Absolutely The Best of Cajun and Zydeco Vol 2.
"New Orleans got their thing,” Terrance Simien tells me one night from his home in Louisiana, deep in the bayou, “and we've got ours. It's totally different stuff. Not to say it's so different that you can't get off from doing it, but it's a different world.”
A different world, but only 120
miles away as the pelican flies. New Orleans’ isolation made the city an incubator of indigenous sounds, spawning ground of funk and jazz. The bayou is even more remote. For centuries, people could only get around it by boat. Their whole culture reflects and revels in this seclusion. It grew an almost
inbred alteration on the culture of Acadian French Canada over 300 years ago.
Their language evolved into a hybrid of French. The music grew out of the gavottes they brought with them out of
Acadia, played on button accordions and washboards. It stayed that way until
the middle of the 20th Century, influencing everyone who settled among them, like the escaped and freed slaves who made up the area’s Creole population. This album celebrates that
music, and how it evolved during the latter half of the 20th
In the 1900s, the world started to
change for the Acadians. Bridges and highways made inroads into the bayou. Two
world wars took many young Creoles and Acadians out of the bayous and into the
wider world. Oil and gas companies started to drill locally, employing both the
Acadian and Anglo populations. Radio, then television, came to the bayou,
bringing all sorts of outside influences. The Louisiana government started to
pressure the French speaking Acadians to get in synch with the rest of the
country, starting in 1916 by making it mandatory to teach school in English.
The local non-Cajun or Creole population had always looked at their francophone
neighbors with disdain, and it had begun to wear on the Cajun people to the
point where many were abandoning the culture. As some Acadians started to
assimilate, others reacted against giving up their culture, many using the
lingua franca of the world, music.
By the early 1950s, artists like Vin
Bruce and Aldus Rogers were recording Cajun music for labels like
Columbia. Jimmy C. Newman (the C stands for Cajun) became a top country artist and member of the Grand ol’ Opry who went from slipping in a little of his people’s music here and there to alternating between working at the Opry and recording straight ahead Cajun albums. Here, Newman sings “Jolie Blon,” wryly called the Cajun national anthem. Bruce does a take on it, too, with “Hey Jolie.” Rogers cuts to the music’s roots with the “Lafayette Two-Step.”
The two-step is the dance of both Cajun and it’s bluesier Creole cousin Zydeco. In the 60s and 70s, the people playing this music became more vocal about their Acadian roots, some by retreating to the bunker to preserve those roots (literally in the case of Marc and Anne Savoy). Others celebrated the music by bringing it out into the wider world and fusing it with more popular genres. Cleveland Crochet and The Hillbilly Ramblers became the first Cajun band to reach the Billboard Hot 100 with the song “Sugar Bee,” presented here. Cookie and the Cupcakes became a purveyor of “Swamp Pop” in the late 50s, sending the tune “Mathilda” into the top 50.
Like Newman, Zachary Richards started out playing country, albeit country rock. He quickly fused that with his Cajun roots and his blues and Zydeco leanings, offering musical and lyrical pieces of Cajun pride and activism, both subtly, as he does here with “Le Nouveau Two-Step,” and more overtly with songs like “Reveille.”
Much of the music on this album
speaks to these fusions, which helped bring Cajun and Zydeco to a much wider
audience. The earliest essence of this fusion is Zydeco itself, a mixture of
the field hollers and blues the Creoles brought into the bayou with the Acadian
two-step. Even this has taken many
shapes over the last 50 years. Wilson Anthony “Boozoo” Chavis’ had one of the first Zydeco hits with “Paper In My Shoes,” but as his version of the bluegrass standard “Uncle Bud” demonstrates, his country leanings are as strong as Richards’ or Newman’s.
Pop, rock, funk and even jazz and
reggae have influenced many Zydeco and Cajun players. Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural’s version of Mungo Jerry’s 1970 hit “In The Summertime,” is a good example.
“I grew up listening to a lot of different things and was influenced by a lot of different styles,” says Simien, who’s “A Ma Maison” illustrates the point. “Zydeco was my first love, but I took a lot of things from a lot of different styles of music and tried to put it together. I listen to reggae and
stuff like that. I'm still discovering different things every day.”
The leader in bringing Zydeco out to
the world in terms the world would understand was the late, great Clifton
Chenier. Starting in the 50s, he was working with Little Richard producer Bumps Blackwell, mixing up the Creole Zydeco with a heavy dose of rock, blues and Louis Jordan style jump, as he does here on one of his signature tunes, “Be My Chauffeur.” He became the first Zydeco musician to win a
Grammy, taking home the statuette for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording
While Cajun and Zydeco still wouldn’t qualify as “pop” music, they definitely have become part of the world’s cultural gestalt. They have been featured in advertisements for everything from antacids to automobiles. “We did a Chevrolet commercial a couple of years ago.” Simien concurs.
It has also influenced some of the
more open-eared musicians from outside of the bayou. Paul Simon, for example, recorded with Simien. “I ended up doing a cover of Clifton Chenier's ‘You Used To Call Me,’ and he ended up singing background vocals on it. We put that record out as a
single. It never made it to an album. We never actually made the Graceland album, but he was down.”
The Zydeco group that did wind up
working with Simon on Graceland was Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters. Here he does a Zydeco version of Jimmy Reed’s “Run Here To Me Baby,” also a staple of Chenier’s repertoire.
This album only hints at how robust this art form, on the verge of disappearing 50 years ago, has become as we move into the new century. With Dopsie and Chenier handing the mantle in traditional bayou fashion on to their sons, and performers like Buckwheat Zydeco and Terrence Simien continuing to record and play 250 shows a year, the music keeps on growing and blooming. “Being able to play music and make a living at it,” Simien muses, “to me, it don't get better than that.”