French: les haricots
or le zaricot
, English: green beans
or snap beans
Zydeco is a form of American roots or folk music. It evolved in southwest Louisiana in the early 19th century from forms of Louisiana Creole music. The rural black Creoles of southwest Louisiana and southeast Texas still sing in Creole French.
Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a "rub-board," "scrub-board," or frottoir, zydeco music was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.
Sometimes the music moved to the Catholic Church community center, as Creoles were mostly Catholic. Later it moved to rural dance halls and nightclubs. As a result, the music integrated waltzes, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and most dance music forms of the era. Today, the tradition of change and evolution in the music continues. It stays current while integrating even more genres such as R&B, soul, brass band, reggae, urban hip-hop, ska, rock, Afro-Caribbean and other styles, in addition to the traditional forms.
For 150 years, Louisiana Creoles enjoyed an insular lifestyle, prospering, educating themselves without the government and building their invisible communities under the Code Noir. The French created the Code Noir in 1724 to establish rules for treatment of slaves, as well as restrictions and rights for gens de couleur libres, a growing class of free people of color. They had the right to own land, something few blacks in the American South had at that time.
The disruption of the Louisiana Creole community begun when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and Americans started settling in the state. The new settlers typically recognized only the simplistic system of race that prevailed where they came from. When the American Civil War ended and the black slaves were freed, Louisiana Creoles often assumed positions of leadership because of their decades of freedom and education. However, in their desperation to assume complete white hegemony, conservative Democrats in Louisiana classified Creoles with freedmen and by the end of the 19th century had disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites under rules designed to suppress black voting (though federal law said all black men had the vote from 1870, women from 1920). Creoles continued to press for education and advancement while negotiating the new society.
Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was also often just called French music or le musique Creole known as "la-la." Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of Creole music in 1928. This Creole music served as a foundation for what later became known as zydeco.
In the mid-1950s, the popularity of Clifton Chenier brought zydeco to the fringes of the American mainstream. He signed with Specialty Records, the same label that first recorded Little Richard and Sam Cooke for wide audiences. Chenier, considered the architect of contemporary zydeco, became the music's first major star, with early hits like "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" (The Snap Beans Ain't Salty — a reference to the singer being too poor to afford salt pork to season the beans).
The term "zydeco" was a corruption of les haricots (French for the beans), and the name for the music was born. However, this was not the first zydeco song: in 1954, Boozoo Chavis, another popular zydeco artist, had recorded "Paper in My Shoe." This is considered to be the first modern zydeco recording, though the term "zydeco" was not in use yet.
In the mid-1980s, Clifton Chenier, Rockin' Sidney and Queen Ida, all garnered Grammy awards during this pivotal period, opening the door to the emerging artists who would continue the traditions. Ida is the only living Grammy award winner in the genre. Rockin' Dopsie recorded with Paul Simon and also signed a major label deal during this time.
John Delafose was wildly popular regionally. The music took a major turn because emerging bands burst onto the national scene to fuse a new exuberance, new sounds and styles with the music. Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose, Roy Carrier, Zydeco Force, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, the Sam Brother, Terrance Simien, Chubby Carrier, and many others were breathing new life into the music. Zydeco superstar Buckwheat Zydeco was already well into his career, and also signed his deal with major label Island Records in the mid 1980s. Combined with the national popularity of Creole and Cajun food, and the feature film The Big Easy set in New Orleans, zydeco music had a revival. New artists were cultivated and the music took a more innovative direction for increased mainstream popularity.
Young zydeco musicians, such as C. J. Chenier, Chubby Carrier, Geno Delafose, Terrance Simien, Nathan Williams and others began touring internationally during the 1980s. Beau Jocque was a monumental innovator who infused zydeco with powerful beats and bass lines in the 90s, adding striking production and elements of funk, hip-hop and rap. Young performers like Chris Ardoin, Keith Frank, and Zydeco Force added further by tying the sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called "double clutching."