views updated May 29 2018


Zydeco is a unique blend of Afro-American and Afro-French musical traditions which developed amid the prairie landscapes of southwest Louisiana. Born out of close interaction between the Cajun (white) and Creole (black) French-speaking cultures, zydeco's current popularity as an infectious dance music is directly tied to the past when house dances were the primary form of entertainment and interaction for the rural Creole population. The music played for these gatherings was called "la-la" and was the immediate precursor to modern zydeco. From this hearth area the music has spread to other regions, at first associated with the out-migration patterns of Creoles to East Texas and southern California. The availability of this music in recorded form has enabled people everywhere to listen to the sounds of southwest Louisiana. Following zydeco's commercial success many groups have toured extensively, both nationally and internationally, and zydeco has now become very popular in other parts of the world.

The origin of the term "zydeco" is most often attributed to the folk expression "les haricots sont pas sales" (the beans are not salted), a saying that reflected those hard times when people could not even afford to put salt pork in their pot of beans. The name found its way into popular culture when folk music field recording anthologist Mack McCormick spelled out the word for the first time in the 1950s. The proper pronunciation is with the accent on the first syllable. Early forms of zydeco utilized the same instruments as Cajun music. The fiddle, which came to Louisiana from Canada after 1755 by way of the Acadian migration, was the standard lead instrument. During the mid 1800s the accordion was adopted and soon replaced the fiddle as the lead; the typical configuration was a diatonic accordion with a single or double row of buttons. A unique rhythm instrument—the "frottoir," or rubboard—is the signature instrument of zydeco, and no band is deemed complete without one. Its antecedents most likely are the rasped or notched gourds common to African and Afro-Caribbean traditions. The modern instrument, made out of corrugated sheet metal, is worn over the shoulders like a breastplate and played with a pair of spoons or old-style bottle openers. Zydeco pioneer Clifton Chenier was fond of telling the story of how he first traced out the design for the contemporary frottoir in the sand of an oil refinery yard.

During the first several decades of the twentieth century, when social events were still strictly segregated in Louisiana, the most influential Creole musician was Amédé Ardoin, who was a much sought after performer at both white and black dances. The effect of his accordion playing and plaintive singing on audiences is the stuff of legend. A grimmer remembrance concerns the career-ending incident where he was brutally assaulted while walking home after a dance for allegedly accepting a white woman's handkerchief to wipe off his sweaty brow. As with other aspects of popular culture in America, the zydeco landscape experienced rapid changes after World War II. The house dances faded away, to be replaced by the dance halls and clubs which hosted a variety of music in vogue with black audiences, although zydeco bands still formed a major component of the bookings. Despite a more commercial, adult-oriented setting, many of the clubs retained something of a family, or at least a familiar atmosphere. Instrumentation responded to the popularity of other musical forms and the newer, more spacious venues, becoming a fuller sound with the addition of drums, electric guitars, and even saxophones. As the music became influenced by an urbanized blues and other commercially recorded styles of the 1940s and 1950s, the piano accordion replaced the Cajun button accordion within zydeco. The emerging genre was best personified by the undisputed King of Zydeco, the late Clifton Chenier, who was born in 1925 near Opelousas, in the very heart of Louisiana's Creole country. In 1947 he moved to Lake Charles, then to Port Arthur, Texas and in 1958 to Houston, where his playing became influenced heavily by the urban blues scene. It was Chenier who popularized the term "zydeco" and specifically linked it to his music, which ranged from blues sung in either French or English and backed by a full ensemble, to more traditional Afro-French songs accompanied only by an accordian and frottoir.

