Introduction to Cajun, Louisiana Creole & zydeco music

By Jim Hobbs

Who are the Cajuns? What is Cajun music and where did it come from?

The French colonized Canada beginning in 1604, with many settling in what is now Nova Scotia but was then called Acadie. The word Cajun comes from the word Acadian. Canada, however, was a contested area, settled by both the English and the French. The English army took Acadie in 1713. They forced the French settlers to swear an oath of loyalty to the British crown. Those who refused were deported beginning in 1755. They were taken to various destinations: back to France, to New England, and to other French possessions, such as Haiti and Louisiana. Many Acadians arrived in Louisiana in 1765 through 1785. Although Louisiana had been transferred to Spain in 1762, everyday life continued to be lived in French. The Spanish government even brought 1600 Acadians from France to Louisiana in 1785.

Few Acadians stayed in the port of arrival, New Orleans. Some settled in the regions south and northwest of New Orleans and along the Teche, Lafourche and Vermilion Bayous. Far more went further west to the marshes and prairies of south central Louisiana. They became hunters and trappers and farmers. It is a popular misconception that most Cajuns live on the bayous and in the marshes, poling their pirogues and hunting alligators. Far more became farmers in the grand triangular prairie that stretches from Lafayette north to Ville Platte and west to Lake Charles.

The music these people brought was simple. It was made by singing, humming, and rhythmic clapping and stamping. Instruments were brought to the colony, with a violinist's death recorded in 1782. Early instrumental music was played primarily on violins, singly or in pairs. One violin played lead and the second a backing rhythm. A simple rhythm instrument was created out of bent metal bars from hay or rice rakes: the triangle or 'tit fer, meaning little iron.

Alan Lomax described the music of Poitou, the region in France most Acadians came from, as:

solo unaccompanied ballads, lyric songs with complex texts, unaccompanied air playing on fiddles and wind instruments, unison group performances of ceremonial songs, and dance orchestras where string and wind duos play tunes in unison or in an accompanying relationship.

The earliest Acadian songs were long ballads originally from France. They told of hard life and suffering. Acadians brought from Canada influences from their neighbors, Native Americans and the Scots-Irish. Jigs, reels, and contradances became part of their repertoire. In their new home, Louisiana, they absorbed more from their new neighbors, Spanish, Germans and Caribbeans.

Cajun music is first and foremost, social music. Life was hard toiling in the fields, and it was a welcome relief to hear that Boudreaux or Landry was having a bal de maison, a house dance, on a Saturday night. Families appeared and furniture was moved to make room for dancing. Children were put aside and encouraged to sleep, giving the name fais do-do, or go to sleep, to these dances.

Musicians wrote original songs telling of their life in the new world. The song J'ai passe devant ta porte tells of the suddenness of death from accident and disease. The singer tells of passing by his beloved's door and hearing no answer to his call. Going inside he sees the candles burning around his love's corpse.

The accordion was invented in Vienna about 1828 and was brought to Louisiana by the German immigrants many of whom lived adjacent to or among the Cajuns. Though it arrived in Louisiana as early as 1884, it was not immediately incorporated into Cajun music. The first accordions could play only in the keys of A or F. Fiddlers employing an open tuning could not play in tune with them. The first C and D accordions began to be imported around 1925 and were quickly adopted by Cajuns. These Sterling and Monarch accordions were greatly prized for their sound.

The accordion was loud enough and sturdy enough to withstand the semi-tropical weather that smothers south Louisiana for half the year. It did not go out of tune as easily as the violin. A violin would be silent if even one string broke, but the accordion has four reeds to sound each note. The accordion also plays chords and separate bass notes, making it less dependent on accompaniment. The popularity of this instrument has probably driven many fiddle tunes to extinction, however, as it cannot handle the complexities and bent notes of the old fiddle tunes.

The guitar also found its way into Cajun music by the 1920s as a rhythm instrument, supporting both violin and accordion.

Cajun music was first recorded in New Orleans in 1928. The major record companies made the rounds of the south recording hillbilly, blues, Cajun and other ethnic music styles. They put out a limited number of 78s sold in the areas where they were recorded in order to stimulate sales of record players. Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux traveled from Lafayette to New Orleans to audition before agents of Columbia records. The record company men scoffed at the duo. They got a surprise when Joe began to play his accordion. One of the men swore he'd never heard so much sound come out of one instrument. There were many other Cajun recording sessions in the 1930's in New Orleans, Atlanta, San Antonio and even New York City.

Two pivotal events for the Cajuns were the discovery of oil in Texas and Louisiana in the 1930s and World War II. Both brought Cajuns out of Louisiana to experience English-speaking America and brought Américains to Louisiana exposing the Cajuns to American culture at large. The musical movement known as Western swing also had an enormous influence on Cajun music. Cajuns began performing swing tunes, adopting the string band instrumentation and dropping the accordion. These bands had one or two fiddles, one or two guitars, acoustic bass and sometimes pedal steel guitar. It was a string band leader, Harry Choates, who took an old tune and turned it into the Cajun national anthem, Jolie blonde, or Pretty blonde. Drums and electric amplification was introduced during the 1930s. The Hackberry Ramblers, who still play today, were the first to use amplification.

