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Music of Louisiana

The music of Louisiana, like other cultural aspects of the state, can be divided in to three general regions. The south-west of the state is dominated by Cajun culture. The northern half of the state shares the most similarities with the rest of the US South. To the south east, the area in and around New Orleans and Baton Rouge has its own unique musical heritage.


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Southwestern Louisiana
Southwest Louisiana's main musical genres - Zydeco, Swamp Pop, and Cajun/Creole, are musical heritages rich with personalities and reverence for tradition. This area has many artists and songs that have become international hits, won Grammy awards, and become highly sought after by collectors. The lyrics and rhythms of the songs themselves remind the listener of the past, and the institutions developed and abandoned along the way.

Telling the difference:
Cajun tends to sound more like early country, with the use of steel guitar, fiddle, the triangle, and acoustic guitar. One of the most influential Cajun singers is DL Menard, who has been called the Cajun Hank Williams. Cajun music is typically a waltz or two step.
Creole is very similar to Cajun in substance and lyrics, but the rhythms tend to be more pronounced, and vocals are more blues influenced.

Zydeco sounds more like gospel or R&B, with artists adopting a James Brown kind of persona, and instrumentation involving more electrical instruments (guitar and bass), keyboards, the washboard, and horns, and are well suited to the jitterbug.

Swamp Pop is more of a combination of many influences, and the bridge between Zydeco, New Orleans second line, and rock and roll. The song structure is pure rock and roll, the rhythms are distinctly New Orleans based, the chord changes, vocals and inflections are R&B influenced, and the lyrics are sometimes French.

Cajun/Creole
Creole and Cajun music draw from similar influences of French, German, Native American, and Spanish music, with the Creole adding the rhythm and accompaniment of the Caribbean and Africa. Creole and Cajun developed together and drew from each other, blurring the lines. The most common differentiation between the two is that, in the early days, Cajun was performed by whites, and Creole was performed by African Americans. By the 1960s, the two forms had combined so much as to be nearly indistinguishable from each other. The term Creole, as it applies to music, is nearly extinct, as younger generations tend more toward zydeco.

In southwestern Louisiana in the 1800s, the fiddle was the most popular Cajun instrument, though German immigrants spreading outward from central and eastern Texas and New Orleans soon brought the accordion as well. African American farmhands at the time sang a rhythmic type of work song called juré, which mixed with Cajun folk music to form la la, a central component of Creole music. La la was primarily rural, played at parties also known as la las, and found in towns in the prairie regions like Mamou, Eunice and Opelousas.

In 1901 (see 1901 in music), oil was discovered at Jennings and immigration boomed. Many of the newcomers were white businessmen from outside of Louisiana who attempted to force the Cajuns and other minorities to adopt the dominant American cultural forms, even outlawing the use of the French language in 1916. Despite the law, many Cajuns still spoke French at home, and musical performances were in French. Even today, some of the current older generation is more comfortable speaking French, though they are bilingual.

Commercial recording of Cajun music began in 1928 (see 1928 in music). These early songs were mixtures of la la, contredanses, reels and jigs and other folk influences from black, white and Native American traditions. In the late 1930s and 1940s, country music became the dominant influence on Cajun music, and bass and steel guitars were used. Modern Cajun music has begun taking on the influence of jazz and modern country music, resulting in a more polished sound.

A performance by Dewey Balfa, Gladius Thibodeaux, and Vinesse LeJeune at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival was one major reason behind a "revival' of interest in traditional Cajun music in the mid 1960s. In 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana or CODIFIL was founded. In 1974, CODIFIL started an annual festival that came to be known as Festival Acadiens. It is still held in Lafayette.

A new respect for Cajun culture developed in the 1990s. Children like young phenom Hunter Hayes got into the music again, inspiring everyone. The most well known Cajun band outside of Louisiana is probably grammy winners Beausoleil, who have joined many country artists in the studio, and served as an inspiration to the Mary Chapin Carpenter hit, Down At the Twist and Shout.

Recommended Listening: Cajun
D.L. Menard - The Back Door
Belton Richard - Un Autre Soir D'ennui
Jimmy C. Newman - Lache Pas La Patate
Iry LeJune - Evangeline Special
Wayne Toups - Johnny Can't Dance

Creole musicians were inspired by the blues and jazz to update la la with wild R&B rhythms, thus forming zydeco.

Zydeco
Zydeco's rural beginnings and the prevailing economic conditions at its inception are reflected in the song titles, lyrics, and bluesy vocals. Zydeco's most visible feature is the vest frottoir, also known as the rubboard or washboard. Originating in Africa, the vest frottoir was re-introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s. In 1954, Boozoo Chavis recorded "Paper in My Shoe". This is considered to be the first modern zydeco recording, though the term "zydeco" was not in use yet (see 1954 in music). After Chavis left the music business, Clifton Chenier became the first major zydeco star and also led to the invention of the word zydeco in 1965. One of his hits was "Les Haricots Sont Pas Salés" (The Snap Beans Aren't Salty) and les haricots (snap peas) was corrupted to zydeco.

In the mid-1980s, Rockin' Sidney briefly re-popularized zydeco music nationwide with hit remake of the classic tune "My Toot Toot". This led to the resurgence of Zydeco artists, and spawned a new crop of innovators. Chris Ardoin, Beau Jocques, and Zydeco Force added a new twist to traditional Zydeco by tying the whole sound to the bass drum rhythm to accentuate or syncopate the backbeat even more. This style is sometimes called "double clutching".

Recommended Listening: Zydeco

Beau Jocque - Cornbread
Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin'-Lake Charles Connection
Clifton Chenier - Hot Tamale Baby
Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas - Steady Rock

Swamp Pop
Swamp Pop's heyday lasted from the late 1950s through the early 1980s and includes national hits, re-recorded for Louisiana sensibilities, by local artists, on local labels. Although, some original swamp pop songs have caught on with a national audience, such as I'm Leaving It Up To You by Dale & Grace, and All These Things by The Uniques. The influence of Swamp Pop can be traced up to Born On The Bayou by Creedence Clearwater Revival, New Orleans Ladies by LeRoux, and the songs of Fats Domino and Percy Sledge.

Recommended Listening: Swamp Pop
Rufus Jagneaux - Opelousas Sostan
Rod Bernard - This Should Go On Forever
Charles Mann - Red Red Wine
Tommy McLain - Sweet Dreams
Warren Storm - Graduation Night

Recordings
Small, local record labels proliferated from Houston, Texas to New Orleans, specializing in recording and distributing local acts. Labels such as Jin, Swallow, Maison De Soul, and Bayou continue to record and distribute Cajun, Zydeco, Creole, and other south Louisiana music. Many of the original versions of classic songs are still being made and distributed.

One of the most successful label owners was Floyd Soileau. Soileau started as a local DJ in Ville Platte, Louisiana in the mid 1950s, and soon decided he would rather help make music than play it. He started most of the labels listed in the previous paragraph. He and his record shop are important pieces of Louisiana's music history.

Some of the earliest recordings of Cajun music that exist were done the 1920s by noted historian Alan Lomax of farmhands in Louisiana.

Next Page - Northern Louisiana & New Orleans Music