Other prominent musicians have helped to guide the development of zydeco and to place it in a more accessible position within the wider arena of popular culture. Another early pioneer, Boozoo Chavis, after cutting a few records during the 1950s, actually stopped playing music publicly for more than twenty years. In 1984 he emerged from relative obscurity in a joyous comeback, and has since become the favorite zydeco performer for many devoted fans; Boozoo still prefers the older button accordion with its raw energy and more traditional sound. Queen Ida Guillory, originally from Lake Charles, but living for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area, began playing for the displaced Louisiana Creoles who had migrated out West and were holding traditional house dances in their basements or at the Catholic church halls. As her music gained fans among the general population, she began touring, and was the first zydeco artist to play in Japan. In 1983 she also became the first zydeco musician to receive a Grammy Award, for her album Queen Ida on Tour. Other notable musicians of corresponding vintage include several who have passed away: Alton "Rockin' Dopsie" Rubin, Sr., and John Delafose. Certain performers have deliberately sought a wider audience for zydeco, either by touring extensively or by blending more rock and soul influences into their sound; these include Terrance Simien and Stanley "Buckwheat Zydeco" Dural.

A newer generation has emerged in Louisiana to carry the tradition into the future. Dubbed "zydekids" by some, they play a "nouveau zydeco" which in many ways draws on the earlier French "la-la" music rather than any of the more recent attempts at crossover appeal. Foremost among the newer zydeco artists, Beau Jocque only began playing accordion after a painful industrial accident in 1987 temporarily left him paralyzed. In 1981 he made his first public appearance and now is widely acclaimed as the leader of the new zydeco sound: simplified accordion chords, a deeper, more powerful bass, and from the drums a catchy dance rhythm known as "double clutching." Among others pursuing a revitalized zydeco are Keith Frank, Jo Jo Reed, and a pair of traditionalist women accordion players: Ann Goodly and Rosie Ledet.

Perhaps the most effective carrier for diffusion of this music to other places has been the commercial recording and widespread distribution of the music on records, tapes, and, most recently, compact digital discs (CDs). Early zydeco recordings by Douglas Bellard, Amédé Ardoin, and others were strictly for regional release. Beaumont musician Clarence Garlow had a few minor hits in the early 1950s, paving the way for two back-to-back releases that began the commercial success of recorded zydeco: "Paper in My Shoe" by Boozoo Chavis in 1954, followed by Chenier's "Ay-Tete-Fee" in 1955. Before national record labels began capitalizing on the growing popularity of this music, the commercial recording and distribution of most zydeco records were shepherded by two independent labels: Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito, California, and Floyd Soileau's Maison de Soul in Ville Platte, Louisiana. In 1982, Rockin' Sidney Simien's hit single "My Toot-Toot" became an international sensation, and with over a million copies sold it is still the biggest selling record in zydeco history.

Zydeco clubs remain active throughout the Lafayette-to-Houston corridor, and heartily welcome people of all races who want to hear the music in its original setting. Since 1982 the tiny crossroads community of Plaisance each year plays host to the Southwest Louisiana Zydeco Festival. This event showcases the leading zydeco musicians in the world, and consists of a full roster of entertainment, with bands taking the stage one after another in a twelve-hour long continuous celebration. Although still identified with Creole culture in its home territory, zydeco has become a popular style of dance music in many other places around the world.

—Robert Kuhlken

Further Reading:

Ancelet, Barry. "Zydeco/Zarico: Beans, Blues, and Beyond." Black Music Research Journal Vol. 8, 1988, 33-49.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, Louisiana, Pelican Publishing Co., 1983.

Gould, Philip and Barry Jean Ancelet. Cajun Music and Zydeco. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1992.

Kuhlken, Robert, and Rocky Sexton. "The Geography of Zydeco Music." The Sounds of People and Places: A Geography of American Folk and Popular Music. Ed. G. Carney, 3rd edition, Lanham, Maryland, Rowman & Littlefield, 1994, 63-76.

Nyhan, Patricia, and Brian Rollins, David Babb, Michael Doucet. Let the Good Times Roll! A Guide to Cajun & Zydeco Music. Portland, Maine, Upbeat Books, 1997.

