Cajun and Zydeco music is, first and foremost, dance music. At the many Louisiana festivals, in the friendlyCajun and Zydeco dance halls and in many Cajun restaurants, you can hear live music and watch energetic dancers. You can also join the dancers. Novice dancers are always welcome and the "old timers" are happy to provide a little coaching for the beginner. Just ask one of the dancers on the floor for some help and be prepared to "pass a good time".
The Acadians who came to Louisiana beginning in 1764 after their expulsion from Acadie (Nova Scotia ) in 1755 brought with them music that had its origins in France. Taking stories with European origins and changing them to refer to life in Louisiana or inventing their own tales, early balladeers would sing without accompaniment at family gathering or special occasions. The fiddle supplied music for dances. The music of the Acadians in Louisiana in the 19th century was transformed by new influences: African rhythms, blues, and improvisational singing techniques as well as by other rhythms and singing styles from Native Americans. Some fiddle tunes and a few ballads came from Anglo-American sources. The Spanish even contributed a few melodies, including, the melody for "J’ai passé devant ta porte," which comes from a concerto for classical guitar.
The First Recordings
By the 1920s, with the development of the recording industry and of radio, both Cajun and Creole musicians were exposed to other music from outside Louisiana, and they also had their first opportunities to make their own recordings. The older styles of music continued on at family gatherings, but the influence of mass media began to take hold. In 1928, Joe and Cleoma Falcon went to New Orleans to make the first recording of Cajun music: "Allons à Lafayette" (released with "La valse qui m'a porté en terre" on the other side). Amédé Ardoin's first recordings were made with Dennis McGee in 1929, including "Two Step de Eunice," "Madame Atchen," and "La Valse à Abe." In 1929, Amédée Breaux on accordion with his brother, Orphy, on fiddle, with theirsister, Cleoma Breaux Falcon, recorded "Ma blonde est partie," the songthat become known as"Jolie Blonde," composed by Cleoma (or, in another version of the song's history, written by Amédée Breaux about his first wife). Ann Savoy, Barry Ancelet, and John Broven all provide additional details about these and other musicians who recorded the first Cajun and Creole music.
The Swing Era of Cajun Music
Meanwhile, the French language in Louisiana was already under attack: banned from schools in 1916, denied official status in the 1921 state constitution. By the mid-1930s, the accordion was vanishing from the bands of Southwest Louisiana, and groups like the Hackberry Ramblers began to play in the Americanized style of the western swing and bluegrass bands heard on the radio. The Hackberry Ramblers were also the first group to use electrical amplification, and the electric steel guitar eventually found a place in Cajun bands. In 1946, Harry Choates, "the fiddle king of Cajun swing," recorded his version of "Jole Blon," turning it into a regional hit.
The Rise of Zydeco
Everyone agrees that the name Zydeco is derived from the phrase "les haricots sont pas salés": the snapbeansare not salty.
For most listeners of Zydeco, the musical meaning is captured in Clifton Chenier's signature song, "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé," recorded in 1965 at the Gold Star studio in Houston.
Wayne Toups, who has coined the name "Zydecajun" to describe his fusion of rock, Cajun, and Zydeco Toups sings in both French and English in a band that eliminates the fiddle and replaces the steel guitar with the electronic keyboard.
. Zydeco in the Spotlight While Cajun music was being reinvigorated in the 1970s and 1980s, Zydeco continued to attract new fans throughout the nation and beyond. Louisiana immigrants in California began to bring Zydeco to the West Coast. San Francisco-based Queen Ida Guillory, originally from Lake Charles, won a Grammy for a 1982 album. Clifton Chenier continued to gain even more recognition, receiving a Grammy in 1983. Rockin' Sidney Semien's "My Toot Toot," released in an album in 1984 on Floyd Soileau's Maison de Soul label, sold more than a millioncopies and earned a Grammy. Buckwheat Zydeco, who emerged on his own in 1979 after playing keyboard with Clifton Chenier, achieved celebrity status, ultimately being chosen to perform during the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, an event witnessed by some 3 billion people. In 1984, the return of Boozoo Chavis, whose 1954 "Paper in My Shoe" is considered to be the first Zydeco hit, led to a resurgence of rural Zydeco played with diatonic accordions and often sung in Creole French. As part of the revival of rural Zydeco, trailrides became part of the Zydeco scene. In the 21st century, Zydeco fans throughout Southwest Louisiana continue to spend the weekend camping, dancing o the music of Zydeco bands, and riding on horseback or in wagons across the countryside on trailrides. In the early 1990s, bands like Zydeco Force took the raw energy of rural Zydeco and added to it a new beat known as "double clutchin'." Meanwhile, younger Zydeco bands began to perform only in English, incorporating rap and other musical styles in their songs.
