Born on the Bayou
Added to the fiddle after the migration was the accordion, the triangle, and of course the modern Cajun and Creole sound now includes many other instruments. The music has evolved into what we now recognize as the Cajun and Zydeco genres. The influence however has spread to Country Music, Texas Swing, Blues and R&B. From this region we can also include Swamp Pop, which was in large part the result of local artists covering R&R songs starting in the mid-1950s. Swamp Rock is a cousin of Cajun and Zydeco music, let’s say. This sub-genre includes songs about the Bayou region of Louisiana but the artists may or may not be native to the area.
Now, if you think artists from this region are just a bunch of Hillbillies, there is actually loads of musical talent to be found. For example, Louis Moreau Gottschalk was born in Louisiana near the Bayous and was perhaps the most prominent Concert Pianist from North America in the mid-1800s. He composed hundreds of pieces, many based on Creole melodies. In 1932, Camille Nickerson, nicknamed the “Louisiana Lady”, was the first Black woman to obtain a Masters Degree at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In addition to being a superb vocalist and pianist, she was a composer/arranger of many Afro-Creole songs. She was also a Professor at Howard University from 1926 to 1962.
I won’t attempt to expand into all the various types and influences of music from Louisiana with the epicentre being the city of New Orleans. Instead, I’ll move out of the ‘Big Easy’ and focus on a sampling of songs that come from the southern portion of the state, so well known for the swampy, slow-moving creeks and Bayous (geographically speaking not exclusive to Louisiana). A place where the people love to sing and dance. Zydeco music is associated with Creole Folk music, but it has developed into a more contemporary style. With very similar roots the Cajun genre is more closely tied to the Acadians. In both cases, Zydeco, Creole Folk Music and Acadian songs were originally sung in French, or more specifically, would develop into the hybrid regional Creole French dialects (and most still are). There are several subgenres in Cajun music, there’s also Traditional, Western Swing, Dancehall, Cajun Renaissance and Contemporary Cajun. While some of these songs were translated or composed in English, the tradition demands songs be sung in Cajun French or sometimes a mix with English.
The first known recording of a Traditional Cajun song is “Allons à Lafayette” by Joe e Cléoma Falcon in 1928. Joe Falcon was an accordionist and his wife Cléoma (Breaux) was a guitar player. Once again we can give thanks to Musicologist and Folklorist Alan Lomax for recording and preserving this music. Sometime also in the late 1920s, Cléoma wrote the lyrics to what has been referred to as the ‘Cajun National Anthem’, the song “Jole Blon“. From a very musical family, her three brothers formed the performing and recording group the Breaux Brothers. One of the brothers, Amedée Breaux, is the only one who got credit for the song. It appears (from what I’ve gathered) he composed the music. The song was originally titled “Ma blonde est partie“. There is also some connection to an earlier song “La Fille de la Veuve” also composed by Amedée Breaux that may be based on older Traditional Cajun/Creole songs.
Louisiana born Harry Choates, who falls more into the Texas Swing end of Cajun music, popularized “Jole Blon” with his French recording in 1946, followed by several recordings in English. The song was familiar to me via Waylon Jennings’ somewhat adulterated version from 1958 which included Buddy Holly on guitar and King Curtis on the saxophone.
More Artists and Songs Inspired by The Bayou
Another of the most famous Cajun songs came from D.L.Menard and is called “La Porte En Arrière” (The Back Door). Menard is a regional legend and loved to cover Hank Williams songs but was a very capable songwriter, as heard in the educational song, “Cajun Saturday Night“.
A fixture of the Cajun music scene was the Balfa Family. Here are The Balfa Brothers with “Parlez Nous A Boire“. Also “Kasey Jones” by Les frères Balfa. And no talk of Cajun music would be complete without a two-step song, “de l’anse à paille“.
Johnnie Allan was called ‘The King of Swamp Pop’. He had a great original song in 1959 called “Lonely Days and Lonely Nights” and gained regional acclaim by covering R&R artists like Chuck Berry. His 1971 version of “Promised Land” obtained popularity in the UK where he toured twice in the 1970s.
