Styles & Forms | Cajun & Zydeco | World

Cajun emerged from a European tradition of contredanses, two-steps and waltzes; zydeco, the black equivalent, grew out of the work songs of the black farmers who had settled in Louisiana. Life in the poorest state is still hard, and cotton and crawfish still rule: at least there are some things the settlers of the eighteenth century would recognize as theirs.

French expansion into the Americas began in Acadia (later renamed Nova Scotia by the British) and ran through the Great Lakes, from Ontario on the St Lawrence River to Fort St Joseph at the southern end of Lake Michigan, then south towards the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans, that city being founded in 1718. Conflict between the French and the British, both planning global domination, erupted in 1754, and the British evicted French settlers from Acadia, resulting in many of them relocating to Louisiana.

By 1763, France’s North American territories had been claimed by Britain, and subsequent years saw Spain stake out possession of Florida and Louisiana, although the large number of French Acadians (renamed Cajuns) made them the largest culture around the prairies of Baton Rouge and Lafayette, cities that still bear French names.

Although the Cajun dialect was banned by ruling outsiders as the Union expanded and the autonomy of French and Spanish settlements disappeared, the music of the Cajuns has always held on to its French roots. However, the modern Cajun style started only in the 1920s, when the traditional fiddlers were supplemented by guitarists and accordion players. Although the accordion was able to stay in tune in the humid conditions of a dancehall in the tropics, it was unable to play the same tunes as the fiddle. So the tunes changed.

In 1928, the recording industry sought out the good-time dance music and a 78rpm disc, ‘Allons à Lafayette’, by Joseph and Cleoma Falcon, was released. Cleoma Falcon’s brother Amédé Breaux then released a recording of ‘Jolie Blonde’ (‘Pretty Blonde Girl’), which would become as important to Cajun music as the phrase ‘Woke up this morning’ would be to the blues. Another duo, Amédé Ardoin and Dennis McGee, caused a stir with their accordion and fiddle recordings, Ardoin also being a remarkable singer. What was truly striking, though, was that Ardoin was black and McGee white.

A Brief Interlude From The Hardships Of Life

In the 1930s, Cajun music changed again, as American migration from the dust-bowls along with the growth of radio, meant that people in the south were hearing country & western tunes. Drums, bass and steel guitars began to make an impact. But the tide swung back in the post-war years, thanks to two accordionists: the near-blind Iry LeJeune, who was influenced by Amédé Ardoin, and Nathan Abshire, who was a fan of the blues.

For Louisiana’s black population, known as Creoles, their music, la-la, was a brief interlude from the hardships of life. La-la (from the French for a house party) was noticeably more...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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