What is Zydeco?
Back in the early 1600’s, French settlers immigrated to Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia, Canada), bringing with them old folk songs of medieval France. In 1755 they were expelled by the British. The Acadian settlers scattered across the world, and many regrouped in Southern Louisiana. Their brutal exile and frontier experience brought themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love to their music.
The Spanish governors of early Louisiana offered the Acadians choice land in the prairies of Southwest Louisiana, where most began raising cattle and subsistence crops. As the population of wealthier English-speakers grew, many Acadians retreated into the swamp and marsh areas of the Mississippi River Delta to eke out a living by fishing, logging cypress, and harvesting Spanish Moss (for use in bedding and insulation).
In the 18th century many settled in Louisiana alongside the local Indians, Spanish, French, Anglo-American and African slave peoples living in the area. They became known as Cajuns and their folk music was slowly influenced by the surrounding cultures. Utilising button squeeze-box, fiddle, whistles, triangle, washboard (many of these instruments were home made), and quirky French dialect. Cajun was a unique style of folk music. In the 19th century the German piano accordion was introduced as well as the Spanish guitar and the French Cajun style was also becoming increasingly influenced by black Creole music.
Rhythm n Blues and Soul music were mixed with the style of Cajun in the early 1900s by black Creole musicians and Zydeco was born.
There are two instruments vital in creating the modern day zydeco sound: the squeeze-box (accordion) and the frottoir (washboard). Originally, the button accordion was used to play zydeco, but in the late 1940s a man named Clifton Chenier (known today as the grandfather of this music) coined the phrase “zydeco” and strapped on a full sized piano accordion, he sent it into the stratosphere by amplifying the accordion and playing it like a blues guitar out the front of an all electric blues band.
In 1946 Clifton and his brother Cleveland then visited their local metal factory where Clifton with stick in hand proceeded to scratch on the ground the shape of the washboard he wanted the factory worker to bend up for him. Today that instrument goes by many names, rubboard, zipboard or cajun armour are just a few that we have heard but most know it as the Frottoir.