At the end of the sixteenth century, the Regent of France sent a smattering of French settlers to the recently acquired Louisiana territory—their task: to settle the new holdings. Once they arrived in the New World, French settlers naturally migrated to the swamps and bayous of Louisiana’s coastlines and waterways. The French culture melded and mixed with already-present ones, some of which had drifted Southward from American colonies, like Irish, German, and Spanish, in addition to Native American and African. From this conflation of cultures a unique and amalgamated people were born: Creole.
Being so removed from other settlers created a divergently insular culture with its own set of rules and social governances, most particularly the “Code Noir,” which allowed free people of color to own land. Though the isolated Louisiana Creoles were abruptly disrupted by an influx of Americans with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, over the centuries they managed to maintain their cultural uniqueness, in their accents, their traditions, and, in an artistic turn, their music. Traditional Creole and Cajun music, along with rhythmic influences brought from Africa centuries ago, coupled with an isolation from other cultures, created the modern musical representative of Louisiana Creole French culture, zydeco.
The term “zydeco” most likely derives from the French phrase “Les haricots ne sont pas salés,” which, in Louisiana Creole French, sounds more like “leh-zy-dee-co huh shun pah salay.” The phrase translates roughly to “the snap beans ain’t salty,” idiomatically meaning, “I have no spicy news for you” or, adversely, “I’m so poor I can’t afford salt meat for the beans.” Louisiana Creole’s insular lifestyle and economic conditions (which are, as is the case with most isolated cultures, historically low) influence zydeco’s style and form the focus of the music’s song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. Zydeco music oozes with the sound of the soul of Creole in a unique blend of blues, rock and roll, and the indigenous music of Native Americans and Africans. Modern interpretations of zydeco also incorporate R&B, soul, brass band, reggae, and hip-hop. Since zydeco got its start in the boot-tapping, floor-shaking house dances on the Creole swamps, it also has a touch of popular dances of the past century, like waltzes, two-steps, and shuffles.
The genre continued to grow in the remote, underground network of Creole culture until the first modern zydeco recording, Boozoo Chavis’s “Paper in My Shoe,” was recorded in 1954. The true father of contemporary zydeco, however, was Clifton Chenier, the fabled “King of Zydeco.” Chenier’s toe-tapping tunes brought zydeco to the height of mainstream popularity, transferring it from the dark corners of Louisiana’s swamps to the light of Southern day. Today, most zydeco music shares a variety of auditory aesthetics, including a fast tempo, usually dominated by a button or piano accordion and a type of washboard. The washboard, or “rub-board,” “scrub-board,” or “frottoir,” is worn across the shoulders and marks the rhythm of zydeco. The musical genre also usually features a more conventional base of guitar, bass, and drums.
Whether you got your start in the steamy swamps of Louisiana or in the sunny fields of France, everyone is sure to hum along to the sweet and sultry sounds of snap beans, salty or not, that we call zydeco.
Hear Boozoo Chavis in Live 1988 Recording of “Paper in My Shoe”