Zydeco music is an American folk music form which developed during the first few decades of the 20th century in a particular part of Louisiana, namely southwest Louisiana near the Texas border. Zydeco music is played primarily with the button accordion and the scrub-board, and is characterized by a fast tempo.) Zydeco has integrated numerous influences and dance forms over the years, so that zydeco involves everything from waltzes and shuffles to hip hop beats and ska tones. Of course, a “traditional zydeco music” still exists, which focuses on the aforementioned waltz and shuffle, as well as rock-n-roll and blues.
Louisiana Creole Zydeco
Zydeco music was developed by the “black creole” peoples from the musical forms of the traditional Louisiana creole peoples. (For more about the meaning of “Louisiana creole”, read the note on creoles and cajuns at the bottom of this page.) After the Civil War, the black creoles were temporarily among the leaders of the African-American communities of Louisiana. White tried to reimpose white supremacy throughout the South, including Louisiana, and the Creoles were increasingly grouped among the disenfranchised blacks. Given their longer period of freedom, the black creoles continues to press for social justice. Their music began to evolve its own identity in these years, incorporating elements of many other music traditions: gospel, blues, jazz, Cajun and, of course, traditional Creole music. While it wasn’t called that at the time, this fusion would become known as zydeco.
Why Is Clifton Chenier The King of Zydeco?
Clifton Chenier is sometimes called “the King of Zydeco”. Chenier, whose musical recording career spanned from 1954 until his death in 1987, is credited with first spreading the popularity of zydeco music.
Clifton Chenier became famous for playing the rub-board with a variety of bottle openers. His zydeco songs from the 1950’s are thought to have been the first zydeco recordings, and were certainly the first songs popularized to the American people. In 1983, Clifton Chenier was given a Grammy Award for his zydeco album, “I’m Here”. Chenier’s music has been invoked by Paul Simon, Rory Gallagher and John Mellencamp, and he was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1989.
Zydeco in the 1980’s
Stanley Dural, Jr., aka “Buckwheat Zydeco”, is the most successful mainstream performer of zydeco music to date. He signed the first zydeco contract with a major label, and was also nominated for a Grammy Award. Buckwheat Zydeco appeared in the movie, The Big Easy, a movie about a mob investigation in New Orleans (of course). Buckwheat Zydeco’s career continues to this day, and his band is known for its energetic live performances.
How Does Zydeco Music Have Its own Grammy?
It took many decades, but Zydeco Music gained its own Grammy Award (kind of) in 2007. This award is known as the “Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album”.
Zydeco has made an subtle and not-so subtle impact on the American pop culture. Zydeco restaurants are found throughout the U.S., while zydeco bands tour both America and Europe. Zydeco music is synonymous with Louisiana and is loved for its upbeat rhythms. Today, there are several zydeco hotbeds, specifically in places where Lousiana’s black creoles migrated during the post-war Great Migration: Texas and California. Oregon has a zydeco community, while Louisiana continues to have a vibrant zydeco music community.
Zydeco Music Instruments
Zydeco music is played using the piano accordion and the frottoir (what we have referred to as the rub-board). Other instruments used by zydeco players include standards like bass guitar, drugs and fiddle, but also guitar, horns and keyboard instruments.
“Louisiana creole” refers to someone descended from those who lived in the area Louisiana during the French-Spanish era of colonization. While “creole” often refers to people of mixed heritage, this is not the strict definition and does not apply to most Louisiana creoles. Also, creoles are distinct from “Cajuns”, who are a specific branch of French-descended Canadians from the French-Canadian region of Acadia. (The word “acadian” somehow became “cajun”.) The term “creole” originally meant those of European descent who were born in the New World. Over the years, it took on connotations of mixed European and native descent, but this is neither the original or modern definition.
“Black creoles” were French-speaking freedmen of African descent. While France brought black slaves to their colonies during their early colonial period, the “Code Noir” of 1724 brought freedom to French blacks a full 140 years before American blacks in English-speaking regions. These black creoles located to southwest Louisiana, leading a largely isolated existence. These would be the people who invented zydeco music in the 20th century.