Week 2: Creole Music (and Zydeco)



The history of the French Creole people is very different from that of the Cajuns. The word “Creole” comes from the Spanish, “criollo” which refers to someone who was born in the colonies. Initially “Creole” people were Louisiana-born descendants of Spanish or French settlers. Over time the term shifted to refer to slaves who were born in Louisiana, as opposed to slaves who had came directly from Africa, and also to free, relatively well-to-do blacks born in Louisiana, many of whom owned land. To confuse matters more, during the Haitian slave rebellion and independence movement of 1791-1804, a set of wealthier French-descended Haitians fled to Louisiana, bringing with them their Haitian-born, African-descended slaves, and eventually became part of the Creole
community as well.

By the mid-1800 an aristocratic Creole culture developed in New Orleans, composed mainly of light-skinned blacks, but the communities of dark-skinned French-speaking
Creoles who lived alongside white-skinned Cajuns in isolated bayou and prairie parts of the state were the ones that really pioneered Creole music (which was known as “French music.”) When Cajun musicians adopted the accordion in the late 1800s so did Creole musicians who used the loud and lively instrument at house parties where Creoles danced square, round and French “contra dances.” Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin was among the pioneers of French Music, though he was also a staple on the Cajun music scene. For a taste, listen to Ardion perform “Les Blues de Voyage.”

Despite the substantial racial and cultural mixing that was happening in Louisiana, the racial politics of the region were still volatile. While Creole bands were often mixed-race, audiences rarely were. According to legend, Ardoin himself was a victim of racism; as the
story goes, some time in 1939-1940 Ardoin played music at a house party during which a young white girl in the audience had lent him a handkerchief to wipe the sweat from his face. After the party a group of white men jumped him and ran him over with a Model T. Ardoin never recovered emotionally from the attack, and died in a mental hospital in 1942. (This may not be a link for the kids, but if you’d like to know more about Ardoin and his unfortunate passing, watch “The Death of Amede Ardion” on YouTube)


For over a hundred years Cajun music developed beside Creole music, though some distinctions remained. For example,

— Cajuns use the “diatonic accordion,” while Creoles generally use the more versatile “piano accordion.” (Want to know the difference? Wikipedia will tell you.)

— Cajun music often includes the steel guitar and features the fiddle. Creole music often has no fiddle at all.

— Cajun music is usually bright, lively and even acrobatic. Creole music can be slower and the songs often focus more on narratives about things like the hard life on the bayou.

And then comes Zydeco. In the late 1940s Creole musicians embraced the urban blues and jazz they heard on the radio and fused that with French-Creole music known as “la la” which they performed at rural house parties. They also removed the fiddle from their
ensembles and added frottoir, also known as a “rubboard,” which essentially a tin washboard hung over a musician’s shoulders. The musician plays it by scraping bottle openers over its ridges. In 1954 accordionist Boozoo Chavis released “Paper in My Shoe,”
which was the first song to become popular in this new genre. [Watch Boozoo perform “Paper in My Shoe” with frottoir accompaniment.] In the late 1950s a Creole bluesman named Clifton Chenier, a French-speaking Croele son of Opelousas, Louisiana, had a hit called, “Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”), an expression that alludes to times so hard enough that there wasn’t any no salted meat to available
to add spice to beans. The words “les haricots” (pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco.” [Watch Chenier perform “Bon Ton Roulet” and the more up-tempo “I’m a Hog for You.”]

A Creole-zydeco music developed into a robust genre it became more and more separate from Cajun music, which clung very much to its Acadian roots. For a comparison, watch Buckwheat Zydeco perform the deeply bluesy, “Ma Tit Fille,” rubboard and all, on David Letterman, then listen to popular Cajun band BeauSoleil perform at the Richmond Fest in 2008, featuring the Cajun fiddle.

Today Cajun and Creole music are still separate genres, and many artists create solely in one or the other. On the other hand, popular bands all over Louisiana, but especially in New Orleans, are known to play songs from both genres in their sets, and even to blur the lines between the two in the same composition. Popular Accordionist Wayne Toups calls this fusion of Cajun, Creole and bluesy Zydeco, “Zydecajun.” In class we’re going to let Toups show us what he means while we listen to his version of “J’Ai Ete-Z-Au Bal.” [Watch a young Toups play early Zydecajun music in 1988 as part of the UK documentary, Aly Meets The Cajuns.” See Toups more recently performing “Johnny Can’t Dance.”]

More information:

An excellent explanation of the difference between Cajun, Creole and Zydeco music | The also very helpful, “Brief History of Cajun, Creole and Zydeco” | If you’d rather actually see this music in action, get your hands on a copy of the 1989 documentary J’ai Été Au Bal. Get a taste of the documentary on YouTube.

And, for fun, a little musical and cultural detour….


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