Origins of Zydeco and Cajun Music
by Tom Dempsey, Seattle, WA. May 1996
My love for zydeco dancing inspired me to dig into the history
of zydeco music. I discovered that over several generations, Acadians became
“Cajuns,” and the word “Creole” changed meaning several times. In rural
isolation, the music of Creoles and Cajuns evolved roughly in parallel until
about the 1940’s. After the end of World War II, rural Creole musicians of
Southwest Louisiana adapted urban blues and jazz to their La La house party
music and gave birth to what we now call zydeco. The roots of zydeco grow deep
in the history of the various groups who have intermixed in Southwest Louisiana
. . .
Acadian Settlers Were Expelled
Back in the early 1600’s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia
(present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval
France. In 1755, they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers
scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their
brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and
ill-fated love to their music.
The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the
prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence
crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians
retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke
out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use
in bedding and insulation).
Spanish Moss is not really a moss, but a member of the pineapple
family (bromeliads). The Spanish called it “Frenchman’s wig,”
while the French termed it “Spanish beard.” Spanish moss is not a
parasite, but lives off air and water.
“Creole” Changes Definition
In the early Louisiana settlements, the term “Creole” referred to people
of French or Spanish parentage who were born in Louisiana. As the slave trade
grew in the late 1700’s, the word “Creole” referred to slaves born in the
colonies (esclavos Criollos, in Spanish), versus those brought from Africa (esclavos
Africanos). “Creole” also meant “homegrown, not imported.”
Many non-enslaved Creoles, light-skinned blacks, or mulattos
formed an aristocratic society in New Orleans during the time of slavery.
However, it was the isolated Creoles of the rural prairies of Southwest
Louisiana who would later invent zydeco music in the 1940’s.
Today, the nouns “Creole” and “Cajun” have the
following common interpretations:
• “Creole” usually refers to “a French-speaking black of
Southwest Louisiana.” However, some whites also call themselves Creole. For
example, some white Cajuns may call themselves “Creole” when speaking
French, and may call themselves “a French person” when speaking English.
Furthermore, “Creole” has different meanings outside of Louisiana.
• “Cajun” commonly refers to “a usually French-speaking white who
traces heritage back to Acadia and France.” However, some people having
Afro-Caribbean heritage also call themselves Cajun.
Different people may have strong feelings around their chosen
usage of the words “Creole” or “Cajun.” Intermixed heritage blurs any
attempt at defining labels such as Creole, Cajun, black, or white. When you meet
someone from South Louisiana, etiquette suggests that you find out what they
call themselves before you call them Creole, Cajun, or any other label. For the
sake of consistency, I use the most common meanings in the remainder of this
• In West Africa, gombo refers to okra (the
sticky green pod of the okra plant).
• In Louisiana, gombo can refer to the okra-thickened soup or stew
called gumbo, as well as to the name of the regional Creole spoken
dialect, Gombo (or Gumbo).
• French-speaking people of South Louisiana use the word gumbo to
refer to okra when speaking French, but the soup called gumbo in English
does not necessarily contain okra.
Acadian Becomes “Cajun”
Isolation, close family ties, and strong Catholic faith knit
the Acadians into a tight cultural group whose style mixed with their close
neighbors: Native Americans, Afro-Caribbean refugees from the West Indies,
non-enslaved blacks, and various European immigrant groups. Isolated families
had only themselves for entertainment, so most learned how to play musical
instruments. Many Acadians made their own fiddles. The mostly-illiterate
Acadians didn’t write down their French language, which necessitated passing
on stories and legends through songs. The name “Acadian” slowly evolved into
As the people of rural South Louisiana mixed, the “Cajun”
musical style was shaped in important ways by Creoles, Native Americans, and
others. In the late 1800’s, German settlers introduced affordable accordions
which were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. Cajun and Creole musical
styles at this time grew in parallel: mostly two-steps and waltzes meant for
dancing, played by accordion and fiddle.
