Cajun Corner – 10 Cajun/Zydeco Songs That Weren’t Cajun/Zydeco Songs

When I get out and about on my missionary work, preaching the Cajun gospel to unbelievers, the two disparaging comments I hear most often are “The songs are so obscure” and “It’s all sung in French”. It takes a strong man not to cry and, I’ll admit, I have shed a tear or two on occasions. But, a true believer doesn’t waiver in the face of such criticism; we gird our loins (oo’er missus) and set out to prove the heathens wrong.

Here are ten songs that started life in a different guise but, in order to bring them into the light, have been ‘Cajuned Up’ just to prove that Cajun music doesn’t have to be obscure or unknown. And many of them are even sung in English!

10) Fairport Convention ‘Si Tu Dois Partir

Let’s start with the UK’s very own Fairport Convention and their ‘Cajunised’ version of Dylan’s ‘If You Gotta Go’. It’s not really a genuine Cajun version, but it serves as a decent illustration. The story runs that, back in the late 60s, Fairport Convention were playing a gig at the then famous Middle Earth and thought it would be entertaining to do a Cajun version of a Dylan song. They chose this because the Manfred Mann version had recently been in the charts, and they asked if there was anyone in the audience who could translate the lyrics into French. As Richard Thompson observed later, “About three people turned up, so it was really written by committee, and consequently ended up not very Cajun, French or Dylan.” Released as a single in 1969 it featured Thompson on accordion, Dave Swarbrick on fiddle, and Trevor Lucas playing the triangle. It enjoyed moderate success and gave the band what is probably their only Top of the Pops appearance, though the recording has been long lost. Fittingly, perhaps, the ‘percussion break’ towards the end of the recording is rumoured to be a pile of chairs falling over!

9) Johnie Allan ‘Promised Land’

A Swamp Pop track that has probably become a more popular version than the original rock ‘n’ roll song that spawned it. Swamp pop was a fusion of Cajun and Rock ‘n’ Roll and many of the swamp pop artists changed their names to more anglicised versions to be more acceptable to the mainstream. Johnnie Allan was born John Allen Guillot, in Rayne, Louisiana.

The song was written by Chuck Berry around 1962, while he was serving a prison sentence, though he only penned the lyrics, the melody being taken from American folk song ‘The Wabash Cannonball’. It was Berry’s first American recording after he was released from prison and rose to number 41 on the Billboard charts.

Allan’s version, which added a Cajun accordion riff to spice up the beat, was released ten years later, in 1972, and has gone on to become one of the defining songs of the swamp pop movement. Like all swamp pop songs, it’s delivered in English, despite the singer’s Cajun roots. It is, however, possible to hear this song in French. Gallic rocker Johnny Hallyday recorded a version under the title ‘La Terre Promise’.

8) Charles Mann ‘Walk of Life’

This time we have a British pop/rock song reinterpreted by a bona fide Cajun. Charles Louis Domingue was born in Welsh, Louisiana, in 1944 and came to prominence as a Swamp Pop artist under the name Charles Mann. Mann had his biggest hit in the States with another Cajunised pop song, a version of Neil Diamond’s ‘Red Red Wine’ but he scored relatively well in the UK when Cooking Vinyl signed him up and released his version of this Mark Knopfler song, that first saw light on the 1985 Dire Straits album, “Brothers In Arms”. Mann’s version was released in 1989, ahead of his album of the same name that was released the following year. Mann was inducted into the Louisiana Hall of Fame that same year and is still performing to this day.

7) Amanda Shaw & The Cute Guys ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’

Amanda Christian Amaya-Shaw, born in Mandeville, Louisiana, is a Cajun fiddle prodigy who started playing classical violin at the age of 4 and switched to Cajun music when she was 8. This track, released as a single, comes from her second independently released album, 2004’s “I’m Not a Bubble Gum Pop Princess”, recorded when she was just 14. This version of the well-known Clash song is really just an opportunity to show off her incendiary fiddle playing but she is known for her eclectic choice of material, mixing traditional Cajun tunes with more modern material often taken from the punk and grunge genres.

6) The Balham Alligators ‘Six Days On the Road’

Caerphilly is a long way from Southern Louisiana but if any non-Cajun can be said to embody the spirit of Cajun music then Welsh musician, Geraint Watkins, must be a prime candidate. His outstanding pub rock band, The Balham Alligators, formed in 1983, were put together with the express intention of introducing the pub rock scene to Cajun and Zydeco music. Driven by Watkins’ fine accordion and piano playing, they often ‘Cajunised’ well-known songs such as ‘Lawdy Miss Clawdy’, ‘Let’s Go to the Hop’ and this excellent version of the trucking song, ‘Six Days on the Road’, originally written by Earl Green and Carl Montgomery and made famous by country singer, Dave Dudley. It was also a big hit for country rock band, Sawyer Brown and has been covered by the likes of Steve Earle, George Thorogood, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and The New Riders of the Purple Sage, among others. But nobody thought to put a Cajun accordion and fiddle on it until Geraint and the Alligators came along.

5) Joe Bonsall & The Orange Playboys ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’

Lake Charles accordion player, Joe Bonsall, formed the Orange Playboys in Orange, Texas, way back in the early 1960s. ‘Bad, Bad Leroy Brown’ was written by the folk singer/songwriter Jim Croce, and was his only number 1 hit record before he died, in a tragic light aircraft crash, at the age of just 30. He wrote the song in the early 70s, based on a guy he’d known in the army.

Joe Bonsall’s version would’ve been recorded after the Croce original but the exact year isn’t known. This version adds a quite jaunty signature Cajun accordion and fiddle to the mix and is, of course, sung in the Cajun patois that leans heavily on French but isn’t French as we might recognise it.

4) Lee Benoit ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’

Lee Benoit, from Rayne, Louisiana, is a Cajun musician who started out as a guitarist, fronting a rock band influenced by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival. It was hearing the Cajun accordion player, Wayne Toups, that turned Benoit on to the accordion as an instrument and to Cajun music in particular. By that time he was 29 but he was clearly destined to acknowledge his musical heritage as his first album, 1994’s “Avec Amis”, was nominated for the ‘Best First Album’ award by the Cajun French Music Association. He racked up six well received albums and was inducted into the Cajun Music Hall of Fame before severe back injury forced his retirement from playing and recording. ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ is an old-time country standard, probably best known for Dan Tyminski’s version of it on the “Oh Brother” film soundtrack.

3) Nathan Abshire ‘Games People Play’

Nathan Abshire was born in 1913. A real old-school Cajun from Gueydan, Louisiana, so it’s particularly interesting to hear him take on a popular song like ‘Games People Play’. Abshire is one of the greats of early Cajun accordion playing, first picking up the instrument when he was six years old and encouraged by his parents and an uncle, who all played the instrument. He started performing at the age of eight and was mentored by the great Creole accordionist, Amédé Ardoin. In his youth, his first language was Cajun French, and he had trouble speaking English. Many considered him arrogant because he wouldn’t sign autographs, not knowing that he was illiterate and only learned to read, and to sign his name, later in life.

Understandably, this is quite a traditional Cajun approach to interpreting Joe South’s song, which has become such a country soul standard. Unsurprisingly, Abshire sings it in French and it gives the song a very different feel, showing that Cajun music often plumbs undiscovered depths in a covered tune.

2) The Mudbugs Cajun & Zydeco Band ‘I’m On Fire’

The Boss gets the Cajun treatment! And it works surprisingly well. The Mudbugs are a great band that hail from the less than traditional Cajun location of Wichita, Kansas, but manage to bring a real Cajun feel to their excellent cover of this Springsteen song, perhaps because singer and fiddle player, Carter Green, can trace his ancestry straight back to Acadia, Nova Scotia, the original settling place of the people now known as Cajuns.

The band also covers more traditional songs, singing in both French and English, but are also happy to bring a Cajun influence to bear on songs like this and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered’. A decidedly fresh take on Cajun music.

1) ‘Buckwheat Zydeco ‘Beast of Burden’

Fitting to top this ten song list with Stanley Dural Jnr, who was better known as Buckwheat Zydeco, the name he performed under throughout the forty years of his musical career. Officially, he and his Zydeco band were Buckwheat Zydeco and Ils Sont Partis (They Have Left) but almost from the off the band and the player were considered one and the same. Buckwheat Zydeco, started out in the early 70s, bringing a real rock and roll attitude to Cajun and Zydeco music. Buckwheat began his Cajun music career backing the great pioneering Creole musician, Clifton Chenier, and going on to front his own band and play with the likes of Eric Clapton and U2. U.S.A. Today called him a “Zydeco trail blazer” and it seems appropriate that he would apply his style of music to this Jagger and Richards composition, taken from the 1978 album “Some Girls”. 

There you have it. Ten songs drawn from rock, country, and folk, now welcomed into the world of Cajun/Zydeco and proving that anything can sound that bit better with a little fiddle and accordion thrown into the mix. Here endeth the lesson for today; may the Gumbo be with you.


About Rick Bayles 354 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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Jeremy Courtnadge

Nice article. Maybe a mention is due to ‘Marie Marie’, written by Dave Alvin. He wrote it with a Cajun performance in mind but I don’t think it’s been recorded by a Cajun band. Dave used to do it live with Chris Gaffney on accordion. Wonderful sound.

Jeremy Courtnadge

Thanks for the response, Rick. Maybe I missed something but I don’t understand the Texas connection. Dave and Phil Alvin, and The Blasters, started out from California. ‘Marie Marie’ was one of their earliest songs.

Michael Macy

Rick, Thanks for another great column on Zydeco and for all you do to keep us all informed about this energetic and life affirming element of Americana. Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler!

Martin Johnson

You can’t possibly hope to get this right in one top 10, Rick. I think there probably needs to be a volume two.