Editor's Log Z Is for Zydeco
Polkadate June 2019. As a complement to the cover story, this month’s column will discuss the other music from Southwestern Louisiana. Zydeco music has developed alongside the Cajun sound with the varying degrees of popularity that the public dictated. It has shown a strong resurgence in the last several decades and is always a blast to hear it.
The French arrived after being torn from their new homes in Northeast Canada (see cover story). The Creoles, as it applies in Louisiana were originally a mixture of French and Spanish heritage resulting from the French Acadians moving into Spanish territory of Southwest Louisiana in the 1700s. As more ethnic groups sought refuge there, the races kept mingling. Those of pure ancestry looked down on the mixed race individuals and began lumping then into one category - Creole; whether French/Spanish, French/ Black, Anglo/Black, pure African slave from the Caribbean, or a dozen other combinations, however the common denominator was that they all spoke French.
While little is known about the first hundred years of Creole music, the Lomax (see cover story) recordings in the 1930s revealed basic sounds that are found in the Caribbean and are traced back to Africa - rhythmic handclapping, call and response vocals, and drums. These sounds mixed with French accordions, Spanish guitars, and a unique instrument, a frottoir or washboard, stroked with spoons, which has become the symbol of zydeco.
It is generally accepted that the word "zydeco" gets its name from a colloquial Creole French expression “Les haricots ne sont pas salés” meaning “the snap beans aren’t salty” a euphemism for “the times are hard.” Like the blues, early zydeco offered a way for the rural poor both to express and to escape the hardships of life through music and dance. The word became a noun as folks were prone to say “Are you going to the zydeco?” putting their own spin on the Cajun fais do-do, party or dance.
Due to the Jim Crow culture of the southern U.S., zydeco music was mostly ignored by most people, even by other musicians. Several recordings were made between 1928 and 1934, but public interest in French zydeco retreated into music that was played at house dances and local festivals in the fields and woods of this intensely rural area.
NEW PURPOSE FOR THE WASHBOARD
As with all music, zydeco evolved as trends and technology were introduced including the frottoir or rubboard. As zydeco slowly progressed through the 1900s, the primary rhythm instrument was the washboard, the same used to do laundry in a washtub. It was rubbed with either spoons or “church keys” and I’m sure that mère’s (mother) washboard was never used, at least not without her knowing it.
In 1946, transplanted Louisianan Willie Landry was working at a Port Arthur refinery as a metal fabricator alongside the Chenier brothers, Clift on and Cleveland. The brothers were just starting out with their zydeco band and Clifton was redefining the zydeco sound with more energy. Cleveland was the rhythm man to Clifton’s accordion and had been using the standard wood-frame washboard with a rope tied to the frame and hung around his neck for support.
One day at work, Clifton approached Landry and sketched out a design in the dirt and asked Landry to take some stainless steel and construct the design. The result was the single sheet of metal with ribs on the front and two arms which hooked over a player’s neck for support. The timing was perfect for Landry as zydeco was becoming more popular with Clifton’s fame. When other musicians saw that design they wanted one also. Landry formed a company manufacturing rubboards, called Key of Z. Willie's son, Tee Don, who has his own band, still manages the company today, based in Sunset, Louisiana.
KING OF ZYDECO
Clifton Chenier and his band, the Zydeco Ramblers, along with Boozoo Chavis and others, kept playing small venues with the unique sound of early 1950s rhythm and blues with some rock-n-roll thrown in with the piano accordion as the lead instrument. After years of playing in dance halls nestled back in the Louisiana woods and swamps, Chenier was finally convinced to cut a record in 1954.
The sound was reminiscent of Chuck Berry except with the accordion up front. Ay 'Tite Fille (Hey, Little Girl) was mostly in French as that was still the primary music language. The record received national attention and Clifton joined package shows which toured the U.S. Clifton said that he retreated into his French roots as the market became flooded with rockabilly. In the next several years he began adding trumpets and saxophones developing a real funky sound based around his accordion.
In the 1960s, he was playing large festivals and when the television show Austin City Limits debuted in 1976, he was one of the first guests. In the 1980s, Clifton was winning Grammys, having film documentaries made about him, touring Europe. At the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, where no one in the audience knew anything about Clifton, the audience saw the piano accordion on stage and began whispering, "Lawrence Welk?"
