Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



A genre of USA black music, indigenous to southwest Louisiana and West Texas, the equivalent of white Cajun and often very similar to it. 'La La' (la musique Créole) was a dance music created from the meeting of Cajun, old French and African-American idioms from the mid-19th century onwards; the tightly-knit community was upended by conscription during WWII and urban and country blues crept in, making zydeco (aka zodico; there are many spellings). Blues had a two-way impact, a zydeco influence appearing in the work of Leadbelly and Lightnin' Hopkins. Although the culture came from Louisiana, zydeco emerged post-war in dance halls and taverns in Texas, where Creoles had gone to find work (see John Minton's 'Houston Creoles and Zydeco: The Emergence of an African-American Urban Style' in American Music Vol. 14 no. 4).

The term seems to have come from a creolized pronunciation of les haricots, the greeting 'Tu vas faire z'haricots?' ('Are you getting your beans?' meaning 'How are you?') The one-step dance tune 'Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés' ('the beans aren't salted') came from a possible reply (meaning 'I'm barely getting by'); soon people were saying 'Let's go to the zodico', a dance party, and there is a verbal form ('Zydeco, baby!'). Various African words for dancing have also been proposed; in the Creole Island in the Indian Ocean, where French planters and African slaves worked in the 18th century, the accordion-based dance music is called 'séga zarico', and a pretty girl is 'cari zarico' (hot bean soup). Versions of 'Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés' included those of Clifton Chenier (Louisiana Blues And Zydeco) and Albert Chevallier (Zydeco compilation, both on Arhoolie); a children's version appears on Songs Of Childhood (Library of Congress Recorded Library). Compilation Louisiana Swamp Blues '97 on Capitol compiles Chenier's first recordings, Boozoo Chavis etc.
Zydeco is characterized by syncopated, driving rhythms; zydeco musicians call Cajun music 'French' and insist on the difference. (Afro-Caribbean elements have also been proposed by researchers, but zydeco musicians have not recognized this.) The piano accordion replaced Cajun's diatonic instrument; the saxophone tended to oust the fiddle, one of the best saxists in the genre being John Hart (with Rockin' Dopsie). Rub- or washboard (frittoir, worn like a metal vest) adds a percussive rhythm. Amplification and rhythm sections of drums and electric bass have further coloured the music. Rockin' Sidney (b Sidney Simien, 9 April 1938, Lebeau LA; d 25 February 1998) is best known for 'My Toot Toot'; four LPs included My Zydeco Shoes Got The Zydeco Blues '84 on Maison de Soul, also Hotsteppin' '87 on JSP. Queen Ida (b Ida Lewis, Lake Charles LA, later based on West Coast) was billed as the Queen of Zydeco, appeared with her Bon Temps Zydeco Band in the Francis Ford Coppola film Rumble Fish; albums on GNP. Accordionist Stanley 'Buckwheat' Dural Jr played keyboards in R&B bands, joined Chenier for three years, formed Buckwheat Zydeco and the Ils Sont Partis Band '79, using many elements 'like good jambalaya'; appeared in film The Big Easy; his On A Night Like This '87 was the first zydeco on a 'major' label (on Island; see Buckwheat's entry). Boozoo Chavis (b Wilson Anthony Chavis, Church Point LA; d 5 May 2001, Austin TX) had hits such as 'Paper In My Shoe' '54, dropped out of the scene for some years but returned to become a patriarch from the 1980s, playing a diatonic button accordion and staying close to his rural roots.