by Alex Cosper (12/17/12)
Cajun and Zydeco music both are a popular part of Louisiana culture with distinct French roots. Cajun music grew out of French acoustic folk music brought to the region from French Canadians in the 1700s. In the 1800s Zydeco music began to develop as a similar type of folk music, except that while Cajun music uses diatonic accordion with other instruments such as guitar and fiddle, Zydeco music is characterized by the heavy use of button or piano accordions. Another distinction is that Cajun music is considered to have broader roots while Zydeco, also known as Creole, is celebrated more as regional music of Louisiana.
Acadians were French people who settled in Nova Scotia in the early 1600s before the Pilgrims arrived in America. In 1755, when Canada was controlled by both Britain and France, a conflict between the two governments forced the Acadians out of the region. Many Arcadians ended up in New Orleans, which was governed by France. The Acadians who settled in the town of Vermilionville, Louisiana later became known as Cajuns. The folk music they brought with them also took on the name Cajun music.
While the core of early Cajun music was ballads, both Cajun and Zydeco developed as dance music in the 1800s based on waltzes and two-step rhythms. Early recordings of these musical styles began to appear in the 1920s, featuring accordions manufactured in Germany. Early Cajun recording artists included Joe Falcon, The Breaux Brothers and Dennis McGee. As the music developed, it began to incorporate a mix of French and English lyrics and was influenced by country music from Texas. The first Cajun song to gain wide attention beyond the region was "Jolie Blonde" by Harry Choates in 1946, although it did not have an impact on the national charts.
The first national hit in America that "Jambalaya (On The Bayou)" by Hank Williams in 1952. It penetrated the top 20 on the pop charts and stayed at number one on the Billboard country chart for over three months. It is perhaps the country legend's most memorable hit. The melody came directly from a Cajun song called "Grand Texas." The success of the record paved the way for other Cajun artists such as Jimmy C. Newman, Doug Kershaw and Balfa Brothers. Interest in Cajun and Zydeco music also grew with folk festivals, such as the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. The music was further popularized by Creedence Clearwater Revival singer John Fogerty, whose cover of "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" was a national hit in 1973.
Today the influences of both Cajun and Zydeco music can be felt more in eclectic independent music, spanning folk, rock, country and blues. The music is more likely to be heard on public radio than commercial radio. Artists who have kept the tradition alive include the Lost Bayou Ramblers, The Pine Leaf Boys and Chubby Carrier and the Bayou Swamp Band. For more information about cajun and zydeco music visit BayouVermilionDistrict.org and CajunFrenchMusic.org.