It was Cajun soldiers returning from World War II, however, hungry for Cajun music who spearheaded the accordion revival in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Performers like Nathan Abshire, Iry LeJeune and Lawrence Walker were enormously popular with their playing and new songs.

Cajun music continues to incorporate outside influences. There are many strains of the music coexisting today. Country music is found in instrumentation such as the pedal steel guitar, and in singing styles like Vin Bruce's. African influences have been around for quite some time. Cajun and Creole musicians have worked together even when other social forces worked to keep them apart. The Cajun Dennis McGee and the Creole Amédé Ardoin traveled together to New Orleans, recording together in 1929 and 1930 and in San Antonio, Texas, in 1934. The plaintive, keening singing style and the sycopation sometimes found in Cajun music is often credited to African influence. Blues music has also been an influence. Some of Cajun music's best known songs have titles such as Pine Grove Blues and the Blues du Tac-Tac, or Popcorn Blues. More recently rock music has been an influence. The first two recordings of the Filé Cajun Band contain the more rapid tempos and electric guitar styles typical of rock music. Bruce Daigrepont has Cajunized Creedence Clearwater Revival's Bad Moon Rising, and Wayne Toups performs Van Morrison songs. As the master violinist Dewey Balfa has said, "Be sure to water the roots but don't cut off every new branch that grows."

Who are the Creoles? What is zydeco?

The term Creole comes originally from the Spanish criollo, for a child born of Spanish parents in the New World. The French borrowed it as Creole. Creole could refer to anyone of European parentage born in Louisiana. Over two centuries it began to be used to mean a person of mixed foreign and local parentage. One use today is to refer to someone entirely or partly of African descent, although many still use it in its original meaning.

People of African descent have played many important roles in Louisiana and have come from various locations. African slaves were brought to the colony in 1720. French planters exiled from Cuba in 1810 brought their French-speaking slaves with them. Some free people of color came from the French colony of Haiti and practiced various trades or were shopkeepers. The colony's Code Noir, laws governing treatment of slaves, set aside Sundays as a day off, and many slaves gathered in Congo Square, just outside the boundaries of New Orleans. There they could drum and dance as they wished, preserving some of the African musical forms and practices.

Many working class Cajuns labored alongside people of African descent in Louisiana and a few owned slaves. This resulted in cross-fertilization of musical styles. Blacks began to play violin and, later, accordion. French-speaking blacks learned Cajun songs. The melding of styles enrich both traditions. Clifton Chenier himself recorded and regularly performed many Cajun classics such as Jole blonde and Allons a Lafayette, as Allons a Grand Couteau. Creole motifs like prisons and the flames of hell also entered Cajun music.

The word zydeco is usually explained as a contraction of the song title Les haricots sont pas sale or The snap beans are not salty. The elision of les to haricots creats the z sound. Folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet has even spelled the word z-a-r-i-c-o in his writings.

As with Cajun music, Creole music is most importantly social music. It is music played at picnics, dances and occasions like the trail ride. A unique social institution, the trail ride consists of a group ride on horseback through the country followed by a meal and dance. Musicians often host their own rides. Radio stations in Acadiana carry notices of trail rides. Many Creoles prefer cowboy attire: blue jeans, western-style shirt, cowboy boots, and large-brimmed, white straw cowboy hats.

Field recordings made in Louisiana by John and Alan Lomax in 1934 reveal a world of single, duo, and group singing by Creoles, accompanied by humming, shouting, clapping and stamping. The Lomaxes deliberately sought these older, less commercial styles, for Creoles were playing instrumental music at this time as well. Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGee recorded their accordion and violin duets for Columbia in 1930, and Ardoin had first recorded solo for Columbia a year earlier.

The combination of accordion and violin has persisted in Cajun music, though it has nearly become extinct in zydeco. Clifton Chenier recorded with his uncle Elmore Nixon on violin as late as 1966. Accordionist John Delafose switched to violin in the early 1990s after a heart attack and doctor's advice that the heavy instrument would harm his health. A few younger musicians are adopting the Creole fiddle style, though its future is uncertain.

Many older Creole musicians scoff at the label zydeco for the music they play. Creole music in the 1930s and 1940s was often called la-la or pic-nic. Something began to happen in the late 1940s and into the 1950s: the birth of a new style called zydeco. Although Clifton Chenier is best known as one of the creators of this new style, other musicians such as Boozoo Chavis also pioneered this new, more uptempo version of the old music. This new style incorporated elements of rhythm and blues including instruments like the saxophone. Instead of the triangle, there is a cousin, the frottoir, also called the rubboard, scrubboard or washboard. As the last name says, the first ones were simple corrugated metal surfaces in a wooden frame. Chenier also played the larger piano key accordion instead of the diatonic accordion.

