Interview: Corey Ledet on zydeco’s history and modern relevance

Modern day Zydeco star Corey Ledet looks back at his family’s19th century musical history and explains the joys of zydeco

We may be in the middle of winter and experiencing the worst pandemic for a hundred years, but Americana UK is pleased to bring some colour, spice and fun with Martin Johnson’s interview with zydeco musician Corey Ledet who has a new album ‘Corey Ledet Zydeco’ released on 15th January. Corey Ledet is only the latest in a long line of Creole musicians in his family that stretches back to the roots of early jazz with his great grandfather playing with early jazz legend Bunk Johnson and his grandfather’s groundbreaking drum work with zydeco originator Clifton Chenier. In the interview, Corey Ledet gives more details on his family’s fascinating musical history and on the wider cultural aspects of Creole culture including his developing culinary skills. While zydeco may be viewed as folk music it is similar to bluegrass in that it was developed by one musician, Bill Monroe for Bluegrass and Clifton Chenier for zydeco, from various strands of folk type of music. Corey Ledet is an enthusiastic ambassador for Creole culture and zydeco music, gaining a Grammy nomination in 2013 for Best Regional Roots Music Album for ‘Nothin’ But The Best’, and his enthusiasm will bring much-needed smiles to readers’ faces.

I hope everything is OK with you and yours COVID-wise.

Yeah, we have escaped the worst of it apart from the impact on touring and what have you.

How did Louisiana respond to the election result?

It turned out pretty good I guess, as good as it is gonna be.

Can fill in some historical cultural facts. Most people in Europe think of Louisiana as swamps and ‘gators and Texas is oil and cowboys but there is considerable cultural overlap between the two states. What is the background to Houston Zydeco music?

Yeah, the states are right next door to each other. There was a timeframe right around the early 1900s a lot of people like the Cajuns and Creoles left Louisiana for work as there was no way for them to make a living in Louisiana. A lot of them went to California and there is still a big Creole community in California, and also in Houston which is maybe three hours up the road from where I am now. My dad went from Louisiana to Houston for work as people were still doing in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Your family has a musical history I’ve heard.

It goes pretty deep. I have always heard the family stories but I have also been doing a lot of research lately and it goes back pretty far and I am proud of it.

You have some fairly big names in there I believe.

Yeah, I found out that my great grandfather, who was called Gabriel Ledet, played the upright bass and he played with jazz icon Bunk Johnson.

You can’t get much better than that for family history can you?

It really surprised me. My dad always did tell me that your great grandfather played bass and that is where he kinda left it. Louis Michot, of Nouveau Electric Records, gave me a book about Bunk Johnson and everything was documented. They had the timeframe they were playing, the names of the band members and everything like that and I am like whoa this is really cool.

That would be about a hundred years ago if not longer wouldn’t it? Wasn’t your grandfather drummer as well?

Yeah, it was. My grandfather and my dad’s dad, Gabriel’s son, was born in 1910. He played with Clifton Chenier but before he got together with Clifton he had family bands around Parks and New Iberia, Louisiana, and he was in a bunch of jazz bands that Gabriel also played in with a bunch of cousins as well. They were doing like early jazz, be-bop, swing and big band stuff as time was progressing around the ‘20s, 30s and ‘40s. Clifton Chenier, The King of Zydeco, came around in the late ‘40s early ‘50s with zydeco with the big accordion and full bands and when he came by my grandfather would go play with Clifton Chenier, playing zydeco.

Didn’t your grandfather help develop a zydeco rhythm?

Yeah, they call it the Double Clutch beat and he was the one who was putting all those beats in there at the time he was playing with Clifton Chenier. Those are old beats. Those beats are in every style of music, they have some in ragtime and in syncopation, jazz and all kinds of stuff, and he was putting what he was playing with the jazz bands and the family into the zydeco with Clifton Chenier.

To help our readers out, a bit of clarification now. Zydeco is black rural Louisiana music and cajun is white music from the same location?

That is correct.

The accordion is a European instrument, you have the French influence in Louisiana and the German influence in Texas. Where did zydeco get its accordion from?

