The Rhythm of Life On the Bayou
Cajun and Zydeco Music
Zydeco Band in Lake Charles, Louisiana
While the Cajun and Creole peoples are distinct cultures and populations, one of the things that binds them together is their love of music. And, while there are those who contend that Cajun and Zydeco music are themselves very different, for casual fans and the idle curious, their similarities far outweigh their differences.
Boisterous, danceable, and, above all, geared towards good times with friends and family, Cajun and Zydeco music, with their complex histories, are near perfect reflections of life down along the U.S. Gulf Coast
When the Acadian settlers relocated from the Canadian Maritime Provinces to Louisiana, they brought precious few instruments with them. But there was something much more important packed in their cultural baggage. They carried with them knowledge of instrumentation, and the legacy gifted to them from generations of European folk music.
Just as the “original” Acadians/Cajuns themselves are a mix of cultures (French, German, Spanish, English, Irish, Native American, Caribbean, African, and others), it stands to reason that their music would likewise be a pastiche of their heritage. And, while the early Cajun music certainly had influences from all of those cultures, according to Ann Savoy’s 1990 article on the Louisiana Folklife website, early Cajun music owes much of its structure to the vagaries and necessities of immigration as a whole. She tells us that:
“One of the earliest forms of music in Louisiana was the unaccompanied ballad. All of Louisiana's immigrants brought ballads with them, but perhaps the traditions most resistant to innovation or change were those of Acadian, French, and Spanish settlers. These narrative songs provided a means to share love stories and humorous tales. Ballads were ritually sung at weddings and funerals, and sung informally for small groups of people at house parties as the food cooked and young children played.”
As these new settlers started life in and along the inhospitable swamps, woodlands, and bayous of Louisiana, their innate sense of community and family led them to cook together, relax together, celebrate, and mourn together. As a result, Cajun culture is, to this day, marked by festivals, dances, and get togethers both formal and informal. The music of their lives plays a major part in these gatherings. Savoy’s mention of house parties and communal social gatherings is indicative of get togethers (past and present) in both the Cajun and Creole communities.
Zydeco (Creole) Music
Just as Cajun music has French roots from the Acadian settlers who came to Louisiana from the Canadian Maritime Provinces, Zydeco, thought of as the music of the Creole people, who have roots among the early land-owning classes of French settlers, can be traced back to the rhythms and lyrics of the French countryside. But Zydeco has become, like the Creoles themselves, a unique blend of bayou culture, French culture, and Gulf Coast African American culture that has changed and adapted over time.
While Zydeco may have started as the music of the Creole people, telling the stories of their lives and struggles, as African and Caribbean culture have become increasingly prevalent in Creole culture, they’ve also had an influence on Zydeco. This shift can be seen in the many Zydeco acts that have incorporated Blues, Soul, and R&B into their repertoires. That said, despite these soulful influences, Zydeco is known to have a decidedly upbeat tempo. In fact when Zydeco acts are on the marquee, most Gulf Coast natives have come to expect an evening of music with a driving beat and lightning rhythms.
Zydeco further distinguished itself from Cajun music when it began to reflect the stories, and way of life of the black Creole community. It is also often sung in a French, Spanish, or African Creole patois.
Common Aspects of Cajun & Creole Music
Both Cajun and Zydeco Music:
- have deep roots in the early Gulf Coast immigrant communities
- developed as a way of uniting their communities to share stories and perpetuate oral histories
- are rhythmic and ”danceable”
- are foundational parts of their cultures
- Make use of “found objects” (washboard & spoons) as instruments
Cajun and Zydeco Instruments & Influences
With few possessions, it’s likely that early Cajun instruments were cobbled together from common household items. Evidence of this is found the use of spoons on washboards triangles, and other rudimentary instruments employed by today’s Cajun musicians. But fiddles and accordions also play major roles in Cajun music.
While the Creole immigrants came to America, generally speaking, in a better financial position, it’s likely that they too were forced to make due, using found objects as instruments. Certainly the freed men of color, escaped slaves, and others who influenced the modern black Creole culture made due (instrumentally) with what they could find.
A clear reminder oft heir immigrant roots, use of the washboard and spoons (and other common household implements) as percussive instruments were the early distinguishing characteristics of both Cajun and Zydeco acts. But this began to change as two instruments made their way along the Gulf Coast.
Traditionally, fiddles have been associated with the earliest Louisiana music. One imagines this to be the European influence brought by early French and Spanish settlers. Later combinations of instruments saw the introduction of a second fiddle (one playing the melody, and the other focusing on the segoner, or backup line). Could this be the origin of the expression, “playing second fiddle”?
Then, somewhere in Cajun music’s complex accretion of influences, the accordion snuck on board. As a loud, sturdy instrument it could be counted on to punch through the background chaos of the surrounding festivities, and was capable of delivering a rhythmic melody. In short, it was perfect for Cajun music. Instrumentally, Zydeco music is also characterized by use of an accordion. But Zydeco tends to use a piano accordion rather than the old diatonic (button) accordion favored by many Cajun musicians.
And later, as instrument technology improved, drums, and stringed instruments such as mandolins, banjos, and various guitars (steel, bass, and others), both electric and acoustic, found there way on stage with Cajun and Zydeco bands. As with most things in Cajun and Creole culture, the instrumentation of Cajun & Zydeco music borrows a bit from here and a bot from there, and makes do as best it can. The message seems to be that making music is more about why (what’s being said or expressed) than how (the instrumentation).
Modern Cajun & Zydeco Music
Radio and the Internet have been a boon to independent musicians trying to promote their music. For established, but non-mainstream, musical genres like Cajun & Zydeco, radio and the Internet have proven to be worthy collaborators in the struggle to get the music heard. Today it is possible to hear Cajun & Zydeco music anywhere on the planet that has an internet connection. As a result, the numbers of fans and players have grown immensely. It is now possible to see Cajun & Zydeco acts playing in most “major” U.S. Cities, and in many large cities around the world. But guaranteeing the authenticity of the music is another issue. The best bet for catching true, stylistically faithful, lyrically inspired Cajun & Zydeco music is to explore the many Cajun music festivals, local civic events in small Louisiana towns, and Cajun dance parties (fais do-dos) down along the Gulf Coast (particularly in southwestern and south central Louisiana).
Many musicians and listeners use the terms Cajun and Zydeco somewhat interchangeably, but Cajun & Zydeco music come from distinct, but similar, cultural backgrounds and utilize distinctive but similar instrumentation and lyrical styles. If you are interested in learning more about Cajun & Zydeco music, I recommend using the Internet to scout locations and get reviews of bands, but, more than anything, I encourage you to go and see live shows. The energy of live Cajun & Zydeco acts is powerfully infectious, and should be actively supported as a living, breathing cultural treasure.
Sources (and External Links)
The author/editor is indebted to others for the content in this article. While the final product on this page is ours, and we claim full ownership and responsibility for same, what you read here is based on our research which led us to the following sources of information: