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Zydeco is a musical genre evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole and Louisiana French speakers[1] which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the Louisiana Creoles and the Native people of Louisiana.

Origin of term[edit]

"Zydeco" may derive from the French phrase Les haricots ne sont pas salés, which in Louisiana Creole French sounds like "leh-zy-dee-co nuh sohn pah salay". This translates literally as "the snap beans aren't salty" but idiomatically as "I have no spicy news for you." Alternatively, the term may mean "I'm so poor, I can't afford any salt meat for the beans." The earliest recorded use may be by a country and western musical group called Zydeco Skillet Lickers, who recorded It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo in 1929.[2]

Initially, different spellings of the word existed, including "zarico" and "zodico". In 1960, musicologist Robert "Mack" McCormick wrote the liner notes for a compilation album, A Treasury of Field Recordings, and used the spelling "zydeco". The term was quoted in reviews, and McCormick began publicizing it as the standard spelling. It was adopted by Clifton Chenier, who had previously recorded "Zodico Stomp" in 1955, in his recording "Zydeco Sont Pas Salés", who later claimed credit for creating the name.[3]

An alternative theory insists the term derives from the Native American Atakapa people, whose enslaved women formed marital unions with African slaves in the early 1700s.[citation needed] The Atakapa word for "dance" is "shi" (rhymes with "sky") and their word for "young people" is "ishol." In 1528 the Spanish, the first Europeans to contact the Atakapa, translated "shi ishol" as "zy ikol." Four hundred years later, the mixed-race descendants of Atakapas and Africans would sway in synchrony to their raucous music, but under a slightly evolved name: zydeco.

A third possibility is that it is from a West African term for Musicking. "However 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".[4][5]

Musical style[edit]

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.

Early history[edit]

Early Creole musicians playing an accordion and a washboard in front of a store, near Opelousas, Louisiana (1938). Zydeco music originated from Creole music — today's rubboard or frottoir ("rubbing the washboard") is a stylized version of the early washboard.

The original French settlers came to Louisiana in the late 1600s, sent by the Regent of France, Philippe d'Orléans, Duke of Orléans, to settle the Louisiana Territory. Arriving in New Orleans aboard seven ships, the settlers quickly moved into the bayous and swamps. Their French culture permeated that of the Irish, Spanish, Native Indians and Germans who already lived there.[6]

For 150 years, the Louisiana Creoles enjoyed an isolated lifestyle, prospering and educating themselves without any government and building their communities under the Code Noir. The French government had created the Code Noir in 1724 to establish rules for treatment of slaves, and to clarify the rights and restrictions of the gens de couleur libres, a growing class of freed slaves. They had the right to own land, something few free blacks in the rest of the American South had at that time.

The disruption of the Louisiana Creole community began in 1803, when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and Americans started settling in the region. The newcomers brought with them the system of race that prevailed wherever they had come from. After the Civil War and end of slavery, Louisiana Creoles often assumed positions of leadership. However, segregationist Democrats in Louisiana classified the freeborn Creoles with the freedmen, and by the end of the 19th century most blacks and many poor whites had been disenfranchised under rules meant to suppress black voting. Creoles continued to press for education and advancement in the new society.

Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at the time are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music was a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was often called French music or le musique Creole, known as "la-la." Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings in 1928. Creole music served as a foundation for what later became zydeco. At times the music was played in Catholic Church community centers, since most Creoles are 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.

Post-war history[edit]

Chenier Brothers performing at Jay's Lounge and Cockpit, Cankton, Louisiana, Mardi Gras, 1975

"In fact, the first Zydeco-ish recording was Clarence Garlow's hit 'Bon Ton Roula', issued in 1949 on the Macys label."[7][who?] . 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.

C. J. Chenier performing in the Ross Bandstand

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 9-year-old zydeco accordionist, Guyland Leday, was featured in an HBO documentary about music and young people.

In 2007, zydeco achieved a separate category in the Grammy awards, the Grammy Award for Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album category.[8]

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.

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.


A zydeco musician wearing a vest frottoir.

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.[9]

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.

In popular culture[edit]

Zydeco music is featured in the video game The Sims: Unleashed[10] 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. One could compare it to New Orleans' French Quarter with voodoo shops and jazz musicians appearing on commercial lots. This theme returns in The Sims 2: Apartment Life and The Sims Castaway Stories. It can also be heard in The Sims 3 on one of the cooking television shows. The song is a cover of a Aldus Roger song sung by Ambrose Thibodeaux.

Country music performer George Strait's 2009 album Twang includes a song called "Hot Grease and 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.[11]

Zydeco music is featured in the pop song "Cupid Shuffle".[citation needed]

Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland features a track called "That Was Your Mother" that references zydeco and Clifton Chenier, the "King of the Bayou".

"Zydeco" is the title of a song by Lil Boosie on his 2010 mixtape, 225/504. It features a contemporary zydeco rhythm and beat throughout.

Weird Al Yankovic made a style parody of this genre with his song "My Baby's in Love with Eddie Vedder".

American band the Cherry Poppin' Daddies wrote a song in zydeco style called "Tchoupitoulas Congregation" for their 2013 album White Teeth, Black Thoughts, featuring an appearance by Buckwheat Zydeco on accordion.

In the TV show Gilmore Girls Lorelai auditions a zydeco band for her wedding to Luke in the episode "A Vineyard Valentine".

In the 2000 movie Mission to Mars a zydeco track by Buckwheat Zydeco called "Ma 'Tit Fille" was used in the beginning of the film.


  1. ^ Sircely, Matt (2011). "Cajun Fiddler Cedric Watson is Helping to Preserve Tradition". Strings: 21–22. 
  2. ^ "Zydeco Skillet Lickers - It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo' (1929)". Internet Archive. 10 March 2001. 
  3. ^ Tisserand, Michael (1998). The Kingdom of Zydeco. Arcade Publishing. pp. 11–20. 
  4. ^ Ancelet, Barry (1991). "Cajun and Zydeco Music Traditions". In Bulger, Peggy A. Musical Roots of the South. Southern Arts Federation. 
  5. ^ Ancelet, Barry Jean (1988). Columbia College Chicago Center for Black Music Research, ed. "Zydeco/Zarico: Beans, Blues and Beyond". Black Music Research Journal (University of Illinois Press) 8 (1): 33–49. JSTOR 779502. 
  6. ^ Hebert, Tim (1997–2009). "History of the Cajuns - Cajuns in the 18th Century". Acadian-Cajun Genealogy & History. ACADIAN-CAJUN Genealogy & History. Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  7. ^ Hayman, Gary (2 March 2012). "WHAT IS ZYDECO MUSIC". Cajun - Zydeco Music & Dance. Retrieved 4 June 2012. 
  8. ^ "Kanye West Leads 50th GRAMMY Nominees". News. GRAMMY.com, The Official Site of the Grammy Awards. December 6, 2007. Archived from the original on December 27, 2007. 
  9. ^ "Frottoir History". Key of Z Rubboards. 2002–2008. Retrieved March 20, 2014. 
  10. ^ "About the Band". Zydeco Flames. Retrieved March 20, 2014. Other: Five Flames songs are featured in the computer reality game, "The Sims Unleashed" 
  11. ^ Schultze Gets the Blues (2003) Plot Summary at the Internet Movie Database

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]