This song is another great example of Swamp Pop: “Sugar Bee” (1960). It was written by the founder of Goldband Records in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Eddie Shuler, and performed by Cleveland Crochet (and Band). It was the first ‘Cajun’ song to break the Billboard top 100, peaking at #80 in January of 1961. It would influence several artists and opened many listeners’ ears to a new sound. It was covered 20 times including versions by Sir Douglas Quintet (1964), Mitch Ryder (1969) and Canned Heat (1970). As a record producer, Shular had made a deliberate attempt to find an artist that would give Cajun Music “more of a wider rock & roll feel”. He found that in Cleveland Crochet who was a well-established local fiddler and bandleader.
Many will know (by name at least) of the great accordion player, Stanley Dural Jr., better known as Buckwheat Zydeco. Born in Lafayette in 1947, he was one of 13 children. He was nicknamed Buckwheat for his resemblance to the character on the TV show Little Rascals. Apart from associations with Eric Clapton, U2 and dozens more, he was the go-to guy if you wanted accordion in your music. His album Lay Your Burden Down earned him a Grammy Award in 2010. Here he is with Dwight Yoakam as they cover “Hey Good Lookin’“. He has released over 20 albums. This is another great tune “Ma Petite Fille“.
It was actually a family friend, Clifton Chenier, who gave the young Buckwheat his first big break. Chenier was a virtuoso accordion player and has been called ‘The King of Zydeco’. He toured with Ray Charles, Etta James and won a Grammy Award in 1983. Along with his brother Cleveland on frottoir (which is a rub-board worn around the chest), they played venues in their native Opelousas starting in the 1940s and would play as far away as Paris, France. “Ay Tete Fee” from 1955, “All Night Long” recorded in 1955 but not released until 1970.
You can’t get more genuine than a song from the Kershaw Boys who grew up in Tiel Ridge in Cameron Parish. The musical four brothers did not start speaking English until they were about 7 or 8 years old. “Louisiana Man” is an autobiographical song written by the amazing fiddler, Doug Kershaw and performed with his brother in the duo called Rusty and Doug. In 1961 it peaked at #10 on Billboard’s Country & Western chart. It’s been covered many times and was also a #14 Country hit for Connie Smith in 1970. I came to enjoy this music through a cover of “Louisiana Man” by Dave Edmunds in 1978. Covered another 40 times including Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Rivers and Johnny Cash. Here are Rusty and Doug with “Diggy Liggy Lo” written and first recorded by fellow Cajun Terry Clement.
Once again I have to credit Dave Edmunds, this time via his band Rockpile, who recognized this talent when they were the first ever to cover a song by Zydeco artist Rockin’ Sidney. They put a version of his 1961 song “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine” (Sidney Semien, Floyd Soileau) on their 1980 album Seconds of Pleasure. Later, Rockin’ Sidney (Semien) wrote a song called “My Toot Toot” which was on his third album, My Zydeco Shoes Got the Zydeco Blues released in 1984. Before your imagination goes too far, “toot toot” is a common old Cajun term meaning “someone special”. A year later in 1985, it remained a slow seller, but after putting it on just 20 copies of a single record, his manager Cleon Floyd shopped it around to Louisiana/New Orleans radio stations. His perseverance paid off big time as the song became a hit and garnered a Grammy Award in 1986 for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. This put Rockin’ Sidney into People, Rolling Stone and Billboard Magazines and on TV with Hee Haw, Austin City Limits and John Fogerty’s Showtime Special.
You can’t mention Swamp Rock without “Polk Salad Annie”, written by Oak Grove, Louisiana native Tony Joe White. Released as a single in October 1968, this great song would not have come to much notice had it not been covered, most famously, by Elvis Presley. It appeared on a live Presley recording ‘On Stage – February, 1970’. I have to say the original is fantastic but I need to give a mention to another version by Tom Jones who recorded it in April of 1970. A great video clip showing Tony Joe White and Johnny Cash having some fun with this song.
Here are some contemporary artists keeping the old traditions alive in the Bayou with some truly great music:
- The Grammy-nominated Magnolia Sisters with “Jolie Petite Blonde“
- Jeffery Broussard & the Creole Cowboys with “Zydeco a Pas Sale“
- The LeBlanc Family Band and Yvette Landry sing a traditional song written by Dewey Balfa from 1965 called “Tit Galop Pour Mamou” it’s a story about a trip to the Louisiana town of Mamou
- A lively performance from The Mudbugs Cajun & Zydeco Band
References; 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
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Edited by Richelle Dafoe