Zydeco started with the piano accordion. Clifton Chenier is the inventor of Zydeco and he chose to play Zydeco on the piano accordion and the reason for that is you can play more stuff on it. The little, smaller melodeon accordion is the Cajun accordion and it is limited. It can do a lot but not as much as a piano accordion so when Clifton decided to play the piano accordion he could still play the French music, which was originally made by the smaller accordion, plus some. He just figured I will play this big one and I will be able to play whatever I want to play.

A lot of people who have heard of zydeco think of it as a kind of folk music but it is not is it? Someone in living memory actually pulled all the bits together and that was Clifton Chenier, very similar to what Bill Monroe did with bluegrass round about the same time.

It is still a folky style of music because when Clifton designed it he was singing the old French songs and still putting the French in it, old French waltzes and everything like that and then he would jump to other stuff, maybe more mainstream stuff and mix it in there and a good blend of everything. That is where zydeco comes from.

I’m old enough to remember zydeco music in the ‘70s courtesy of Rockin’ Dopsie and the Cajun Twisters. This was probably the first time we Europeans heard this sort of music in any numbers and got a chance to hear it live.  Haven’t you got a family connection with that band?

My grandfather Buchanan played with Dopsie because around the late ‘50s and early ‘60s Clifton really started to expand and get bigger and bigger and my grandfather was a family man so he just played around the local area, he didn’t want to travel. At that time Clifton had to get Robert St. Julien to the time Clifton passed to play drums. At the time Clifton was moving around, Dopsie was coming up and my grandfather got with him in the early stages. When Dopsie started to expand he put his son on there, Tiger Dopsie, and his son played for the rest of Dopsie’s career.

Where was zydeco primarily played? Was it around Louisiana and Texas or was it further afield?

Clifton pretty much covered a lot of Louisiana and at some point, he moved to Houston as I said before a lot of Louisiana folks moved to Houston for work. Houston then built up its zydeco community among the Creole migrants that had left Louisiana. When he started travelling he went to California, New York and then he started going overseas and it then just really started to blow up real quick.

In the ‘60s there was swamp pop. Was there ever any relation with zydeco?

I’m not sure there was an overlap with zydeco but I know swamp pop was popular and at one time everyone was going to a more mainstream sounding music. It wasn’t so much the French singing and what have you, old music like that. As long as Clifton was coming up the zydeco was getting hotter and hotter at the same time but it never really crossed paths. Mind you, Clifton did record an album with Rod Bernard back in the ‘70s but overall I think they were building up at the same time.

Why did you want to keep the Ledet family history in zydeco going?

I was thinking about that the other day and I have a picture of me at like 8 years old me, playing the drums. I remember when I was around that age I saw my grandfather’s drums in the garage, I never met my grandfather because he died before I was born so all I have heard are stories and I saw pictures and that is it. He is like somebody I have always wanted to meet, you know what I mean, and at that age when I found his drums, my dad was explaining to me what they were and who they belonged to. I started beating on them outside and then my mom didn’t want me playing them outside in case I disturbed the neighbours. We were in Houston not in the country back then so my dad bought me my own drums and we moved those into the house. My music started from there. I started playing drums and on a trip when I was 10 years old to see the family in Louisiana we stopped on the way back at a place where they sold a lot of boudin (a French-style sausage), it is called The Best Stop, and they were selling these little toy accordions. My dad got me one, just for a toy, and we brought it back home to Houston and I started picking up some stuff. My dad then bought me a real accordion and after that, I didn’t want nothing else in life but to play music. I even had my uncle, my dad’s oldest brother, Uncle Harris, he played the harmonica and when he died they gave that to me. I didn’t really pick that up too well but I still have that.

How did you pick the rhythms up? Who taught you?

It was just listening to the old cassettes, at that time I had cassettes. In Houston they have big like church dances and all the zydeco bands in the area would play and the Louisiana bands would come over and we wouldn’t miss a dance. I would go and I would just watch. I went straight to the bandstand, I wouldn’t care about anybody dancing behind me and I would just stay at the stage and watch, and study, and watch. I wouldn’t talk to anybody I was just looking and observing and taking everything in, and it just grew from there. My dad never really sat me down and talked to me, he was just like you got it, you got it. The funny thing is on drums, when I played on drums I would do things that I would hear in my head like a roll or something like that or a funky little beat, and my dad said where did you learn that and I’m like I just heard it in my head, why? He said because that is how your grandfather played, that’s his roll and I had never heard it before other than in my head. He was like where did you learn it from and I’m like I’m just hearing it in my head, and he is like but it is your grandfather’s roll that’s how he rolled on the toms, that’s how he crashed and that’s how he would do this. That kinda freaked him out and that was cool.

