Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Musical genre indigenous to Louisiana among descendants of French colonialists deported from Acadia after the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713: the French ceded the colony to the British, who renamed it Nova Scotia; the cultural group resettling in Louisiana referred to itself as Cadien, then Cajun, speaking a French dialect more distinct from European French than that of French Canadians, differing in grammar and vocabulary. Traditionally they also called themselves Creoles (Créoles), but English speakers called the whites Cajuns and the French-speaking blacks Creoles; the rural French-speaking blacks developed their own musical variant of Zydeco (in the past, Zodico). Cajun is sung either in Creole or Louisiana French. Legislators forbade the teaching of French in elementary schools; English-language education became mandatory in 1916, causing resentment; Nathan Abshire was never taught to write his own name, but was unhindered in creating memorable work. Among the foremost contemporary performers, Zachary Richards articulated bitterness six generations old towards les goddams (the English) in his 'Réveille!'

In the main Cajun is a dance music, with a rich repertoire of contredanses, cotillions, mazurkas and valses à deux temps; its instrumentation, like that of Tex-Mex, altered with the arrival of the diatonic accordion in the 19th century: hitherto the fiddle had been the dominant instrument, open-tuned with a double-string bowing technique to produce a drone effect. Other instruments including petit fer (triangle), guitar and harmonica. Black pioneers like Amédé Ardoin and Adam Fontenot were important in the music's development before black voicings led to zydeco. Originally played at home as parlour or front-porch music, at bals de maison and on church outings or socials, Cajun's audience became larger as an oil boom at the turn of the century provided larger disposable incomes; its market value was recognized in the late 1920s/early '30s by labels such as Victor (and Bluebird), OKeh, Decca and Brunswick/Vocalion, expanding into the 'race' market; the first known Cajun record was made by fiddlers Dennis McGee (b 26 January 1893; d 3 October 1989) and Saday Courville (b 1905; d 3 January 1988).

Accordionist Amédé Ardoin is probably the Cajun equivalent of Robert Johnson in the blues. He worked and recorded as a duo with the fiddler McGee, who was still playing beautifully at age 82 when the solo collection Dennis McGee--Himself was recorded in 1975 by the Cajun scholar Gérard Dôle, the collection issued on Valcour Records in 2012. Dôle also provided (on the label's website) translations of McGee's French Cajun commentary as he set down tunes he probably learned as a youth from another fiddler who was then 100 years old.

During and after the Depression Cajun's popularity increased. From the mid-'30s the influence of western swing and country music was felt, as was the 'high lonesome' sound of embryonic bluegrass. Leo Soileau, Harry Choates and the Hackberry Ramblers contributed; Rambler Luderin Darbonne foresaw the potential of amplification, steel guitar and drum kit, pioneering in this direction; the Ramblers also recorded country numbers, scoring at least one regional hit with 'Wondering'. Choates also crossed over to some extent, his version of 'Rubber Dolly' comparing well to western swing versions (e.g. by the Swift Jewel Cowboys). By the late '40s the French flavour seemed to be waning; in other ethnic groups acculturation grew; Iry LeJune (Ira LeJeune) had a hit '48 with 'La Valse du Pont d'Amour' which helped redress the balance: his death (hit by a car while fixing a flat tire) cut short a promising future, but musicians like Abshire, Alphonse 'Bois Sec' Ardoin (d 16 May 2007 age 91), the Balfa Brothers, Joe Falcon, Austin Pitre and Lawrence Walker stepped into the breach. Unlike other working-class musics such as country and Tex-Mex, Cajun has produced few female artists of standing; Cléoma B. Falcon, Joe's wife, was a rare example: her 'J'ai Pass‚ Devant Ta Porte' and 'Allons à Lafayette' (recorded with her husband) stand out, as does her anthology A Cajun Music Classic on Jadfel. Local labels (Jin, Swallow, etc) supplied home-grown talent as academics impressed upon people the need to counter the stealthy homogenization process; work for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax and Irene Whitfield's collection Louisiana French Folk Songs were part of the ethno-musicological renaissance.

Chris Strachwitz's Arhoolie label compiled a catalogue of Cajun with few equals; his Old Timey label pioneered compilations of classic Cajun and Zydeco; Folkways, Rounder and Sonet have also issued good collections; of special note is Louisiana Cajun Music Special '87 on Ace, an anthology of Swallow's best tracks including Abshire, Pitre, the Balfas, Doris Matte, the Lake Charles Playboys: perhaps the first Cajun collection on CD. The Country Music Foundation in Nashville issued three CDs compiled from the Victor/Bluebird catalogues 1927-41: Le Gran Mamou, Raise Your Window and Gran Prarie. English-speaking performers discovered Cajun; 'Jole Blon', Choates's classic hit, was covered not only by Cajuns but other Americans: Waylon Jennings recorded it while a disc jockey in Lubbock, Texas, with Buddy Holly and King Curtis (reissued in The Complete Buddy Holly '78); Gary 'US' Bonds and Bruce Springsteen in '81. Musicians as diverse as Hank Williams ('Jambalaya'), the Band, Commander Cody, Ry Cooder (especially on Southern Comfort, which included a fais do-do with Dewey Balfa and Marc Savoy), the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Buck Owens, Shakin' Stevens and Paul Simon have drawn on the genre. The slump in oil prices mid-'80s hurt the music by affecting the spending power of its supporters, but even at its peak few Cajun musicians made a living at it. As older musicians pass on, newer ones such as Richard, Savoy, Rockin' Dopsie, D.L. Menard, Michael Doucet (bands Coteau and Beausoleil) and Joel Sonnier emerge to keep the flame alive. Recommended: John Broven's South to Louisiana: The Music Of The Cajun Bayous (Pelican USA); Barry Jean Ancelot and Elemore Morgan Jr's Musiciens Cadiens et Créoles/The Makers Of Cajun Music (U of Texas), a bilingual account. See also Zydeco.

Postscript: D.L. (Doris Leon) Menard (b 14 April 1932; d 27 July 2017) was called 'the Cajun Hank Williams', best known for his hit 'The Back Door', said to have sold a million copies.