Tisserand, Michael. The Kingdom of Zydeco. New York, ArcadePublishing, 1998.


views updated May 23 2018


Zydeco is a style of popular dance music played by African Americans of Francophone descent in the Gulf Coast region, particularly in the bayou country of southwestern Louisiana. Despite its frenetic tempos, often led by a buoyant singer doubling on accordion, the term zydeco derives from the old Louisiana song "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés," literally translated as "the green beans aren't salted," but commonly having the meaning "times aren't good."

The origins of zydeco go back to the popular dance tunes of French settlers, or Acadians, who were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British and arrived in Louisiana in the eighteenth century. They intermarried with African Americans and Native Americans of French and Spanish descent, and their European-derived string music absorbed Afro-Caribbean rhythmic elements. The first zydeco recordings, difficult to distinguish from other forms of Cajun music, are 1934 field recordings, including "Cajun Negro Fais Dos-Dos Tune," by Ellis Evans and Jimmy Lewis, and "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés," by Austin Coleman and Joe Washington. Accordionist Amadé Ardoin was an important early zydeco musician whose "Les Blues de la Prison" (1934) shows a strong blues influence.

After World War II, rhythm and blues began to influence zydeco, a development clearly heard on Clarence Garlow's "Bon Ton Roula" (1950), which translates as "Let the Good Times Roll." During this time, the accordionist Clifton Chenier (19251988), perhaps the greatest of all zydeco musicians, came to prominence. Born in Opelousas, Louisiana, in 1925, he made his first recordings in the 1950s. Chenier pioneered the use of the piano accordion (an accordion with a keyboard) in zydeco music. Among the many popular and important records, noted for their heavy dance rhythms, that Chenier made before his death from diabetes in 1987 are "Black Gal" (1965), "Jambalaya" (1975), and Country Boy Now (1984).

In Louisiana, zydeco is invariably performed for dancers, often at nightclubs, dance halls, churches, picnics, and house parties known as "fais-do-do." Zydeco bands are typically led by a singer; with lead accompaniment by fiddle, button or piano accordion, or guitar; and with backing by a rhythm section of bass, piano, and drums. The harmonica, washboard, "frottoir" (a metal rubbing board played with household implements), and the "bas trang" (triangle), were often used earlier in the century, but today are often replaced by electric instruments. Zydeco is sung in the patois of Creole Louisiana, with lyrics ranging from narrative tales, love songs, and laments to simple invocations of dancing and good times.

Although zydeco has been, along with jazz and blues, a mainstay of the secular music scene among the Creole-descended population along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Texas, it has also achieved international popularity, and its greatest exponents have become celebrities with prolific touring and recording schedules. In addition to Chenier, other important zydeco musicians include accordionist Boozoo Chavis ("Paper In My Shoe," 1984), singer Queen Ida (Cookin' With Queen Ida, 1989), Rockin' Sidney ("My Toot Toot," 1984), and Lawrence "Black" Ardoin ("Bayou Two Step," 1984). Important ensembles include the Lawrence Ardoin Band, Terrence Semiens and the Mallet Playboys, and Buckwheat Zydeco's Ils Sont Partis Band.

Although zydeco and Cajun music share many musical elements and have common sociocultural origins in the late nineteenth-century contact between Creoles and Acadians, they are distinct forms, representing two aspects of the complex, multiracial culture that also produced jazz. Zydeco tends toward faster tempos, a syncopated rhythmic structure, and a de-emphasis of the melodic line. Cajun's rhythms are often more rigid two-step dances or waltzes emphasizing melody. Zydeco has been documented in such films as Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana (1984), and J'ai Eté au Bal (1991). Zydeco continues to be popular. In some cases, as with musicians such as Buckwheat Zydeco, who studied with Clifton Chenier, zydeco traditions have been mixed with influences of other forms of music.

See also Music; Rhythm and Blues


Ancelet, Barry Jean, and E. Morgan. The Makers of Cajun Music. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, La.: Pelican Publishing Co., 1983.

Spitzer, Nicholas. "Zydeco and Mardi Gras: Creole Identity and Performance Genres in Rural French Louisiana." Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1986.

jonathan gill (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005