Zydeco is a musical genre evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends Cajun music, blues and rhythm and blues
Though disputed, it is commonly suggested that Zydeco derives from the French phrase Les haricots ne sont pas salés, which, when spoken in the Louisiana Creole French, sounds as “leh-zy-dee-co nay sohn pah salay”. This literally translates as “the snap beans aren’t salty” but idiomatically as “I have no spicy news for you.” Alternatively the term has been given the meaning “I’m so poor, I can’t afford any salt meat for the beans.” The earliest recorded use of the term may have been the country and western musical group called Zydeco Skillet Lickers who recorded the songIt Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo in 1929.
Initially, several different spellings of the word existed, including “zarico” and “zodico”. In 1960, musicologist Robert “Mack” McCormick wrote liner notes for a compilation album, A Treasury of Field Recordings, and used the spelling “zydeco”. The word was used in reviews, and McCormick began publicizing it around New Orleans as a standard spelling. Its use was also accepted byClifton Chenier - who had previously recorded “Zodico Stomp” in 1955 - in his recording “Zydeco Sont Pas Salés”, after which Chenier himself claimed credit for devising the word.
In an alternative theory the term derives from the Atakapa people, whose forcibly enslaved women were well known for forming marital unions with male African slaves in the early 1700s. The Atakapa word for “dance” is “shi” (rhymes with “sky”) and their word for “the youths” is “ishol.” In 1528 Spanish people, the first Europeans to contact the Atakapa, translated “shi ishol” as “zy ikol.” Four hundred years later, the mixed-blood descendants of Atakapas and Africans would still sway in synchrony to their raucous music, but with a slightly evolved name: zydeco.
Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and a form of a washboard known as a “rub-board,” “scrub-board,” “wash-board,” or frottoir, zydeco music was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.
As a result, the music integrated waltz, shuffles, two-steps, blues, rock and roll, and other dance music forms of the era. Today, zydeco integrates genres such as R&B, soul, brass band, reggae,hip hop, ska, rock, Afro-Caribbean and other styles, in addition to the traditional forms.
The original French settlers came to Louisiana in the late 1600s, sent by the Regent of France, Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans, to help settle the Louisiana Territory. Arriving in New Orleans on seven ships, the settlers quickly moved into the bayous and swamps. There the French culture permeated those of the Irish, Spanish, Native Indian and German peoples already populating the area.
For 150 years, Louisiana Creoles enjoyed an insular lifestyle, prospering, educating themselves without the government and building their invisible communities under the Code Noir. The French created the Code Noir in 1724 to establish rules for treatment of slaves, as well as restrictions and rights for gens de couleur libres, a growing class of free people of color. They had the right to own land, something few blacks in the American South had at that time.
The disruption of the Louisiana Creole community began when the United States made the Louisiana Purchase and Americans started settling in the state. The new settlers typically recognized only the system of race that prevailed where they came from. When the Civil War ended and the black slaves were freed, Louisiana Creoles often assumed positions of leadership. However, segregationist Democrats in Louisiana classified Creoles with freedmen and by the end of the 19th century had disfranchised most blacks and many poor whites under rules designed to suppress black voting (though federal law said all black men had the vote from 1870). Creoles continued to press for education and advancement while negotiating the new society.
Zydeco’s rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. The music arose as a synthesis of traditional Creole music, some Cajun music influences, and African-American traditions, including R&B, blues, jazz, and gospel. It was also often just called French music or le musique Creole known as “la-la.” Amédé Ardoin made the first recordings of Creole music in 1928. This Creole music served as a foundation for what later became known as zydeco. Sometimes the music was performed in the Catholic Church community centers, as Creoles were mostly Catholic. Later it moved to rural dance halls and nightclubs.
During World War II with the Great Migration, many French-speaking Créoles and African Americans from the area around Marksville and Opelousas, Louisiana left a poor and prejudiced state for better economic opportunities in Texas. Even more southern blacks migrated to California, where buildup of defense industries provided good jobs without the restrictions of the segregated South. In California blacks from Louisiana could vote and began to participate in political life. Today, there are many cajun and zydeco festivals throughout the US.