An explosion of zydeco music occurred in the late 1970s, fueled partly by the increased exposure of zydeco to America at large. Bands led by older men passed to their sons and grandsons. Bois-sec Ardoin's son Lawrence "Black" Ardoin took over his band which has most recently been passed to Chris Ardoin. The Frank family is another dynasty, from grandfather Carlton to son Preston to grandson Keith Frank. When John Delafose passed away a few years ago, his son Geno had enough experience playing to take over easily.

New artists have also arisen: Nathan Williams, Lil Malcom, and Beau Jocque. Queen Ida was the only women in zydeco for decades; she has recently been joined by Rosie Ledet. Beau Jocque single-handedly reshaped zydeco in 1993 with the release of his Rounder CD, Beau Jocque boogie. He added a doulble backbeat which swept the zydeco world like wildfire. Now at almost all zydeco performances include at least one Beau Jocue-style song. Funk, reggae and rap have also entered zydeco.

What's the point of the project? What is it good for?

This project will be of use to several groups. Primarily I see it as a tool for musicologists who wish to study Cajun and zydeco music. A database will allow a researcher to locate recordings by musician, by song title or album title. Searching will permit queries such as "How many times has Michael Doucet recorded the Valse de Kaplan?" and "Has Nathan Abshire ever recorded Quelle Etoile?" Although Cajun and zydeco are fertile ground, there have been few scholarly studies. It will also be of use to linguists studying the Cajun French language as most titles are in Cajun French and represent many thousands of common words. Musicians may also use it to locate recordings of songs in order to learn them. Fans of Cajun and zydeco music will also use it to locate favorite performers and songs.

One listing comparable to this one is Richard Spottswood's mammoth Ethnic Music on Record, an multi-volume printed work listing all recordings issued in the United States of ethnic and foreign language music. It covers the beginnings through the record hiatus of 1942-43. It covers only a limited period, and cannot be searched as easily as a computerized source.



Ancelet, Barry Jean. Cajun Music : Its Origins and Development. Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1989.

Broven, John. South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Co., 1983.

François, Raymond E. Yé Yaille, Chère! Lafayette, LA: Thunderstone Press, 1990. Over 491 pages of transcribed Cajun music and lyrics for over 250 songs.

Savoy, Ann Allen. Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People. Eunice, LA: Bluebird Press, 1984. Second edition. Hardback edition reprinted 1986. Many interviews with music and lyrics.

Spottswood, Richard. Ethnic Music on Record : a discography of ethnic recordings produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, c1990. 7 volumes.



Abshire, Nathan. Cajun legend . . . the best of Nathan Abshire. Swallow CD SW-CD-6061, 1991.

Balfa, Dewey, Marc Savoy & D. L. Menard. En bas d'un chene vert. Arhoolie CD 312, 1989.

Balfa Brothers. Balfa Brothers play traditional Cajun music vol. I and II. Swallow CD SW-CD-6011, 1990.

Balfa Toujours. Pop, tu me parles toujours. Swallow CD 6110-2, 1993.

Beausoleil with Canray Fontenot. Allons a Lafayette. Arhoolie CD 308, 1993.

LeJeune, Iry. Cajun's greatest: the definitive collection. Ace 428, 1992.

Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Friday at last. Swallow 6139, 1997.

Tasso. Viens a ma maison. Swallow CD SW 6113-2, 1994.

Various artists. Cajun dance party: fais do-do. Columbia, CK 46784, 1994.

Louisiana Creole and Zydeco

Ardoin, Amédé. I'm never comin' back. Arhoolie CD-7007, 1995.

Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers. Beau Jocque boogie. Rounder CD 2120, 1993.

Chavis, Boozoo. Zydeco trail ride. Maison de Soul CD 1034-2, 1990.

Chenier, Clifton. Sixty minutes with the king of zydeco. Arhoolie CD 301, 1989.

Fontenot, Canray. Louisiana hot sauce, Creole style. Arhoolie CD-381, 1992.

John Delafose & the Eunice Playboys featuring Geno Delafose. Blues stay away from me. Rounder CD 2121, 1993.

Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas. Your mama don't know. Rounder CD 2107, 1991.

Mail order sources

Down Home Music Store, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530, 510-525-2129, fax 510-525-4819.

Floyd's Record Shop, P.O. Drawer 10, Ville Platte, LA 70586-4610, 800-738-8668, or 318-363-2185. The retail arm of Swallow & Maison de Soul.

Louisiana Music Factory, 210 Decatur Street, New Orleans, LA 70130 504-586-1094, fax: 504-586-8818. Excellent independent music retailer of all New Orleans and Louisiana styles.

Additional information at Wikipedia: Cajuns, including information about music, zydeco, and Louisiana creole. The Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture, edited by Shane K. Bernard.