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A brief history of Zydeco

Updated on March 4, 2010

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. 


Down in New Orleans.

It's just another part of the culture.
It's just another part of the culture.


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    • profile image

      Stan Dyer 

      8 years ago

      I appreciate your comments, and your opinions, but, without support, that's all they are: comments and opinions. Mine are the only comments and opinions supported with verifiable and documented research. It is OK to believe differently, but that doesn't make what you believe true. For example, many people believe the Sun rises every morning, but, if they did their research, they would discover that the illusion of the Sun rising is actually caused by the Earth's movement, and not the rising movement of the Sun. Please feel free to comment all you want, and to say whatever you please, but note that your ideas will always carry more weight if you can support them with more than a feeling, a notion or a belief.

    • profile image

      Steve Swezy 

      8 years ago

      Herman Fuse;ier, of course, knows what he is talking about and is correct. Zydeco music did not start in New Orleans but rather in the plains of SW Louisiana around places like Opalousas and Lafayette. I have never read any historical source from that area who claims it started in new iorleans. That is just plain incorrect, and Stan Dyer should accept it and correct his article.

    • profile image

      Stan Dyer 

      9 years ago

      OK, that's fair. I certainly don't want to short change anyone, and I am all for giving credit where it is due, but our biggest difference seems to be my claim that New Orleans is the "city of origin."

      I admit that statement does call for conclusions on my part, and I am willing to back off somewhat, but keep in mind that the city's attempt to profit from the music's popularity only brings "the child" back full circle to its Cajun/Creole/Slave beginnings.

      When people walk down Le Rue Bourbon sipping on Hurricanes or Hand Grenades, they are walking the same street where many others passed before them including Cajuns, Creoles and Slaves. If they discover this genre of music that is new to them, and either make inquiries or do the research, they might be drawn to listen to more, and visit the other cities where that style is even more popular and more developed. In that sense, New Orleans does a modern favor for Zydeco in the very historic district that was part of its past.

      Certainly, the genre developed from the mingling of styles over time, and, certainly, Southwest Louisiana and the Houston/Galveston area deserve more of the credit for further developing that style, but New Orleans is where it all began, and, even if just for profit, the city is advancing the music's popularity like never before in a kind of "homecoming." The Cajuns, Creoles, and Slaves saw New Orleans before they saw the fields and bayous, and passed their traditions on to future generations who grew up to be the farmers, the oil workers, and the music lovers who made Zydeco. Now, that heritage is just coming back home.

      Like the child who left home many years ago, the music grew up, changed its name, and returned to its roots. The modern music may be a far cry from the music of the past, but it is steeped in the history, and still carries the whispers of those days gone by that echo on the streets of New Orleans.

    • profile image

      Herman Fuselier 

      9 years ago

      I understand your points about New Orleans and the Mississippi River. But it's a disservice, even in a brief about zydeco, to treat southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas as footnotes and heap all the credit on New Orleans. Southwest La. and southeast Texas are the regions where the French, blues and R&B elements coalesced to form zydeco, a genre that is only about 60 years old.

      Just as the music of old Acadie and Cajun music are not the same, the old Creole music of New Orleans and zydeco are not the same. The genres share historical elements but the transformations that make them unique styles occurred, and continue to occur, in SW La. and SE Tex.

      Please read page 5 of "Texas Zydeco," where Dr. Wood comments about New Orleans' "splendid job of cashing in on zydeco's recent popularity." The city never claimed zydeco, or Cajun music and culture, until it became lucrative to do so.

      All the pioneers and ninety percent of today's zydeco and Cajun musicians were born, raised and continue to live in SW La. and SE Texas. If you've never been to those areas, I invite you to do so. You'll see they're quite different from New Orleans and more than just a passing reference in the history of zydeco.

    • profile image

      Stan Dyer 

      9 years ago

      Hi Herman! It is funny that you would mention those sources, because those were among the sources I used! This is a short article, and I had to move quickly to keep it from becoming a book. The point I am trying to make in linking New Orleans to Zydeco is that Zydeco is a hybrid product of Cajun and Creole, and that is clearly pointed out in the article.

      Almost everything "European," "Cajun," or "Creole" began in New Orleans simply because of its proximity to the Mississippi River. The River was the "Super Highway" of its time. The Europeans first settled there, the Slaves first stepped off the boats there, and even the Arcadian touched ground first in Louisiana at the port of New Orleans.

      Oh, I agree with you that Zydeco did come from the areas you speak of, but, as I point out in the article, all of those people brought their music from New Orleans, and the New Orleans area. New Orleans deserves the link.

      I am so pleased you commented on my article because you point out the exact point I was trying to make, and exactly what I point out in the article. That is that no matter how many people you ask, you are likely to get varying answers from each. It is so poetic that you would prove my point by asserting exactly what I said in the article from a differing point of view. Thank you! And, Laissez les bon temps rouler!

    • profile image

      Herman Fuselier 

      9 years ago

      This article blurs the facts and takes a lot of leaps with history in order to connect zydeco to New Orleans. Give New Orleans credit for its rich jazz, R&B, blues and gospel history. Jazz Fest and other New Orleans venues have done a great job of promoting zydeco.

      But zydeco is a product of rural southwest Louisiana. All the pioneers named in this article are from southwest Louisiana, not New Orleans.

      In fact, zydeco's birth, evolution and continued popularity have more to do with southeast Texas oil towns, like Houston, Beaumont and Port Arthur than New Orleans.

      Michael Tisserand's book, "Kingdom of Zydeco," and Roger Wood's "Texas Zydeco" contain much more accurate information than the article presented here.


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