How did you find like-minded musicians to play with?

I started my band in 2002 or 2003, something like that. After I graduated high school I gravitated back to Louisiana, and I just started going to all the jam sessions and watching the other bands play and just hanging out with a lot of musicians. From there I just started meeting people, really through jam sessions, that’s where you go to meet musicians. Everyone will come and bring their instruments, guitar, a drummer or an accordion or bass player, horns or fiddle or triangle, anything like that. You just go meet these musicians, a lot I knew already, some I saw on documentaries and when I got over here I just started mingling with everyone and just jammed like that, that is where I started.

What sort of living is it playing zydeco?

With everything, I believe you have to be a bit careful especially when you are self-employed, but it can be done if it is done right and you respect it. A lot of people have made a really great living being a musician, even a zydeco musician.

What is the modern zydeco audience?

Around Louisiana, and of course, we haven’t played really since February, and between Houston and New Orleans and that crowd, there is pretty much a dance crowd. I mean people come to dance and have a good time, drink, eat and party. When we leave that area between Houston and New Orleans and we are on the road on the East Coast or West Coast, or overseas, everybody just loves it. I mean, it is like medicine, it makes you want to get up and have a good time. You can’t be depressed when zydeco is going on.

What is the age range of your audience?

I think it is a mixed age range audience. It depends where you play but I see all age groups generally. It is a healthy local scene, and that goes to what zydeco is all about, it is for everybody.

How much does being nominated for a Grammy help an artist and what does it feel like?

Yeah, that was back in 2012 and it is a very funny story. We submitted the album, and they have two rounds, and the first round after we submitted it I was so busy doing shows and running the business and everything, I completely forgot to vote for myself. It went over my head, right. So my mind is on business, and I’m doing business, and the next thing I knew my phone starts buzzing and going off, and I’m thinking what has happened. I then see all these congratulations texts and voicemails and I’m like for what? Then someone said turn on the TV and sure enough on the news there it was. It was a great experience to go to the Grammys and be amongst all the nominees, that was really incredible. I mean, I was sitting right next to Jaz-Z, John Legend, everybody like that, it was cray, Taylor Swift literally walked right past me, haha. It most definitely helped my career, I can say that most definitely.

Your new album ‘Corey Ledet Zydeco’ has a very simple title, tell me about it.

The title, that was kind of where my mind was at the time. To me, a lot of musicians are making music complicated, not that that is a bad thing, but for me where my mind was, I was like you know what, I just want to make everything simple enough where it can reach people. Sometimes if there is too much it can be too much to take in. So down to the title, to the graphics, to the music, just dial it back a little bit and make it taste good, just like cooking. When you are cooking you don’t want to put too much salt in, you want it just right. That is where my mind was on this project, everything just good, make it taste just right, a little bit more simple, as well as keeping my family heritage tied into it.

Dockside Studio grounds 2021
Dockside Studios, what is that recording facility like as it has a bit of a reputation and how important is it to local musicians?

Dockside have recorded a lot of the major artists like Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Dr. John, you name it and the list just goes on and on. There is something about Dockside, the vibe up there is quiet it is just beautiful out there, you can think, the energy is just good. When you get there and are ready to work it is like the album makes itself, all you have to do is go there. I really enjoy going to Dockside, I don’t think I would go anywhere else.

Who produced the album?

Louis Michot. He is a fiddle player and plays with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, who have been around for the last 20 years. He has another band,  the Michot Melody Makers, he is an excellent producer and he knows what to listen for.

Did you go in with your road band?

Yeah, pretty much. We had Lee Allen Zeno from Buckwheat Zydeco, and that was the first time I recorded with him and it was an incredible experience because, growing up, I’ve been listening to Buckwheat since I was a kid and to get him in the studio on my project, that is the icing on the cake right there.

Tell me about Nouveau Electric Records.

It is Louis Michot’s record label. It is a couple of years old and it is working out good, and me and Louis are like brothers, it is like working with family.