Cajun Music in the Era of Rock 'n' Roll and Country.
As the 1950s moved along, and rock 'n' roll emerged on the national scene, Louisiana musicians with Cajun roots like Johnnie Allan (John A. Guillot) began to adapt, producing their own style of what came to be known later as swamp pop. Swamp pop is "a unique combination of Cajun emotional feel, lingering hillbilly melodies, and refined New Orleans-style R&B musical backings." Other Cajuns were also adapting to the changes. Jimmy C. Newman of Mamou and Doug Kershaw of Jennings headed for Nashville, where they achieved success as country performers who drew on their Cajun heritage but sang n English. Musicians singing in French also moved toward more contemporary styles. Belton Richard, who started in a rock 'n' roll band in the late 1950s, switched to Cajun music but introduced a smoother vocal styling more in line with mainstream musical trends. With a singing style that has been compared to the style of Hank Williams, D.L. Menard produced a remarkable Cajun hit song in 1962, "La porte d'en arrière." The Return of Traditional Music Different versions of these musical subgenres like Cajun-country continue until this day, but one more development is of crucial importance in shaping Cajun music. In 1964, Gladius Thibodeaux, Louis "Vinesse" LeJeune, and Dewey Balfa (who joined as a last minute replacement playing guitar) accepted an invitation to represent Louisiana performing traditional Cajun music at the Newport Folk Festival After their performance, they received a standing ovation. As Barry Ancelet explains, the Newport organizers subsequently invited other traditional Louisiana musicians to the annual festival, including Alphonse "Bois Sec" Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, who, in subsequent decades, became the most prominent of the Creole musicians who kept their music from being totally eclipsed by Zydeco. In 1968, Louisiana finally officially recognized the value of its French heritage by establishing the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. In 1974, CODOFIL organized the First Tribute to Cajun Music Festival in Lafayette, an annual gathering that has become Festivals Acadiens.
The Future of Cajun, Creole, and Zydeco Music No one can be sure of the future direction of Cajun, Creole, or Zydeco music, especially music performed in French. Twenty-five years ago it was common to hear French spoken everywhere. In stores or any other place where people gathered, conversations could be heard in both French and English. Today, throughout the region many older Cajuns who learned French before they learned English still feel more comfortable talking in French. But, based on casual observations, it seems that probably most Cajuns under 50, while they may understand French fairly well, do not speak it very often. Those under 40 are less likely to speak or understand much French, except for a few who grew up around their grandparents and communicated with them in French in their homes. Can French music continue to survive in a society in which only a decided minority of the population understands French? Or can that minority begin to grow as children learn French in language immersion programs offered by schools? The answer to those questions will determine what happens to French music in Louisiana. It is hard to imagine that the French music of Louisiana will ever die out completely: it is too beautiful, too emotionally powerful not to find performers who will keep it alive as folk music. And, as Southwest Louisiana moves forward, it is clear from the extensive and still very incomplete listing of bands on LSUE's web site that there will be plenty of musicians available to play at night clubs and other local venues that make the music part of people's everyday lives, part of their culture. But, whether, as the decades roll by, the culture of Southwest Louisiana will continue to value French music as it has in the past and still does today is an open question. The answer will have to come from the people whose ancestors created the music and who now have it in their power to determine whether their inheritance will be passed on to future generations.