. The author quotes zydeco dance teacher Diana Polizo-Schlesinger comparing zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
- Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, 250 W. Park Avenue, Eunice, LA 70535. Telephone (318) 457-8499.
- Charles Cravins, from Zydeco Extravaganza.
- “Music: Hot Off the Bayou”, by Michael Walsh with reporting by David E. Thigpen, Time Magazine, May 8, 1995.