Sunday, 26 February 2012
ELDER MUSIC: Cajun and Zydeco
This Sunday Elder Music column was launched in December of 2008. By May of the following year, one commenter, Peter Tibbles, had added so much knowledge and value to my poor attempts at musical presentations that I asked him to take over the column. He's been here each week ever since delighting us with his astonishing grasp of just about everything musical, his humor and sense of fun. You can read Peter's bio here and find links to all his columns here.
For those who are not too familiar with these styles of music, a rough and ready guide is that Cajun music was performed by the white folks in southern Louisiana and it incorporated elements of country music and occasionally polkas.
Woops, I think I’ve just lost a bunch of you with that polka business.
Zydeco was performed by the black folks in southern Louisiana and it incorporated elements of blues. Both of these were usually sung in French, or at least, a Creole version of that language and both had the piano accordion as a dominant instrument.
Woops, I think I just lost the rest of you. Never mind, I’ll plough on.
Over the years, as various strands of music influenced each other, it became increasingly difficult to tell the styles and performers apart and as far as I can see, there’s little difference these days.
Probably the most famous Cajun song is Jole Blon and the biggest selling version to that time was by HARRY CHOATES in 1946.
Harry’s wasn’t the first version, the song had been around since the 1920s in recorded form and probably for a lot longer as a song. A year later, Moon Mulligan also recorded it and it sold ever more copies. However, we’re concerned with Harry today.
Harry was born in southern Louisiana - it’s not entirely certain where exactly and he moved to Port Arthur as a teenager. He had little schooling but learned to play the violin by listening to music on the jukebox.
He was in several bands but died at age 29 after slipping into a coma caused by his continuously hitting his head against the bars of his cell after being banged up for failure to pay child support.
The most famous Zydeco artist would have to be CLLIFTON CHENIER.
Clifton started performing in the mid-1950s playing blues and music from New Orleans. He was soon noticed and signed to Chess records (and later to Arhoolie, another fine blues label). He probably did more than anyone else to bring Zydeco music to a wider audience (not very wide, but somewhat).
Clifton also took the old washboard and turned it into a musical instrument made of aluminium, these days called a frottoir (ooo err) – just means a rubbing thingie.
He died in 1987 but his son, C.J. Chenier, continues playing the music to this day. Here is Clifton with Baby Please.
JO-EL SONNIER is equally at home in Cajun and country music. Various other forms of music as well.
Jo-El started young, mastering the accordion by age three. By the time he was six, he was a regular performer on radio and made his first recording when he was 11. By the time he reached early adulthood he was much in demand as a studio musician.
He has recorded albums both in the country vein, with some elements of rock & roll, as well as Cajun music. Jo-El’s songs have been recorded by many others but probably his most famous single is a cover of Richard Thompson’s Tear Stained Letter. Today, however, it’s Cajun we’re interested in and the tune is Cher Big Mamou.
BEAU JOCQUE or, as some would have it, Beau Jacques, was known as Andrus Esprit to his maman and papa.
Unlike many in this column, he wasn’t destined for a musical career. He spent many years in the air force and later worked as an electrician and welder. When an industrial accident put him in bed for some time he learned to play the accordion.
He discovered he was quite proficient at it and decided to form a band with his wife on the wash board. I don’t think we should read anything into that because, as I mentioned earlier, it is a regular instrument in Zydeco bands.
He brought serious rhythm and blues influences to his playing. He died of a heart attack in 1999. Here he is with his band, the Zydeco Hi-Rollers, with Give Him Cornbread.
Possibly the most famous and successful performer in Cajun music over the years is the “Ragin’ Cajun,” DOUG KERSHAW.
Doug can play pretty much any instrument you hand him. He started his musical career with his brothers Rusty and Peewee. Peewee left early and the others continued as a duo for some considerable time.
In spite of his busy career, Doug also completed a degree in maths – I like him even better.
Doug has performed with many musicians, probably most notably Johnny Cash and Eric Clapton. He continues making fine music well into his seventies.
Doug’s songs have been covered by many artists, foremost among them would be the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band who had possibly the best known version of this song, Diggy Diggy Lo. This is Doug’s version.
EDDIE LEJEUNE is the son of noted Cajun musician, Iry LeJeune (who, unfortunately, was killed by a hit and run driver at the age of 26). Eddie learnt to play the accordion from his grandma when he was about six years old.
D.L. MENARD or Doris Menard to his folks. No wonder he goes with his initials – what were his parents thinking? – has been called the Hank Williams of Cajun music. D.L. plays guitar and was influenced by the playing of David Bromberg (and you could do worse than emulating David).
KEN SMITH is a champion Cajun fiddler who often appears with the Savoy Doucet Cajun Band.
These three got themselves together and recorded an album of Cajun music called “Le Trio Cadien,” and a pretty nifty album it is too. They play as if they were sitting around on the front porch, perhaps a glass of something at hand and just going with the flow. From that album is the song, Bayou Pon Pon.
Hailed by those in the know as the best Cajun band in the world, BEAUSOLEIL formed in 1975 and are based in Lafayette, Louisiana.
The members are Michael Doucet, his brother David, Jimmy Breaux, Mitchell Reed, Tommy Alesi and Billy Ware. Although they play music that’s as authentic as possible to their Cajun roots, they also branch out into blues, jazz, Tex-Mex, folk and rock & roll. However, today we’re sticking to the more traditional Cajun style with the tune, Madame Sosthène.
BUCKWHEAT ZYDECO was born Stanley Dural but acquired his nickname as a boy because his resemblance to the original film character.
Although officially his band’s name is Buckwheat Zydeco and Ils Son Partis Band, the shortened form of the name is what they usually use.
Stanley learned to play various keyboards as a youngster, particularly the organ, and backed people like Joe Tex and Clarence Gatemouth Brown. After that he formed an R&B/funk band called Buckwheat and the Hitchhikers that had some local success around Louisiana.
Clifton Chenier asked him to join his outfit as an organist and Stanley discovered how popular Zydeco music was. He quickly learned to play the piano accordion and after some success with Clifton he went out and formed the band we’re talking about today.
His is one of the few Zydeco groups to have considerable crossover success, perhaps because he doesn’t restrict his repertoire to traditional Zydeco music as we will see today with his version of Bob Dylan’s On A Night Like This.
Michael Doucet, mentioned above in Beausoleil, performs in other bands as well. One of these is The Savoy Doucet Cajun Band. The Savoys in this band are Marc and ANN SAVOY. Ann got together with her friend LINDA RONDSTADT to record an album of tunes called “Adieu False Heart” that included several Cajun songs.
Regular readers of this column should know about Linda. If not, keep reading them.
Like Michael Doucet, Ann performs in several bands besides the one mentioned – The Magnolia Sisters, an all women band, another with her husband and sons in the Savoy Family Band, and one called Ann Savoy and her Sleepless Knights. She plays guitar, accordion and fiddle besides singing.
Here are Ann and Linda with Plus tu tournes.