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A brief history of Zydeco
Beans with no salt...
Anyone who visits the city of New Orleans marvels at the history, culture and contrasts that are clearly visible. In the old town square, (Le Vieux Carre), they call it the French Quarter, but most of the architecture is Spanish. In Jackson Square, the city’s most recognizable building, The Saint Louis Cathedral, is located on the same street where “slave pens” once lined the walkways. And, if a person happens to end up on Bourbon Street listening to the music, familiar sounds will be played alongside a music distinctly unique to the area. Is it Creole? Is it Cajun? Is it Zydeco? Well, if you don’t know, don’t ask; just enjoy. Any answers you get likely will be as varied as the culture itself, differ from person to person, and do more to confuse the issue than to answer the question. Much like the city of its origin, Zydeco is the modern, melting pot style of music that is the entertaining, and delightful product of extended Creole, Cajun, and Slave ancestry.
The confusion begins with the term, “Creole.” Depending on your source, the word can derive from either Portuguese, or French and refer to people of color who were actually born in the New World instead of being brought there by slave ships. Now it is true that Creole people come in a variety of shades, and, by the time the term became popular, most were born in the New World, but their heritage is rich, and far reaching, even though the fact may have been lost to the people handing out the labels. The people originally called Creole actually were aristocrats from the Caribbean who came to the area to grow sugar cane, the main cash crop from whence they came. Many of the Creoles owned plantations, but spent most of their time, especially during the winter months, in New Orleans. They looked down on the crass, rude and uneducated Europeans and distanced themselves from social association. The city of New Orleans still reflects this division where streets north of Canal Street retain their French names, but south of Canal Street, the same streets have different, European names. Even the architecture evidences the distinction. The stately homes of the Garden District of the Europeans differ greatly from the colorful, plantation homes of the Creoles.
The Creoles, who loved to dance and party, brought with them the music of the islands. Through the years, their musical traditions became blended, combining with the local music, African music, and the spirit of improvisation. As slavery flourished in the New World, the term “Creole” took on a derogatory meaning, but, with changing times, many people came again to find pride in their Creole ancestry, and give the term back its original, dignified meaning. Its popularity continues to grow.
Cajun history is a bit less complicated. They were French who sought prosperity in the area of modern day Nova Scotia. They named their new land “L’Acadie,” or “Land of Plenty,” and called themselves “Acadians,” but the plenty of the land they found turned out to be trouble. The French and the British struggled for control of the area until, in 1755, the British became suspicious of the Acadians’ French roots, and plotted to eliminate them. The elimination was not completely successful, but it did manage to separate the community until they were allowed by the French in 1765 to occupy the area of Louisiana in an attempt to inhabit the territory and keep others, especially other Europeans, from establishing dominance in the region. The last of the Acadians arrived around 1785.
The Acadians were eager to reestablish their community and their culture with a special attention to tradition, but, just as their name was soon corrupted to “Cadiens,” and, finally, “Cajuns,” they could not help but absorb influences from the other cultures and people of the region with whom they came in contact. Like the Creoles, they, too, enjoyed singing and dancing, and were inclined to improvisation. Despite their many cultural differences, there were just too many similarities to keep the two styles of music from mingling, and forming the hybrid identified as, “Zydeco.”
The Creole influence leaned more toward Blues, and Rhythm and Blues tones, while the Cajuns leaned more toward Country Western, but the differences had more to do with the choice of instruments than anything else. As the center of the music drifted westward from New Orleans into the fields with the sharecroppers and tenant farmers, listeners still found joy in the lively, happy tunes of the music’s ancestry, and the core remained intact, no matter what instruments were used. Even when the Cajuns added the Fiddle, and the Creoles left it out, the music remained true enough to its heritage for Canray Fontenot to comment, “...if you was black, you was playing Creole. If you was white, you was playing Cajun.”
The Cajun/Creole music found increased popularity in the early 20th century when accordions and washboards were added. Talented accordion player Armede Ardoin and fiddler Dennis McGee gave the music life in these early years, but the Color Barrier held them back. Time after time, the two musicians barely managed to keep from being lynched simply because their skin was the wrong color. Ardoin once was hired to play a house party, but, when the host discovered Ardoin’s skin color, Ardoin was required to wear white gloves, stand outside a window, and stick the accordion through the window while he played. Even on that occasion, he was discovered, and barely got away with his life.
Clifton Chenier, the former sharecropper who would later become known as, “The King of Zydeco,” took his “Red Hot Louisiana Band” and the Cajun/Creole tradition into the 1940’s. By this time, many of the sharecroppers and tenant farmers were leaving the fields for work in the oils fields and shipyards in and around the Houston area. They took their music with them.
By the 1950’s, the piano accordion replaced the standard concertina type, and the washboards were replaced with rub boards that were similar in appearance to washboards, but designed to be worn on the chest to offer rhythmic accompaniment to the music. It was also around this time that the old, Arcadian folk song, “Les Haricots son pas sale,” was recorded. The title of the song is French for, “The beans have no salt,” and refers to poverty since whomever made the beans was too poor to afford the salt pork to season it. French pronunciation of “Les Haricots” gives the music style its name. In French, the final “s” of “les” is pronounced a “z” sound when it occurs directly before a vowel sound. Thus, “Les Haricots” sounds like “Lezydeco.” The “le” is dropped, and the “zydeco.” remains.
Since that time, the music style has grown in popularity and, even though it is still most popular in the South, has found audiences throughout the country. You will still hear people call the same music “Creole,” “Cajun,” or “Zydeco,” and most cannot explain exactly why since each style takes on new variations with each new improvisation as it is played, but you can bet the artist is proud of his music’s heritage by any name.
In many ways, Zydeco music is the perfect music of Louisiana, and especially New Orleans. Just like the port city it rises from, it is a melting pot of styles, personalities, history, heritage, and ethnic pride. And, also just like that port city, its rough-appearing exterior becomes less important as the beauty of its heritage plays on. No matter what you call it, the music reflects a modern, melting pot style that is the entertaining and delightful product of its Creole, Cajun, and Slave ancestry many have come to appreciate for its unique qualities. For those who know and love Zydeco “beans with no salt” just taste better.