What is Cajun & Zydeco
Dance & Music

Cajun Music
Cajun music has a long and complex genealogy.  French people who settled in Acadia, Nova Scotia, preserved a musical heritage rooted in medieval France.  After their expulsion by the British in 1755, those seeking refuge in subtropical south Louisiana apparently carried no instruments, though they had obtained fiddles by the 1800’s.  The exiled Acadians performed not only old compositions that had survived the expulsion, but also composed new tunes, often concerning themes of death, loneliness, and ill-fated love — a reaction to their harsh exile and rough frontier experience.  

In Louisiana the Acadians shortly began to encounter and intermarry with other ethnic groups, fostering their evolution into a new ethnic group - the Cajuns.  Creoles of African descent exerted a major influence on the Cajuns' developing music.  Late in the 1800’s local merchants imported affordable, durable accordions, which spurred the instrument's rise in popularity among Cajun musicians.  In 1928 phonograph companies began to record Cajun music in an effort to sell more players.  Standard versions of classics like Allons à Lafayette, Hip et Taïaut and Jolie Blonde emerged from these early commercial recordings.

During the 1920s & ’30s, Cajuns experienced a period of increased Anglization, prompted largely by the discovery of oil in south Louisiana and the building of new highways.  These factors led to an influx of Anglo-American workers with a love for country & western music.  (In addition, some Cajuns moved to southeast Texas, where they found jobs in area oilfields and refineries.)  Reacting to these new influences, Cajuns emulated Anglo-American string bands, highlighting the guitar and fiddle at the accordion's expense.  Indeed, the accordion practically disappeared from Cajun music between 1935-1950.  At this time, Cajuns added the steel guitar, bass, drums, and even banjos and mandolins to their lineup.  

By the late 1940s, however, the accordion again dominated Cajun music, resurrected by accordionists like Iry LeJeune, Lawrence Walker, and Nathan Abshire, and by war veterans seeking relief in "old-time" music.  Although the guitar and fiddle receded to backing roles, Cajun groups kept the steel guitar, upright bass, and drums, all remnants of the string-band era.  The accordion's return, however, corresponded with the arrival of two increasingly popular national genres — rhythm & blues and rock 'n roll -represented in South Louisiana by the "swamp pop" sound.  Cajun music appeared to many on the verge of extinction. 

Then, in 1964, Cajun musicians (Dewey Balfa) appeared to critical acclaim at the Newport Folk Festival.   This helped to trigger the "Cajun revival."  At the same time, young Cajun musicians like Michael Doucet and Zachary Richard were pushing the limits of Cajun music, combining it with other sounds in a way similar to swamp pop musicians in the 1950s.  During the early to mid-1980s, Cajun music (as well as zydeco) experienced a worldwide boom in popularity that continues to the present.

Cajun Instrumentation
Button Accordion, fiddle, triangle (aka ’tit fer, bostrang), guitar (sometimes slide guitar/peddle steel), bass, drums. Often, the accordion player can also play the fiddle, and some of the hauntingly beautiful older tunes feature “twin-fiddling” with no accordion.

Cajun music has typically always been played as music for dancing – not just for listening…  After the accordion was imported and available in the United States, it became a great asset for Cajun bands because, unlike the fiddle, it could be heard over the noise of the dancers feet, in the era before amplification.

Cajun  Dancing

Two-step” songs (4-beats)

There are several options for dancing to Cajun two-step music:

8-ct two-step – quick/quick slow, quick/quick slow - travels around the line-of-dance.

6-ct two-step -  quick/quick slow, slow - travels around the line-of-dance – this is known as “Mamou Two-Step,” and is the same thing as Texas or C&W Two-Step.

Mamou Jitterbug – This is basically an adaptation of single-rhythm swing dancing, done in the center of the dance floor, leaving the perimeter open for the traveling dancers to use. It has the same count as the Mamou Two-Step - quick/quick slow, slow – and the quick/quick is equivalent to the “rock-step” in Swing dancing.

Cajun Jitterbug  - Traditional Cajun Jitterbug features a “hobble step” alternating feet like you are stepping on and off a curb, and lots of underarm turns popular with C&W dance.

Waltz (3-beats)  Cajun or zydeco waltz is generally a simple progressive waltz that travels around the “line of dance” of the dance floor.  A Mamou-waltz variation actually features the Mamou two-step footwork pattern, and you can count it “step, step, step / hold, step, hold”.

Zydeco Music
Zydeco is a popular accordion-based musical genre - the blues and dance music of Louisiana Creoles, the French-speaking blacks of the prairies of south-central and southwest Louisiana. Contrary to popular belief, it is not Cajun in origin. Rather, zydeco is the music of south Louisiana’s “Creoles of Color,” who borrowed many of zydeco’s defining elements from Cajun music. (In turn, Cajun music borrowed many of its traits from Creole music.)

The word zydeco (also rendered zarico, zodico, zordico, and zologo) derives from the French expression les haricots, meaning "beans."  Folk etymology holds that the genre obtained this name from the common Creole expression Les haricots sont pas salés ("The snap beans aren’t salty").  This phrase has appeared in many Creole songs, and serves as the title of a popular zydeco recording (also called "Zydeco est pas salé").   Les haricots sont pas salés can be considered a lyrical metaphor for difficult times: in the past, Creoles seasoned their food, such as beans (les haricots), with salted meat — when times were bad, salted meat became too expensive, which explained why "the beans aren’t salty."   

The roots of Zydeco are found in jure, a form of hand-clapping and foot-stomping used by black field hands to pray and give thanks. By the turn of the century, when instruments became available, many of the jure songs had adopted secular themes. This music was called LaLa or la musique creole and was popular at rural house parties in southwest prairie towns like Eunice and Mamou (perhaps best represented by the recordings of Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin.)

Zydeco is actually the most modern form of Creole music from Acadiana, and it first appeared after World War II, when Creoles became influenced by the rhythm, blues and jazz that was heard on radio and juke boxes. The mixture of rural LaLa and urban black music gave birth to a genre that the world enjoys today as Zydeco, when pioneers of the genre like Clifton Chenier and BooZoo Chavis combined more traditional sounds with new R&B elements.  In 1954, BooZoo Chavis had the first recording of modern zydeco with Paper in My Shoe on Folk-Star Records. The song was a regional hit, but a dispute over royalties prompted Chavis to leave the music industry. He did not return until the mid-1980’s when he produced string of hits that helped spark a Zydeco revival that continues today.


Zydeco has evolved considerably over the decades, and now draws on pop music sources like soul, rap, and even reggae.   It also is increasingly performed in English, instead of in its original Creole dialect.  And, oddly, it generally is regarded as "party music" — even though early zydeco drew heavily on "low-down" blues elements, as demonstrated by Clifton Chenier’s repertoire.  Zydeco frequently appears in movies, TV, and commercials - even more so than Cajun music, which, unlike zydeco, has retained much of its traditional flavor.  It has attracted a loyal worldwide outside Louisiana, as demonstrated by the large numbers of zydeco dancers on the east and west coasts.  Despite its commercialization (and Anglization), zydeco remains a relevant cultural expression for the Creoles of Acadiana.

Zydeco Instrumentation
Zydeco’s instrumentation centers around an accordion and a rubboard or frottoir (originally a domestic washboard), now made of corrugated metal worn like a vest. The frottoir is scratched usually with spoons and used to provide rhythm. Generally, button accordions are played (although some musicians like Buckwheat Zydeco and CJ Chenier play piano accordion exclusively). The other instruments are  guitar, electric bass and drums.

Zydeco Dancing
Traditional zydeco dancing is done in closed position, with an 8-count footwork generally counted slow/quick/quick, slow/quick/quick with footwork: step pause/step/step, step pause/step/step – each of the steps is a weight shift from side to side The dance does not travel around the dance floor.  “Club style” zydeco features the same footwork done in open position, with a variety of lead & follow improvised variations.  Waltzes are also occasionally played by zydeco bands, and you can do a Cajun waltz for these. In Lousiana, zydeco dancer attire is often jeans and cowboy boots.  Source for  Cajun & Zydeco Music Description: Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture

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