When this Black man wearing a crown (King of Zydeco) walked on stage, the gasps were audible, and his band blew them away playing zydeco, rock, blues, and Glenn Miller swing. The power of Clifton as a promoter of his culture cannot be understated. Even when his health began deteriorating he kept performing up until one week before his death in 1987. His son, C.J., who was in his band, has carried on the tradition with his father’s Red Hot Louisiana Band, and believe me, they are HOT!
Another shining light in zydeco is Buckwheat Zydeco. His father was a well-known Creole accordionist keeping the old music alive, but being a young man, Buckwheat wasn’t interested in his father’s music. He loved the organ and rose up through the ranks to be playing keyboards behind national RnB acts. He then led a funk band for five years before he sat down and played with Clifton Chenier. After the fourth straight hour of jamming, Buckwheat discovered the music he was really meant to play. Buckwheat played keyboards in Clifton's band and started learning piano accordion. Within a year he struck out one his own with his own band, named Buckwheat Zydeco (his real name is Stanley Doral Jr.).
Buckwheat Zydeco was winning major awards after several years and was getting some airplay on national radio. Eric Clapton had him open for his significant 12-day concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and they have toured the world together multiple times. His records are major sellers in the zydeco industry. Buckwheat’s devotion to his music is clarified in his contract: "the word Cajun will not be used in promotion."
DON'T MESS WITH MY...
Undoubtably the most radio exposure received by a zydeco band and song was Rocking Sydney’s Don’t Mess With My Toot-Toot. To clarify what a Toot-Toot is, of which there are dozens of thoughts, Sydney Simien doesn’t really know the origin. It was just a phrase that Cajun folks said about something that was really special. He remembers his grandmother pinching his baby sister on the cheek and saying she was her little toot-toot.
The song went viral on almost all radio stations, all formats. Recently, at the Texas Folklife accordion show, Cedryl Ballou and the Zydeco Trendsetters were performing their zydeco set when Josh Baca came on stage with his yellow and white New Mexican accordion. Josh is one of the premier Tejano accordionists and plays in his uncle Max Baca’s band Los Texmaniacs. Josh and Cedral were trading off zydeco riffs and then Josh stepped up to the mic and kicked into My Toot-Toot, and when they were really trading accordion licks, the crowd at the Bob Bullock museum formed a line dance all the way across the space and the audience was singing along.
The soulful blues' sound of saxophones had really taken the stage alongside accordions in the last half on the 1900s. After 1960s, the Jim Crow culture weakened but the Southwestern Louisianans were still faced with the fact that “they were too Black to be French, and too French to be Black.”
They began researching their culture and promoting it. Their turning point was the first Zydeco Festival in Plaisance near Opelousas in the 1980s. After that it was shaky as Chenier passed away in 1987, and he was the guarantee of a crowd to show up at festivals. Others such as Buckwheat, Chavis, Rockin’ Sydney, and C.J. Chenier stepped up the plate and carried the torch quite well into the 2000s. Paul Simon’s (Simon & Garfunkel) song That Was Your Mother (Zydeco), referred to Buckwheat and the pleasures of zydeco music. Simon’s release enabled zydeco to reach a whole new set of ears as did sharing the stage numerous times.
Zydeco moved into the 2000s with Terrance Simien and His Mallet Playboys leading the charge when he and his band were featured in a popular movie, The Big Easy. After several successful tours and CD sales, he and his wife produced a program aimed at children encouraging zydeco music and culture.
The real music and culture is still there, it's just a little harder to find the real stuff. As a master accordionist and maker, Marc Savoy commented he was worried that the Cajun (Cajun & Zydeco) culture might die from “acute cuteness.” He has found that he can go fishing in a Cajun-brand bass boat with Cajun-brand crickets for bait and Cajun-brand ice in a Cajun-brand ice chest to keep the catch cold before you cook it in a Cajun-brand cooker.
Today’s zydeco is staying afloat and trying to keep the children educated with school programs and television shows about their unique culture. Maybe other cultures that are worth preserving should try a little harder. As Dewey Balfa, says, “A culture is preserved one generation at a time.”
And stay away from McDonald’s “Cajun” meals, Popeye’s is the place to find Louisiana food. The writer has queried several Cajuns and they say it’s the closest to the real thing. But if you're heading to the casinos on I-10, just on the other side of Breaux Bridge at the Cecilia exit on the north side next to Landry’s (ha) is the Boudin Shop. They make the best this writer has found. Two of them will last you across the Atchafalaya Basin’s 18-mile bridge.