Cajun and Zydeco
In the early 1600’s, for the promise of freedom and opportunity, large groups from the southern regions of France headed to the New World and settled in North America in the areas comprising what is now the Canadian Maritime Provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, the Gaspé peninsula in eastern Québec, and the Kennebec River in southern Maine.
The history of the Acadians was shaped by the six colonial wars that took place during the 17th and 18th centuries: four French and Indian Wars, Father Rale’s War and Father Le Loutre’s War. Following the last French and Indian War, the British drove the Acadians from the region. Eventually, some Acadians came out of hiding and returned to Acadia. Others returned to France and some migrated to Louisiana; basically as far as they could get from the British.
To a greater or lessor degree they tried to retain French as their native language. It morphed and evolved with time. The term ‘Acadians’ eventually was corrupted to ‘Cajuns’.
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of an Acadian Renaissance with the publication of ‘Evangeline’, which helped galvanize Acadian identity. In the last century, Acadians have even made achievements in the areas of equal language and cultural rights as a minority group in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.
Those that settled in Louisiana began to evolve their own unique identity, culture and music.
Cajun music is rooted in the ballads of the French-speaking Acadians of Canada and is often mentioned in tandem with Creole-based zydeco. These French / Louisiana sounds have influenced American popular music for decades.
While ‘Acadian’ and ‘Cajun’ are often used as broad cultural terms without reference to actual descent from the deported Acadians. The Cajuns proudly trace their roots to the influx of Acadian settlers after the Great Expulsion during the French and British hostilities prior to the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763). Since their establishment in Louisiana, the Cajuns have developed their own dialect (Cajun French) and developed a vibrant culture including folkways, music, and cuisine.
What we refer to as traditional Cajun-style music dates back to the early 1900s and is built around only a few instruments, such as the accordion, fiddle, and triangle. Basic rhythms are adhered to with staccato-style notes, including many fiddle double stops. Fiddle solos explore the major scale, and are repeated between verses. Unlike in classical music, The fiddle (or violin) is often plaid off the shoulder, with the bow a bit “up on the stick” instead of at “the frog.” Traditional Cajun-style music is frequently accompanied by dances: commonly waltzes and two steps.
Country and Texas swing-style Cajun music became popular in the 1930s and ’40s. It involves heavy elements of Texas country music. This approach has more of a “swing” style popularized by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. Instead of the music being dominated by the accordion, Cajun swing relies heavily on the fiddle and piano. Bands in the 1940s began using the steel guitar, an instrument that also found use in Dancehall Cajun music. Dances such as “the jig” are common in Texas swing-style Cajun music. Harry Choates and the Hackberry Ramblers were early pioneers, and The Red Stick Ramblers and The Lost Bayou Ramblers are contemporary bands playing in this style.
The post-war style known as Dancehall Cajun originated in the Fais Do-Dos (public dancehalls) of Louisiana. It is similar to traditional Cajun music with added accompaniment such as the bass guitar, drum kit, steel guitar, and rhythm guitar, electric or acoustic. The same abrupt, staccato feel can be felt as in traditional Cajun. This style originated in the post-War era of the late 1940s and continues up until the present in small-town dancehalls. Electrification of the dance venues allowed the fiddle to be played in a smoother style, alternating leads with the accordion. The steel guitar also adds remarks. Typically in dancehall Cajun performances, the melody is played by the accordion followed by a bridge, a vocal verse, a leading line by the steel guitar, a leading line by the fiddle, then a leading line by the accordion player again followed by a bridge. This is followed by the next vocal verse, and so on.
During the 1960s, as rock and pop became the dominant form of music in America, folklorists looked to preserve and publicize the genre. Fiddler and singer Dewey Balfa rose to fame after a rapturous reception at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.
In 1965 (the same year that Bob Dylan went electric), the Newport Folk Festival presented the three-piece Mamou Cajun Band. Fiddler Jerry Devillier later described the audience’s reaction. “The entire hillside, in front of the stage, was covered with twenty thousand spectators. We did our set, received a standing ovation, and were asked for an encore. We played the encore and they kept insisting for another. The energy was so high that the audience wouldn’t let us leave the stage. The stage manager was becoming frantic in his efforts to keep the show on schedule. He had to ask the audience to please quiet down so that the other performers (Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez) could have their turn on stage.”
In the 1970s, Cajun music experienced a “renaissance,” as traditional artists like BeauSoleil synthesized previous stylistic elements with folk, blues and jazz.
Acadian and black Creole musicians alike experimented with accordion at the turn of the century, and developed techniques that served as a basis for Cajun music and zydeco. Black Creoles contributed the blues, improvised singing, and new rhythms and percussion techniques to the evolving genre.
Ethnomusicologists coined the term “Zydeco” in an attempt to transcribe the word performers used to describe Louisiana’s black French Creole music. The name “zydeco” is derived from the french creole pronunciation of “les haricots” (beans). “Les haricots sont pas sale” (“The beans aren’t salty”) is a lyric found in many Zydeco songs.
Contemporary zydeco music has been deeply influenced by Clifton Chenier, the “King of Zydeco” who added elements of rock and R&B. Other popular Zydeco acts include Sidney Babineaux, Herbert Sam, and Boozoo Chavis.
The first Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album was awarded to Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience for their album Live! Worldwide, in 2008. The category was folded into the Best Regional Roots Music Album category in 2011.
Cajun music and Zydeco are celebrated annually at JazzFest in New Orleans, which draws more than 400,000 fans annually to see headlining acts like Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen. It is also performed regularly at New Orleans clubs like Tipitina’s, where accordion player Bruce Daigerpoint has hosted a Fais Do Do every Sunday since 1986.
Examples of cajun and zydeco music and culture in pop culture:
Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (1952) takes its melody from the Cajun song “Grand Texas.”
Doug Kershaw’s 1961 hit “Louisiana Man” has been recorded by hundreds of artists, and was beamed back from Space to Earth by the Astronauts of Apollo ’12.
The Grateful Dead celebrate a girl who can “dance a cajun rhythm” in their 1970 song “Sugar Magnolia.”
Mountain’s 1970 hit “Mississippi Queen” is about a Cajun woman visiting from Mississippi.
The Band recorded “Acadian Driftwood,” based on the Acadian Expulsion, for the 1975 album Northern Lights – Southern Cross.
The protagonist of Paul Simon’s “That Was Your Mother” (from the 1986 Graceland album) is looking to “catch a little bit of those cajun girls, dancing to zydeco.”
ⓒ 2023, Leonard Wyeth and Evan Schlansky. Research compiled, expanded and edited from Wikipedia and other web sources.