The story starts in France, the departure point for 17th century emigrants who braved the perilous transatlantic crossing to settle New France in the part of Canada know as Acadie, now divided between New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.
During the French and Indian Wars, the British, by now in charge, started to question the loyalty of these French speaking people known, for obvious reasons, as Acadians. In 1755 they began a concentrated and violent program of Acadian expulsion. People were encouraged to emigrate by having their homes and crops burned. Over the next eight years, more than 11,500 people were forced to leave, most taking to leaking ships. Whether you call it ethnic cleansing or merely deportation, the fact remains that over one third of these people perished.
Eventually these ships filled with Acadians found their way to Louisiana where they settled land so poor or swampy that no one else wanted it. There, they became known as Cajuns. Though much of the dance music they brought with them, tracing its origin back to France, was fiddle based, they quickly adopted the small accordions they saw played by German and other Eastern European immigrants in near by areas.
Like most American musical forms there is an African element. Upon arriving in Louisiana the Cajuns were befriended by the folks who were already living in the swamps. Some of these came from the Caribbean, some were freed slaves, but most often they were escaped slaves. They quickly adopted the French language and gave a defiantly African flavor to the tunes and songs the Acadians had carried with them. This music became known as Zydeco.
During WWII many of these Afro-Cajuns left for Texas to work in the oil fields while many more choose to escape the segregated south altogether and moved to California where they could vote and had a better chance at good jobs. During that period the Dance Halls flourished with Western Swing stars like Bob wills and Spade Cooley packing in thousands at competing halls on any given night. The very danceable Zydeco became popular as well, and by the 1950s Clifton Chenier, known as the King of Zydeco, had signed with the same label that had introduced the world to Little Richard and Sam Cooke.
The music has continued to take root on the west coast, and to grow, with artists like Queen Ida, Buckwheat Zydeco and many more winning Grammys and taking the music around the world. For a more in depth, and certainly more tuneful, retelling of this story, tune into Zydeco Nation, this Sunday evening at 6 on WUMB.
- Dave Palmater