Some years ago I went to the States to do some work. It was, in fact, my first ever trip to the States and I was going to be working in New Orleans – something akin to visiting another planet, let alone another country. I was living in the heart of the French District and, once I got to grips with the whole experience, loving every minute of it. I’d only been there a couple of weeks when some of my colleagues announced that they were going on the “Cajun run” and did I want to go with them! They were off to check out some of the up and coming Cajun and Zydeco bands for possible festival appearances. At this point in time, I hadn’t got a clue what Cajun or Zydeco was, but I was there for the wealth of new experiences so, of course, I went along for the ride. There followed one of the most bizarre, and extremely influential musical experiences of my life. We spent a long weekend driving through the backroads of Louisiana, stopping off at roadside bars and clubs to listen to bands who sang in a strange, French patois to an accompaniment of violins, accordions and what looked like a selection of outdated kitchen implements, masquerading as a percussion section. It was culture shock on a grand scale and, when I recovered from it, I was totally and utterly hooked on what I consider to be some of the finest roots music to come out of the deep south. Cajun, and its rockier, bluesier, Creole cousin, Zydeco, is the ultimate party music. Once that accordion starts up and the other instruments swing in behind it your feet can’t stay still and you just want to dance. It’s a music that’s full of passion and joie de vivre while reflecting the life of the rural communities of the Louisiana swamplands.
“Cajuns”, a corruption of Acadians, are broadly descended from the French settlers who occupied eastern Canada but were displaced by the British in the hostilities leading up to the Seven Year War (1756 to ‘63). An influx of Creoles, descended from slaves held in the French and Spanish households in the early settlement of Louisiana, brought an even richer cultural mix into these rural communities, resulting in the heady combination of country, folk and blues, tinged with chanson, flamenco and rock and roll, that gives us the modern-day sound of Cajun and Zydeco. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
Doug Kershaw – ‘Louisiana Man’
Doug Kershaw is the quintessential Cajun musician. Born in Cameron Parish, Louisiana, Kershaw was eight years old before he spoke English, having been raised in a French speaking household. By that time he was already an accomplished fiddle player, he started on the instrument at the age of five. Kershaw would eventually teach himself to play some twenty-eight different instruments, including the main Cajun trilogy of fiddle, accordion and guitar. He’s still going strong to this day – 84 years young.
Boozoo Travis – ‘Paper in My Shoe’
Boozoo Travis was one of the pioneers of commercial Zydeco music. Hailing from the Creole Cajun village of Pied des Chiens, he grew up in a musical family where most of his relatives would play an instrument of some sort. Self-taught on the accordion, ‘Paper in My Shoe’ was his first recording, in 1954, and is widely acknowledged as the first-ever commercial Zydeco recording and the first hit record in this style.
Queen Ida – ‘Jambalaya’
Cajun and Zydeco are both male-dominated musical genres. Though there are plenty of female musicians playing these styles and, these days, bands often include female members, the majority of band leaders have, traditionally, been male. Probably the first woman to break this stereotype was Ida Lewis Guillory, known far and wide as ‘Queen Ida’. Along with her Bon Temps Band, she brought a Tex Mex influence into Zydeco music (having moved from Louisiana to Texas at a young age), further spicing up the musical mixture.
Beau Soleil – ‘Zydeco Gris Gris’
Best known for their leader and outstanding fiddle player, Michael Doucet, Beau Soleil are one of the best Cajun bands around and have been since they first started performing in the mid-1970s. They’ve always experimented with genres and their sets are a stunning mash-up of Cajun, Zydeco, jazz, calypso, rock and roll, r&b – you name it and there’s a good chance Beau Soleil will play it. But it will always come back to their Cajun roots. Though they have over thirty excellent recordings to their name, live performances are where this band really shines.
Clifton Chenier – ‘Squeeze Box Boogie’
Known as the King of Zydeco, and with good reason, Clifton Chenier was a virtuoso accordion player but is also credited as the creator of the ‘vest frottoir’, the tin apron that some washboard players use for this music. Chenier racked up an impressive collection of hits in the course of his career and was the very first artist to play at legendary Austin, Texas venue ‘Antones.’
Zachary Richard – ‘Laisse Le Vent Souffller’
Zachary Richard is a different kind of Cajun musician. Highly educated he brings a scholarly approach to his work and, as well as being a successful recording artist, he has written three volumes of poetry as well as a number of children’s books. His music is powerful and his lyrics especially expressive, as you might expect from a man who was made a Member of the Order of Canada “for his contributions as an author, composer, singer and poet, and for his important role in defending and promoting the French language and the “Cadian” and Acadian identity”!
Rosie Ledet – ‘Sweet Brown Sugar’
Known as ‘The Zydeco Sweetheart’, Rosie Ledet is one of the newer breed of Cajun artists who grew up listening to rock music. She didn’t develop an interest in Cajun and Zydeco music until she attended a Boozoo Chavis concert and got hooked on his style of accordion playing. Backed by her band, the Zydeco Playboys, which includes her husband on bass guitar, she’s known for her sultry style and slightly risqué lyrics.
Johnnie Allan – ‘Promised Land’
The line between Cajun music and what music writers have come to call ‘Swamp Rock’ is a thin one indeed and Johnnie Allan is the musician who did more to blur that line than anyone. Born in Rayne, Louisiana, Allan was Cajun through and through and started his musical career, at the age of 13, playing in traditional Cajun bands. Then, at the age of 18, he witnessed an Elvis Presley performance and started to incorporate rock and roll into his playing style. The result was his signature rockabilly-Cajun sound as heard on his classic cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’.
Sonny Landreth – ‘Back to Bayou Teche’
Landreth was born in Canton, Mississippi, but grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country. Though primarily a blues musician, you can hear heavy Cajun influences in his music and he’s sometimes referred to as the “King of slydeco”, a pun on his abilities as a slide guitarist. This is a good example of his incorporation of Cajun influence in his music, you can hear it in the phrasing of the song and it would be easy to imagine an accordion playing the slide guitar riffs. Bayou Teche is a Louisiana waterway of significant importance.
Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys – ‘La Danse de Mardi Gras’
Riley and his band formed in the late 1980s and have been a major force in Cajun circles ever since. Riley is another exceptional accordionist and his partnership with fellow bandleader and fiddle player, David Greely, made the band stand out from the very beginning. Sadly, Greely had to retire from performance back in 2011, due to hearing problems, but Riley and the band continue to this day. This is an outstanding track that sees Steve Riley start out dueting on violin and finish off playing the accordion, effortlessly switching between the two.
Great list Rick and a nice overview of one of americana’s tributaries
Promised land is an all time classic!
A great celebration of this genre Rick, which I often feel is overlooked. I saw Queen Ida at the Cambridge Folk Festival many moons ago…boy that was fun.
Good to see some love for Cajun music. I envy you seeing Queen Ida – I bet that was a great gig.
Thanks Rick – prompt for the next selection mebbe: Rory Gallagher’s King of Zydeco from 1990’s Fresh Evidence.
PS: Say hi to Mark for me.