Where did you get the songs for the album?

A couple of them I have been playing for a while and I just never thought to record them. The other half of it I decided to put it in Kouri-Vini, my family’s dialect. You see in Louisiana, they speak French, but depending on where you are in Louisiana the French is different. If you go more towards the Eunice part of Louisiana it is closer to the real French, it is still Louisiana broken French but it is closer to the real French. As you come towards Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, where my people are from it is more broken down, like they say things a little differently and that lingo is called Kouri-Vini and my dad speaks it and all my family speaks it. When I was born, the older generation used it to talk about things they didn’t want you to know. I missed out on that, but I am picking it up now and I’m working on getting fluent. What better way to learn than to write in the language, so I am writing and learning.

Do you cook?

I’ve just recently started cooking in the past two years, I started learning how to do some stuff.

Are you teaching yourself again?

Yeah, you know YouTube is something else. As far as cooking the old way, I still have a few cousins who cook that way, and I’m probably going to start going by them and getting their recipes. My aunt, my dad’s oldest sister, the way she used to cook our macaroni and cheese, it will knock the socks off your feet. When it comes out of the oven she will cut it up like a cake, and I mean if somebody takes that last piece then there will be a fight. I’ve also learnt how to do okra, I can do crawfish and shrimp, etouffee, smoked sausage and potatoes so I’m cooking and picking it up.

You seem to be becoming a cultural ambassador to keep the culture of your family going for the next generation. Is that true?

That is hitting the nail right on the head, haha. Like I said, the music research on my family really covered a whole lot and it is something I am proud of. Like I said, I never met my grandfather but I have a lot of cousins that I did meet, and my cousin John Pouche is a piano player and his brother Harold Pouche Jnr was a drummer for Ike and Tina Turner and he played with Bobby “Blue” Bland and B. B. King. We then had another cousin who was a Pouche and he played with Albert Collins. So our family has been doing music on a big scale for a long long time, and it is something I am really proud of and I want everyone to know about that because it was always known in the family but I want to share it with the world. It is so cool you can’t keep the lid on it, you have to share the information with everyone. Another cousin of ours played the trumpet with Louis Armstrong right there from Parks, Louisiana. My family had hands-on experience of early jazz, all the way down to zydeco and finally me in this era.

That shows you how connected music really is. You have what you may think are separate forms of music but actually, they are not really separate.

Like I say, it is so cool that my family is so musical that I almost have someone who has done something in every style of music since the beginning of American music in general, starting from the mid-1800s to today.

How are you going to publicise your album with the current restrictions?

As far as I know now all systems are go for a January release. Of course, we can’t be sure where we will be at that time but right now music is very important to a lot of people because even though we can’t go play like we used to, music is definitely healing and even though we can’t literally and physically go out there and play we still need to get some music out to help the world. Music can definitely heal the world and bring it together.

I assume you have been streaming concerts during COVID?

Yeah, I’ve been doing a few live streams every now and then on Facebook, and stuff like that. I might start doing some on YouTube but I haven’t quite learned how to do that yet, it is a lot of technical stuff.

A lot of people are learning new skills at the moment, very quickly I think.

That is kind of a good thing because the thing about all this time we have had learning different skills has given me time to get into my French. It has also given me time to learn different styles of music and I’m really into learning all the styles of music that my family used to play before zydeco was even mentioned. I want to incorporate that into what I do from now on because I want that spiritual family connection.

We like to share new music with our readers so currently what are your top three tracks on your playlist or your current 3 favourite albums?

That is a hard question because I enjoy all music and it is hard to find something I’m not going to like. For right now, what my head is wrapped around is like I said those early styles of music ragtime, early jazz such as Bunk Johnson and Louis Armstrong, bebop, big band swing music, that is where my head is at the moment. I would recommend checking some of that stuff out.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

I hope, and I pray, that all of this can be over with and done because I want to come over there and visit and hang out. I want to see everything and meet as many people as possible and make as many friends as possible. I have always wanted to visit your City, Liverpool. I’m hoping that that will happen sooner rather than later.

Corey Ledet’s ‘Zydeco’ is released on 15th January on Nouveau Electric Records

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About Martin Johnson 399 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Great article Martin, I special loved the roots part


Thanks again for the interview, you hear parts of it in my interview today