Zydeco ( ZY-dih-koh or ZY-dee-koh) is a music genre that evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the Louisiana Creoles and the Native people of Louisiana. Though distinct in origin from the Cajun music of Louisiana, the two forms frequently influenced each other, forming a complex of genres native to Louisiana.
The origin of the word "zydeco" is uncertain. One theory is that it derives from the French phrase Les haricots ne sont pas salés, which, when spoken in the Louisiana Creole French, sounds as "leh-zy-dee-co nuh sohn pah salay". This literally translates as "the snap beans aren't salty" but idiomatically as "times are hard" signifying the speaker's fatigue or lack of energy. The earliest recorded use of the term may have been the country and western musical group called Zydeco Skillet Lickers who recorded the song It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo in 1929.
Initially, several different spellings of the word existed, including "zarico" and "zodico". In 1960, musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick wrote liner notes for a compilation album, A Treasury of Field Recordings, and used the spelling "zydeco". The word was used in reviews, and McCormick began publicizing it around Houston as a standard spelling. Its use was also accepted by musician Clifton Chenier - who had previously recorded "Zodico Stomp" in 1955 - in his recording "Zydeco Sont Pas Salés", after which Chenier himself claimed credit for devising the word.
In an alternative theory the term derives from the Atakapa people, whose enslaved women were well known for forming marital unions with male African slaves in the early 1700s. The Atakapa word for "dance" is "shi" (rhymes with "sky") and their word for "the youths" is "ishol." In 1528 Spanish people, the first Europeans to contact the Atakapa, translated "shi ishol" as "zy ikol." Four hundred years later, the mixed-blood descendants of Atakapas and Africans would still sway in synchrony to their raucous music, but with a slightly evolved name: zydeco.
Another possible root word for zydeco is as a West African term for "musicking". Recent studies based on early Louisiana recordings made by Alan and John Lomax suggests that the term, as well as the tradition, may have African origins. The languages of West African tribes affected by the slave trade provide some clues as to the origins of zydeco. In at least a dozen languages from this culture-area of Africa, the phonemes "za," "re," and "go" are frequently associated with dancing and/or playing music".
Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a "rub-board," "scrub-board," "wash-board," or frottoir, zydeco music was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.
As a result, the music integrated waltz, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and other dance music forms of the era. Today, zydeco integrates genres such as R&B, soul, brass band, reggae, hip hop, ska, rock, Afro-Caribbean and other styles, in addition to the traditional forms.
The original French settlers came to Louisiana in the late 1600s, sent by the Regent of France, Philippe d'Orléans, Duke of Orléans, to help settle the Louisiana Territory. Arriving in New Orleans on seven ships, the settlers quickly moved into the bayous and swamps. There the French culture permeated those of the Irish, Spanish, Native Indian and German peoples already populating the area.
For 150 years, Louisiana Creoles enjoyed an insular lifestyle, prospering, educating themselves without the government and building their invisible communities under the Code Noir. The French created the Code Noir in 1724 to establish rules for treatment of slaves, as well as restrictions and rights for gens de couleur libres, a growing class of free people of color. They had the right to own land, something few blacks in the American South had at that time.
The disruption of the Louisiana Creole community began when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and Americans started settling in the state. The new settlers typically recognized only the system of race that prevailed where they came from. When the Civil War ended and the black slaves were freed, Louisiana Creoles often assumed positions of leadership. However, segregationist Democrats in Louisiana classified Creoles with freedmen and by the end of the 19th century had disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites under rules designed to suppress black voting (though federal law said all black men had the vote from 1870). Creoles continued to press for education and advancement while negotiating the new society.
Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was also often just called French music or le musique Creole known as "la-la." Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of Creole music in 1928. This Creole music served as a foundation for what later became known as zydeco. Sometimes the music was performed in the Catholic Church community centers, as Creoles were mostly Catholic. Later it moved to rural dance halls and nightclubs.
During World War II with the Great Migration, many French-speaking and Louisiana Creole speaking Créoles from the area around Marksville and Opelousas, Louisiana left a poor and prejudiced state for better economic opportunities in Texas. Even more southern blacks migrated to California, where buildup of defense industries provided good jobs without the restrictions of the segregated South. In California blacks from Louisiana could vote and began to participate in political life. Today, there are many Cajun and zydeco festivals throughout the US.
Zydeco music pioneer Clifton Chenier, "The King of Zydeco," made zydeco popular on regional radio stations with his bluesy style and keyboard accordion. In the mid-1950s, Chenier's popularity brought zydeco to the fringes of the American mainstream. He signed with Specialty Records, the same label that first recorded Little Richard and Sam Cooke for wide audiences. Chenier, considered the architect of contemporary zydeco, became the music's first major star, with early hits like "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" ("The Snap Beans Ain't Salty" -- a reference to the singer being too poor to afford salt pork to season the beans).
