It doesn't get more country, rural or folky than backwoods swamp music made on washboards and accordions.
"My daddy used to play accordion, and I used to follow him wherever he'd go, you see...One thing he used to tell me: 'You wanna play accordion?...if you learn how to play that accordion, I want you to do one thing: Don't let nobody beat you.'" – Clifton Chenier
Often, when someone mentions Mardi Gras, you immediately not just think of the parades, the beads, the boobs, the free flowing of alcohol and overall debauchery, music plays a huge factor into the general feeling of the events. That sound was pioneered into the modern age by Professor Longhair in the late 1940's and brought into the Rock and Roll era with producers like Allen Toussaint and performers like Fats Domino.
What is typically missing is the link to musicians who were native to Louisiana long before it became a tourist destination: those of Cajuns, the white people of French descent, and Creoles, the Black and American Native descendants of the pelican state. The music they play is distinctly rural, country as a chicken coop and based in the Blues, part of a long folk tradition and often using instruments that are not common to big city bands, like the washboard and the accordion, falling into a truly regional sound called Zydeco. It is the latter we are celebrating today with the man named the King of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier.
Clifton Chenier, 1982, San Francisco. Courtesy of Arhoolie Records. Directed by Chris Strachwitz.
Chenier was born in 1925 and originally spoke a type of Creole-influenced French common to people of color in rural Louisiana. He made his first recordings in 1954, and became the first Zydeco musician to achieve a level of national prominence, due in no small part to two factors: He infused his playing style with a heavy influence of the Blues and the then-emerging sound which came to be known as R&B. This caught the ear of Specialty Records, the Los Angeles-based label that was having national success with acts like Sam Cooke and Little Richard. Because of these factors, he was the first artist to have a nationally charted single in the Zydeco format.
Although his success would not be sustained on the charts, he quickly became popular at music festivals, touring sometimes as much as 250 nights a year or more. His first major mainstream recognition came in 1966 in the form of Ralph J. Gleason, a music critic in San Francisco who would become one of the founders of Rolling Stone magazine a year later. Gleason was blown away by what he saw as something truly original: someone playing a blues accordion and pulling it off incredibly well. Chenier's popularity slowly grew from there, peaking in the mid-1980's with a Grammy win, only the second Creole musician (after Queen Ida) to achieve this recognition. He died in 1987 after a long battle with diabetes-related kidney failure. His son, C.J., just like his father and grandfather before him, also plays in a Zydeco band and tours the country regularly.
1. Jambalaya (live at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland)
2. Hush Hush (live at the New Orleans Jazz Festival, 1977)
3. I'm A Hog For You, Baby
4. Louisiana Blues
5. Jolie Blonde (live, 1972)
6. Eh Petit Fille
7. Zydeco Sont Pas Sale
8. Release Me
9. Zydeco ne sont pas salés (live at the American Folk Blues Festival, 1969)
10. Tou kèkunn apé parlé (live, 1971, St. Mark's Hall, Richmond, California)
11. New Ma Negress (live, 1971, St. Mark's Hall, Richmond, California)
12. I Can Look Down At Your Woman
13. Hot Rod
Love to you all.
Ben “Bear” Brown Jr., owner
Ace of Spades PDX