No matter where you may have lived or traveled or what your tastes in music might be, somewhere along the way you have likely encountered the uncanny sound of zydeco. For many people it is but a fleeting moment of exposure, leaving them slightly confused but somehow enthused by their sudden involuntary foot-tapping. For certain others it is an even more visceral awakening, the start of an ongoing relationship with a potent force. For some, there is no memory of their first encounter, for they have known it all their lives.
This music of black Creoles from the upper western coast of the Gulf of Mexico once percolated in obscurity. Even in the areas where it originated, the antecedents and early forms of zydeco epitomized the notion of a pure folk idiom: created, performed, taught, and appreciated only within a specific rural subculture. By the 1950s and '60s, however, that rustic sound was evolving, incorporating urban influences, and attracting some attention beyond its home region and primary ethnic group of origin, mainly among certain aficionados of American roots music.
By the mid-1980s zydeco had emerged here and there in the mainstream of popular culture, energizing the sound tracks of various Hollywood films, television programs, and advertising spots as well as becoming widely available to an expanding fan base through a proliferation of audio recordings. Some of those recordings presented this vibrant music on its own terms; others used it to enliven genre-hopping productions by experimental rock 'n' rollers or pop singers. Whatever the case, it has been out there—in pure form or diluted—for many to hear, and not just as a commodity of the electronic media.
A late-twentieth-century renaissance of the intertwining of Creole and Cajun cuisines continues to sizzle nationwide, and this marketing phenomenon has spawned new venues (especially along the Gulf Coast) in the form of theme restaurants that regularly host the live performance of zydeco. As a consequence, countless people first hear this music simply because they crave some spicy seafood. And at the many multicultural festivals now produced throughout the nation, the appeal of zydeco strikes fresh ears every year, introducing them to the basic elements of an irresistible sound.
Foremost in that sound is the presence of the accordion, a unique musical machine not widely featured, and sometimes derided, in mainstream American pop music. But in zydeco, as in certain other ethnomusical subcultures, this hand-operated bellows-flexing wind instrument is absolutely essential. Moreover, its master players, who usually double as lead singers, are highly venerated. Whether they are pumping out a rapid two-step boogie or euphoniously easing through a slow-drag waltz, the men and women who wield the squeezebox are the kings and queens of this music.
But in contrast to other accordion-based forms, zydeco requires that its dominant instrument be paired with the highly percussive rubboard vest (also referred to as the scrub board and, in French, as le frottoir, from the verb frotter, "to rub"). Unlike the handheld washboard once common in jug bands and such, this device is not a household utensil but a customized modern musical instrument. Designed to hang from the shoulders of the percussionist, it allows for a much larger metallic surface to cover the torso—and liberates both hands to clutch the various implements used to conjure the genre's complex polyrhythms. Though now sometimes adopted by others, the rubboard vest was invented by and first popularized among zydeco players. With this tool they have defined the gritty chank-a-chank rhythms that are as fundamental to this music as the reedy chords and funky riffs coming from the accordion.
These days a typical zydeco band comprises five pieces. The seminal instruments, accordion and rubboard, are prominently featured. Electric guitar, bass, and drums most commonly provide the supporting accompaniment, coalescing with the primary duo to forge a distinctive mix. The songs draw from a traditional repertoire informed by blues, ballads, shuffles, and waltzes, now also often infused with a gumbo of other, postmodern influences. The vocalizing may be in English or French, though the latter grows less common with each generation of players. But this music has one priority far more compelling than linguistics or lyrics: it makes you want to dance.
Whether you have publicly succumbed to that impulse or not, you know the feeling, for you have heard that seductive sound.
So here is a question: what large metropolis of the upper Gulf Coast is arguably the most crucial, historically speaking, in the mid-twentieth-century development of modern zydeco? To put it another way: in which big city did the folk music of black Creoles from southwest Louisiana first undergo a major synthesis with urban influences to create, document, and codify that sound you have come to know?
If you answered New Orleans (the music capital of Louisiana and the largest city in that state), you are incorrect, though the Crescent City has done a splendid job of cashing in on zydeco's fairly recent popularity.
Actually, it was in Houston, now the nation's fourth-largest city, that black Creole immigrants and their descendants first prominently fused the old French Louisiana folk music known as la-la with urban blues to create the new sound that came to be known, spelled, and recorded as "zydeco." In fact, as this book will show, several key innovations in the evolution of this music—concerning not only its name but also its instruments, recording history, leading figures, and stylistic twists and turns—occurred initially in Texas, where numerous important zydeco artists reside and perform today.
The lower southeastern corner of the Lone Star State stretches westward from the Louisiana boundary at the Sabine River, following the coastal bend in a swath over one hundred miles wide and long, past Galveston. Among certain folks this region is jokingly referred to as "Louisiana Lapland"—that is, the place where a large piece of south Louisiana seems to have "lapped over" into Texas. And indeed in many respects this area often mirrors southwestern Louisiana more than it does the rest of the state of Texas.