Internal and External Influences
Many black field workers prayed and gave thanks by singing, clapping their
hands, and stomping their feet in a syncopated style called juré, which is an
important root of zydeco music. By 1900, the juré songs merged with Creole and
Cajun influences into a musical tradition called La La. Rural Creoles held
musical house parties known as La La’s in prairie towns such as Opelousas,
Eunice, and Mamou.
The isolated frontier of Southwest Louisiana opened slowly to
various forces such as the railroad, radio, and the automobile. However, the
discovery of oil in 1901 at Jennings hastened the influx of outsiders and
change. Outsiders often discriminated against blacks, Cajuns, and other
minorities. In 1916, French speaking was outlawed — English became the only
language accepted in government and education. Children were punished for
speaking French in schools.
A Contemporary Anecdote: Johnny, a Cajun
craftsman who I met in 1995 at Acadian Village, Lafayette, told how as a
child he was not allowed to speak French in school. He couldn’t even
leave class for the bathroom unless he asked in English. In the course
of his lifetime, public attitudes have reversed towards speakers of
Louisiana French. Ironically, his son could not graduate from high
school without completing the four-year French requirement!
In 1928, phonograph companies began to record Cajun and Creole
music to sell more record players. These early recordings melded French
contredanses and Anglo-American jigs and reels with the syncopated rhythms and
vocal improvisation of black Louisiana slaves and the wails of local Native
Americans. “Ah-yeeeee! ... Et toi!”
The inflow of oil workers and their love for country and
western music began Americanizing Cajuns and Creoles. From about 1935 to 1950,
Cajuns and Creoles replaced the accordion with fiddle and steel guitar, and
added bass guitar and drums. After World War II, a yearning for “old time”
music brought the accordion back to Southwest Louisiana, about the same time
that rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll caught fire nationwide. Creole and
Cajun musicians also influenced each other, for example Creole musicians Amade
Ardoin and Canray Fontenot made essential contributions to Cajun music.
Cajuns gradually rediscovered pride in their culture in the late 1950’s.
The crawfish, or “mudbug,” became a major industry and star at this time.
The 1964 Newport Folk Festival helped spark a Cajun music revival. In 1968, CODOFIL
(Council for the Development of French in Louisiana) was founded, and
in 1974, Lafayette began a Cajun music festival which expanded into the
Acadiens held every September.
The Beginning of Zydeco
In the late 1940’s, Louisiana’s Creole musicians became inspired by the
rhythm and blues and jazz played on radio and juke boxes, so they eliminated the
fiddle and brought out the rubboard. From then on, the music of Creoles diverged
from Cajun music. Rural Creoles combined La La with the blues and jazz of urban
blacks to create the rollicking and syncopated sounds of zydeco.
The vest frottoir, or rubboard, helps drive and define the music of
traditional rural zydeco bands in Southwest Louisiana. Precursors to the
rubboard evolved in Africa and the Caribbean in the form of a scraped
animal jaw, a notched stick, and later, a washboard. In the pre-zydeco
1930's, sheet metal was introduced to Louisiana for roofing and barn
siding. The first rubboard was created for Clifton Chnier's brother,
Cleveland, in the 1940s.
In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded the first modern zydeco song,
“Paper in My Shoe,” a regional hit. Unfortunately, a royalty dispute
provoked Chavis to leave the music industry.
After Chavis left, Clifton Chenier popularized songs such as
“Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés” (“The snap beans aren’t salty”). This
title was a common expression describing times hard enough to provide no salted
meat to spice the beans. The French words for “the snap beans,” les haricots
(pronounced “lay zarico”), became “le zydeco,” which named this new
musical genre. Clifton Chenier reigned as the “King of Zydeco” with a career
lasting 30 years, featuring a Grammy earned in 1984. By the time of his death in
1987, Chenier had brought zydeco to international attention.
Boozoo Chavis returned in the mid-1980’s with a series of
hits which helped ignite a zydeco revival that continues today. Since the
mid-1980’s, both zydeco and Cajun music and dance have burst into worldwide
Comparing Contemporary Zydeco and Cajun Music and Dance
The rubboard player often drives the energy of zydeco music by emphasizing
strong, syncopated rhythms. Zydeco usually has no fiddle, and the music
resonates with sounds from jazz, rhythm and blues, and more recently, hip hop.
