Musical styles in Louisiana vary considerably and traditionally reflect the different people that settled and worked in that part of America. At first European settlement brought Spanish then French speaking people who integrated with the indigenous American Indians. Later, slaves from Africa added to the population then after 1803 when the United States bought the French Territory (the Louisiana Purchase), English-speaking Anglos and African-Americans flooded in. The rich blend of European, African, and Amerindian cultures around New Orleans forged into four main music styles e.g. Cajun, Creole, Zydeco and Jazz.
The Cajuns were French speaking people exiled by the Brits from Acadia (Nova Scotia, Canada) in the late 1700s. They resettled in New Acadia, Louisiana and today Cajuns represent the largest French speaking community of the Americans. The Acadian’s music is ostensibly French but with both British and Native Americans influences. Early balladeers sang mouth music (without accompaniment) and the fiddle was used only for dance music. Clapping and stomping were added later to gave rhythm. Improvisational singing, common to 19th century slave music, was combined with the rhythms and singing styles from Native Americans. At first the Spanish guitar, and fiddle featured but German accordion were later adapted when they were tuned in C and D. The accordion became the mainstay of Cajun music. In the era prior to amplification the combination of accordion and a high pitched vocal carried well across the crowded dance floor. Amédé Ardoin (a creole musician) became a very influential figure in the 20s and set the pattern of Cajun music.
By the 30s Cajun bands incorporated western swing and bluegrass and the accordion was dropped in preference to steel guitars. After the war, German accordions became available again and Iry LeJeune brought back the original sound of Cajun.
Creole originally referred to French-speaking Catholics of an African American background. The term was also applied to West Indies, Central and South Americans, and people from the Gulf States region and now Creole usually refers to people who live in the older "downtown," area of New Orleans which includes the French Quarter (Vieux Carre). Creole music drew on the same French traditions as Cajun music but was influenced more by African music and the rhythms of the Caribbean, or the soulful melodies of the blues or a combination of these sources. Jurés or sung dances is a style of melody singing found both in West Africa and the West Indies and Creole dance songs are built around a refrain rhythm that enables the group of singers to make music. Played in homes and at family gatherings it was thought to have less commercial appeal although Creole musicians were particularly disciplined with many of educated and able to read music. Sadly Creole music is no longer played nor do many recordings exist.
All New Orleanians love food, music, drinking and most of all dancing and in the 50s, once the commercial potential for rock 'n' roll was realised, Cajun and Creole musicians started to produced their own style of pop dubbed swamp pop. The subgenre was a mixture of rock’n’roll, rhythm and blues and country. Songs had highly emotional vocals, simple, unaffected lyrics, against honky-tonk pianos, bellowing sax sections, and a strong rhythm and blues backbeat. Swamp pop ballads were usually melancholic with undulating bass lines, climactic turnarounds, and dramatic breaks. Bill Haley and the Comets' cover version of "Later Alligator," had originally been Swamp Pop hit. Other notable examples were Dale and Grace's "I'm Leaving It Up To You," and Johnny Preston's "Running Bear," which all score number one hits in the US.
Meantime the Chenier brothers Clifton (accordion) and Cleveland (washboard, corrugated tin with spoons and bottle openers) blended blues, R&B, jazz and Creole together and had a hit with "Ay-Tete Fee" ("Hey, Little Girl") in 1955.
The new music genre was called Zydeco and line ups included accordion, frottoir (a rub board with shoulder straps), guitar and drums. Zydeco rarely includes fiddle and has continued to attract new fans. Louisiana immigrants to California brought their influence to the West Coast, as evidenced by Rockin' Sidney Semien's "My Toot Toot," in 1984.
Paul Simon has been the most notable pop person to include Zydeco into his repertoire but slow hand, Eric Clapton is also a fan. As people moved to New Orleans they brought their own musical traditions and instruments to the city which became known as the dance capital of America. At the end of the Civil War brass bands were vogue and the polarity of the minstrel’s shows with syncopated singing never more popular. Soon ethnic ragtime was incorporated into march repertoire and tunes like ‘When the Saints go marching in,’ became all the rage at market and festivals.
As the 20th century approached dance bands and orchestras softened the brass sound with stringed instruments and "dirty" music, or jazz, became all the rage in the Roaring 20s. Before severe segregation laws were implemented many two tone bands played together with Creole musicians combing uptown improvisational style with the more disciplined Creole approach in the form of Dixieland Jazz. Bands had a new standard front line of; cornet, clarinet, and trombone which gave a characteristic polyphonic sound ideal for the new order of dance. The band was complete with a "rhythm section" of at least two of the following: guitar or banjo, string bass or tuba, piano, and drums.
Moving from string to swing made jazz more popular and the migration of Dixieland musicians to cities like Chicago and New York saw the popularity of the music style spread. In 1917 the Original Dixieland Jass Band cut the first commercial jazz recording while playing in New York.
By the 30s swing had replaced the Dixieland Jazz craze as the new jazz order. Dixieland Jazz was later revived in the 40s which brought many of the originals out of retirement but by the 60s Trad Jazz bands like Dutch Swing College Band, Acker Bilk and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen took Dixieland once more into the charts. The revivalists were known as Moldy Figs which was a derogatory term used by ‘be bop/modernists’ for enthusiasts of New Orleans and earlier forms of jazz.
Worth a listen:
La valse de amities
Les Blues De Voyage
Jerry Lee Lewis
Bill Haley and the Comets
Later Alligator (1956)
Sea Of Love (1959)
Running Bear (1959)
Paper in My Shoe (1954)
Rockin' Sidney Simien
My Toot Toot (1985)
Basin Street Blues
Dutch Swing College
Kenny Ball and the Jazzmen
When the Saints go marching in