Since the early twentieth century it has also maintained a sizable population of black Creoles, with fresh infusions immigrating regularly. Apart from the sense that the general environment of the upper Texas coast is a lot like home, black Creole families over the years have typically made the relatively short relocation to Houston and the surrounding area for a single reason: employment.
In search of improved living conditions, many of these Creoles (not to be confused with white Cajuns, a different ethnic group with whom they do have much in common) first settled in Texas enclaves such as the Frenchtown district in Houston's Fifth Ward or the village of Barrett Station, north of Baytown. Often having abandoned meager sharecropping arrangements back in rural Louisiana, they found higher-paying job opportunities in the multitude of large refineries, petrochemical plants, railroad yards, international shipping docks, and other industries concentrated in the greater Houston area, as well as in nearby Beaumont and Port Arthur. They brought with them the acoustic folk-music idiom called la-la, which soon was exposed to and absorbed new urban influences. In so doing it profoundly changed, morphing into early zydeco, the progenitor of that syncopated accordion-based sound that the rest of the nation discovered in the 1980s.
By leaving the insular culture of their people in south Louisiana and transplanting their families to industrial Texas cities, many black Creoles chose to reconcile themselves to change and adapt to a new kind of life, at least to some degree. The impact on the traditional folk music they imported from back home was immense. In its evolved form, this exciting offspring was soon exported back to Louisiana, profoundly influencing the subsequent definition of zydeco at large.
In reviewing and analyzing the history of this back-and-forth social-musical syncretism and its present ramifications, this book by no means intends to deny that Louisiana is the primal territory for black Creole culture of the Gulf Coast. Simply put, without Louisiana there would be no zydeco—yesterday, today, or tomorrow. It is the zydeco motherland. However, an accurate and complete appreciation of the heritage (and the future) of this music must include an understanding of certain people and developments in Texas.
By analogy, without the Mississippi Delta or similar regions in the Deep South, there theoretically would be no blues music. Yet consider how significantly blues was changed when Southern blacks, with their folk music traditions, migrated to northern industrial cities, most notably Chicago, birthplace of the modern form of the genre. And consider how it is precisely that newer, urban style that has since dominated popular culture, even back in the South. And finally consider where the larger concentrations of blues musicians live and work today. Thus, to understand fully what blues music is, what it has been, and where it is going, one obviously must recognize the role of Chicago.
In short, as Michael Tisserand acknowledges in The Kingdom of Zydeco, Houston's role in the maturation and popularization of modern zydeco is in many ways similar to Chicago's in relation to blues. Yet the Bayou City, like southeast Texas in general, rarely registers in popular consciousness as the zydeco mecca it has been for many years. Both its historical role and its ongoing vitality are typically overlooked in the common representation of this music as a purely rural Louisiana phenomenon.
One of the main reasons for that discrepancy is probably a lack of distance, both physical and sociocultural. Moving from southwest Louisiana to nearby Houston, Beaumont, or Port Arthur is not a particularly demanding journey, in terms of either miles or cost. Moreover, the proximity of Louisiana to southeast Texas allows for frequent trips back and forth, facilitating personal and cultural interchanges that have constantly reinforced the black Creole Texans' connection to their families' native parishes. For them the state line was and is merely a political boundary.
Today that portion of I-10 that connects the southeast Texas cities of Houston and Beaumont to the southwest Louisiana cities of Lake Charles and Lafayette might well be proclaimed the zydeco corridor of the world. Extending an almost equal distance on either side of the Sabine River, this is a heavily traveled section of road familiar to practically every zydeco musician. While many of them play festivals nationwide and tour beyond the Gulf Coast whenever they can, this stretch of east-west thoroughfare demarcates their primary circuit. It is the main route to their regular gigs, families, and friends—and getting from one to another often necessitates crossing that Texas-Louisiana state line.
What is particularly exciting is that so many, though certainly not all, of the zydeco musicians who regularly traverse that corridor today are relatively young, not even yet middle-aged, a key point of contrast with the distinguished but now mostly elderly African American blues community of the same region. At the start of the twenty-first century, southeast Texas alone is home to hundreds of regularly performing zydeco players younger than forty, many in their twenties and some still in their teens or younger. It obviously bodes well for the future of this amazing music, but it did not happen by chance. The cross-cultural foundation was laid long ago, back when the black Creole music called la-la first came to the Lone Star State and transformed itself forever.
This book is the result of a close collaboration between two men who appreciate that music, the people who make it, and those who dance to it. Together we offer verbal and visual evidence to support the contention that the phrase "Texas zydeco" is not an oxymoron but a cultural fact.