Cajun music, which usually has no rubboard, sounds closer to country music,
often melodic and sweet. Cajun musicians tend to play two-steps and waltzes in
alternation, whereas zydeco musicians play mostly two-steps, and few waltzes.
The distinctions between zydeco and Cajun music affect the
dancing styles. Cajun jitterbug, with its many turns and unique broken-leg step,
is smoother and more precise; but zydeco dancing is more soulful, as expressed
through greater hip action. Small, crowded dance halls have kept zydeco dancers
in place on the dance floor, rather than circling the room like Cajun dancers.
Dancing in a tight space to the pulsing and syncopated zydeco beat promotes a
bouncy, vertical style with few turns. In contrast, dancing around the room to
melodic Cajun music encourages smooth, horizontal movements with more turns.
Dancing into the Future
When I danced in Richard’s Club near Lawtell, Louisiana in 1995, I noticed
that older dancers danced zydeco more subtly. Younger folks danced zydeco more
conspicuously, sometimes adding moves such as hip hop in the apart position,
sometimes dropping their single held hand. One young couple gyrated with a
flamboyant African style in the apart position. The hip hop variations spun off
from the “New Zydeco” style, where they stepped on every beat and
embellished with small kicks.
From Creole family dance halls in Southwest Louisiana, a
two-step and a waltz evolved into the many styles of zydeco dancing found today
across America. Traditional zydeco dancing is done subtly, smoothly and upright
by couples in a closed position. But the “Boozoo Evolution” of the 1980’s
(named for Boozoo Chavis), made the dance bouncier, often open, bent-kneed, and
lower to the ground. In the 1990’s, the “Beau Jocque Revolution” added the
flamboyant flavor of hip-hop. Zydeco dancing appears to be evolving from a
couples dance towards individual free-style.
Just as the dancing styles change over time, zydeco (and
Cajun) music continues to evolve as musicians tour the world and absorb new
influences. This vibrant music will assuredly thrive as we dance into the new
• Cajun Country Guide, by Macon Fry and Julie Posner, Pelican
Publishing Company, Gretna, LA, 1993, ISBN #0882898310. New 2nd Edition will
be published in 1998, ISBN #1565543378. Order from any bookstore.
• Cajun Music and Zydeco, photographs by Philip Gould with an introduction by
Barry Ancelet (Louisiana
State University Press, 1992, $39.95). Dance-hall sights. The sounds can be
savored in a Rounder compact disc with the same title.
• “The Cajun & Creole Pages” on the Internet (Apparently no longer
• “What Is A Creole: One Creole’s Perspective” by Herman Fuselier,
Creole journalist from Opelousas, LA, 1995
• “What Is Zydeco?” by Herman Fuselier, 1995.
• “What Is A Cajun: One Cajun’s Perspective” by Shane K. Bernard, a
Cajun historian of Cajun culture and regional music, 1995.
• The Times-Picayune newspaper, September 9, 1995: “Steppin’ Out” by
Katheryn Krotzer-Laborde. The author quotes zydeco dance teacher Diana
Polizo-Schlesinger comparing zydeco and Cajun music and dance.
• Prairie Acadian Cultural Center, 250 W. Park Avenue, Eunice, LA 70535. (318)
• Rounder Records, flyer
for the 1995 “Red Hot Louisiana Music Tour.” 1-800-44-DISCS
• Charles Cravins, from Zydeco Extravaganza
• “Music: Hot Off the Bayou”, by Michael Walsh with reporting by David E.
Thigpen, Time Magazine, May 8, 1995.
Most excellent reference:
Michael Tisserand's “The Kingdom of Zydeco,” Spike
Trade Paperbacks, 1998
Cajun/zydeco band links for Louisiana and beyond:
of Cajun Culture
Tabasco home page:
Biography of zydeco musician with photos & RealAudio
Some zydeco people & pictures: