It was only in 1960 or so that folklorist Mack McCormick came up with the word "zydeco" to describe the musical genre, but the term was first used in a song as far back as 1934. Zydeco music, which has also been called zodico and other variants of the word, is generally believed to have gotten its name from a Creole form of the word haricots, which is French for "snap bean." The music, which is generally livelier and more syncopated than Cajun music, did not originate in New Orleans, as some people believe. It did, however, become more urbanized after the war and was influenced by R&B and soul in such centers as Lake Charles and Lafayette. In short, Cajun music emphasizes the melody, zydeco the rhythm. Zydeco adds an Afro-Caribbean rhythm to Cajun and Afro-American rhythms by simplifying the melody and incessantly repeating it, not unlike blues in some respects. Over the years the style has generally come to be known as party music and it's up to the artists to make it infectious by imparting a sense of style and originality to their performances.
Zydeco groups, many of which have become family affairs in recent years, feature the rub-board or frottoir, which began to be used as a raspy percussive instrument in Louisiana in the 1930s. Cleveland Chenier (Clifton's brother) replaced the washboard with corrugated tin and everybody followed. Many of the zydeco stars play the chromatic accordion (with piano keys) rather than the smaller diatonic or button accordion favored by Cajun musicians. Also, lyrics are secondary in zydeco and usually follow easy formulas. Most of the time the words are often difficult to understand in dance halls so the emphasis is on conveying emotion rather than on whatever tenuous story line the song might contain.
The blacks that found themselves in Cajun country ended up adopting Cajun manners, traditions and music. In return, these Creoles, the term referring to French-speaking African-Americans and their descendants, had a considerable influence on Cajun artists. The old type of secular congregational singing known as juré, which made use of shouts, hand clapping and foot stomping, eventually evolved into zydeco. In 1949, Clarence Garlow recorded "Bon Ton Roula" in Houston and it became an R&B hit and the first important record in the zydeco style. Boozoo Chavis came out with "Paper in My Shoe" in 1954 and it became the first zydeco hit. Nonetheless, Clifton Chenier, who was influenced by a few obscure performers such as Sidney Babineaux and others, was practically responsible for making zydeco a full-fledged genre of its own and was considered "The King of Zydeco" until his death in 1987. The way he combined French juré singing, R&B and blues in creative ways became the established formula for the zydeco style. When, in 1964, he was encouraged to record some records in Creole, his influence became considerable and many of his songs classics.
Although Chenier was the most important figure in zydeco, many others made a name for themselves: Queen Ida, who migrated to California where she won a Grammy in the early '80s (as did Chenier), Buckwheat Zydeco (who started out in Clifton Chenier's group), Rockin' Dopsie, Boozoo Chavis, John Delafose and his son Geno, Beau Jocque and Rosie Ledet (one of several notable female performers). Rockin' Sidney achieved another landmark when his 1984 recording of "My Toot Toot" became a million-seller.
In recent years a new generation of zydeco musicians have appeared but an important aspect of the tradition has been left behind. Only vestiges of the French language creep into most modern-day performances, usually in the form of common expressions that have become a little hackneyed with time. Many, if not most, of the artists sing their own material even though many of the songs merely consist of exhortations to get on the dance floor, all set to a driving rhythm. Still, there are enough of the older players to keep the tradition alive and new groups such as Chris Ardoin and Double Clutchin' are bringing a new vitality to the genre by drawing on hip-hop and other genres. Paul-Emile Comeau