In the mid-1980s, Rockin' Sidney brought international attention to zydeco music with his hit tune "My Toot Toot". Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Sidney and Queen Ida all garnered Grammy awards during this pivotal period, opening the door to emerging artists who would continue the traditions. Ida is the only living Grammy award winner in the genre. Rockin' Dopsie recorded with Paul Simon and also signed a major label deal during this time.
John Delafose was extremely popular regionally. The music made major advances when emerging bands burst exuberantly onto the national scene, fusing new sounds and styles with the music. Boozoo Chavis, Roy Carrier, Zydeco Force, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, the Sam Brothers, Terrance Simien, Chubby Carrier, and many others were breathing new life into the music. Zydeco superstar Buckwheat Zydeco was already well into his career, and also signed his deal with Island Records in the mid-1980s. Combined with the national popularity of Creole and Cajun food, and the feature film The Big Easy, set in New Orleans, zydeco music had a revival. New artists were cultivated and the music took a more innovative direction and enjoyed increased mainstream popularity.
Young zydeco musicians such as C. J. Chenier (son of Clifton Chenier), Chubby Carrier, Geno Delafose, Terrance Simien, Nathan Williams and others began touring internationally during the 1980s. Beau Jocque was a monumental songwriter and innovator who infused zydeco with powerful beats and bass lines in the 90s, adding striking production and elements of funk, hip-hop and rap. Young performers like Chris Ardoin, Keith Frank, and Zydeco Force added further by tying the sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called "double clutching."
Hundreds of zydeco bands continue the music traditions across the U.S. and in Europe, Japan, the UK and Australia. A precocious 7-year-old zydeco accordionist, Guyland Leday, was featured in an HBO documentary about music and young people.
More recent zydeco artists include Lil' Nate, Leon Chavis, Mo' Mojo and Kenne' Wayne. Wayne has fused zydeco with up tempo southern soul and smooth ballads to create a sound which he calls "zydesoul," while torchbearer Andre Thierry has kept the tradition alive on the West Coast.
Leading the world of traditional Zydeco today is the Dwayne Dopsie (son of Rockin' Dopsie) and his band, the Zydeco Hellraisers. They were nominated for best Regional Roots Album in the 2017 Grammy Award's. Dwayne and his band travel the globe playing 250 plus shows a year, keeping true zydeco music alive.
While zydeco is a genre that has become synonymous with the cultural and musical identity of Louisiana and an important part of the musical landscape of the United States, this southern black music tradition has also now achieved much wider appreciation. Because of the migration of the French-speaking blacks and multiracial Creoles, the mixing of Cajun and Creole musicians, and the warm embrace of people from outside these cultures, there are multiple hotbeds of zydeco: Louisiana, Texas, Oregon, California, and Europe as far north as Scandinavia. There are zydeco festivals throughout America and Europe. Zydeco music is performed at festivals, schools, performing art centers and large corporate events. It is performed for presidents and celebrities, heard on cinema soundtracks and used to advertise everything from vehicles to toothpaste to antacids, pharmaceuticals and candy bars. Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine among many others have featured it. It is played on radio stations around the world and on Internet radio.
The first zydeco vest frottoir (rubboard) was designed by Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco," in 1946 while he and his brother, Cleveland, were working at an oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. The first zydeco rubboard made to Chenier's design was made at Chenier's request by their fellow Louisianan, Willie Landry, a master welder-fabricator, who was also working at the refinery. The zydeco rubboard, designed specifically for the genre solely as a percussion instrument, is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.
Other instruments common in zydeco include the old world accordion which is found in folk and roots music globally, guitar, bass guitar, drums, Cajun fiddle, and occasionally horns and keyboards.
Zydeco music is featured in the video game The Sims: Unleashed when traveling to Old Town on the Shuttle Bus (while the game loads Old Town), during building mode in Old Town, as well as other scenarios. The songs are in Simlish, but certain Zydeco tracks such as "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" are clearly recognizable. The theme of the game, with its new lots and music, is considered cajun or zydeco.
Zydeco music is also a central theme in the German award-winning 2003 film Schultze Gets the Blues. The film is about a retired polka-playing miner living in rural eastern Germany, who hears zydeco music on the radio and, without knowing a word of English, embarks on a tragi-comical odyssey to Louisiana.
Other: Five Flames songs are featured in the computer reality game, "The Sims Unleashed"