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Zydeco's Birthplace

Hint: It's where you're standing

Quick question: What major urban metropolis has been the most crucial, historically speaking, in the development of that funky accordion-based music known as zydeco?

If you answered New Orleans, you're wrong -- though the Crescent City has done a splendid job of cashing in on zydeco's popularity (and promoting the misconception that Bourbon Street is the center of all things Creole or Cajun, an enormous fallacy embraced by tourists and lazy media types).

Actually it was in the industrial boomtown of mid-century Houston that black Creole immigrants and their descendants first fused the old French Louisiana folk music known as la-la with urban blues to create the new sound of zydeco. Michael Tisserand, author of the definitive book on the genre's history, The Kingdom of Zydeco (Arcade Publishing, 1998), has correctly asserted that the Bayou City's role in the evolution of zydeco is analogous to Chicago's in the development of modern blues.

Yet while "Sweet Home Chicago" (as seminal bluesman Robert Johnson once dubbed it) has long been acknowledged as the capital city of the blues, Houston rarely registers in popular consciousness as the zydeco mecca it once was and still is. Even if one doesn't know the history, consider that in any given week (excepting maybe a few major festival dates in Louisiana) there are more zydeco bands gigging here today than in any other city -- on either side of the Sabine River. Why?

Houston was the urban incubator in which contemporary Creole dance music came into prominence as a specific genre and where it still evolves today. Ever since the 1920s the thriving petrochemical center here has been the primary destination for thousands of rural immigrants from southwest Louisiana, where the true roots of zydeco are based (not in the southeastern part of the state near New Orleans). Black Creoles, past and present, moved into Houston for the same reason everyone else did: jobs.

In search of improved living conditions, these Creoles -- not to be confused with white Cajuns, an ethnically and musically distinct group -- first settled in enclaves such as Fifth Ward's Frenchtown district. They brought with them the acoustic folk musical idiom la-la, which soon absorbed other influences and evolved into modern zydeco, the progenitor of that syncopated accordion-based sound that has emerged onto the national scene over the last two decades.

Since the mid-1980s zydeco has affected mainstream pop culture, concomitant with a nationwide Creole-Cajun culinary craze. A few examples: Paul Simon's Grammy-winning 1986 album Graceland featured zydeco stalwarts Rockin' Dopsie and the Twisters. The 1987 hit film The Big Easy included a vibrant zydeco soundtrack, introducing artists such as Terrance Simien and the Mallet Playboys to the masses. By 1988 even rock guitar idol Eric Clapton had toured and recorded with Stanley Dural, the accordionist better known as Buckwheat Zydeco. And, of course, the trademark chanka-chank rhythms and squeezebox riffs have surfaced in television and radio commercials for products for everything from Toyotas to Reese's Peanut Butter Cups.

Throughout this ascendancy, Houstonians and outsiders alike have remained largely oblivious to zydeco's fundamental Texas connection. But it was in Houston in the late 1940s that recordings first appeared using variations of the word zydeco (a Creolized corruption of the French phrase les haricots, from a folk expression that translates into "The snap beans aren't salty") to signify a specific form of music or dancing. And it was in the Bayou City also that the now-standard spelling of the term was initially established in print by local folklorist Mack McCormick.

Most important, it was here where Clifton Chenier, the undisputed king of the form, lived, performed and recorded during the most significant developmental stage of his career. "Clifton was the first one to mix it up. Everything was strictly straight Cajun-style music or la-la before him," says accordionist Wilfred Chevis, former Chenier protégé and leader of The Texas Zydeco Band. "La-la was a traditional type of music, laid-back with a slower type of beat. Zydeco has an up tempo, with a little touch of blues to spice it up." By all informed accounts, that fusion of old Creole elements and hot blues licks occurred when French speakers such as Chenier migrated from rural Louisiana into the cultural gumbo of black Houston.

Once relocated to Texas in the 1950s, Chenier also changed the two most basic zydeco instruments, the accordion and the washboard, in ways crucial to the birth of the new sound. Here Chenier abandoned the button accordion and adopted the piano-style chromatic model, which could be played in any key and thus facilitated his musical synthesis of popular blues tunes and Creole sounds. And while working at a Port Arthur oil refinery, Chenier first designed the now-ubiquitous washboard vest to replace the handheld utensil that traditionally had been scraped at house parties for its essential polyrhythmic effect. The newfangled metallic instrument, soon mastered by his percussionist brother Cleveland Chenier, facilitated a wider range of sounds.

Though he had previously made a few recordings, it wasn't until 1964 that Clifton Chenier put on wax the anthem that formalized the z-word as the proper name of the new style of music. He did this for Chris Strachwitz, founder of roots label Arhoolie Records, by way of a serendipitous encounter bluesman Lightnin' Hopkins set up. Strachwitz had earlier made field recordings of Creole music at Houston's DowMcGowen Lounge and Irene's Cafe in 1961 (collected on the Arhoolie CD Zydeco, Volume 1: The Early Years). Then one night three years later Hopkins invited him to go hear his "cousin," and everything changed.

"He took me over to this little beer joint in Houston in an area they call Frenchtown," Strachwitz says. "And here was this black man with a huge accordion on his chest and playing the most unbelievable low-down blues I'd ever heard in my life. And singing it in this bizarre French patois."

Upon being introduced to Strachwitz, Chenier immediately asked to make a record, and they ended up at Gold Star studio the very next day. But to Strachwitz's dismay, Chenier arrived with a full band complete with instruments popular in R&B. The producer craved the pure, stripped-down folk sound he'd heard the night before, but Chenier longed to be hip, not old-fashioned.

"It was always a battle, every time we recorded," says Strachwitz, recalling how Chenier strongly believed he had to emulate popular styles in English to get a hit. "And I begged him to sing in French. So he said, 'Okay, Chris, I'll make you a deal. If you let me cut one side of the album rock and roll,' as he called it, it was really R&B, 'I'll make the other side French for you.' "

That compromise led to a regional hit titled "Louisiana Blues" sung completely in French, followed up shortly by the signature anthem of the genre, "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé." The result, according to Strachwitz, was that Chenier came to think that " 'maybe this French stuff is okay and people'd like to hear this'Š.And he really became proud of his heritage."

While that heritage surely reaches back to Louisiana, its contemporary mode of expression was first achieved and refined in Houston at some of the city's old Frenchtown venues. The most widely known is the Continental Lounge and Zydeco Ballroom, which -- sad to say -- has been closed since the 1997 death of longtime proprietress Doris McClendon. But just a few blocks away on Crane Street, The Silver Slipper still packs the house with authentic zydeco every Friday and Sunday night (though Saturdays are reserved for R&B).

And beyond these venerable clubs another tradition continues, whereby the major black Creole churches in the local diocese take turns sponsoring Saturday-night zydeco dances, rotating them on a regular basis with updates announced weekly in The Catholic Herald.

Of course, since the mid-1980s live zydeco has been featured in clubs and restaurants all over the city. For instance, Chevis does steady work playing for the Pappadeaux restaurant chain. And The Big Easy (a popular blues venue on Kirby) features zydeco every Sunday. The music is also performed regularly at numerous other establishments, from the popular Richmond Strip to Third Ward.

So Houston's largely unpublicized role as urban center of the zydeco universe continues to this day. Most significant, the city is home base not only to established past masters but also to a younger generation of streetwise, hip-hop-influenced bands such as J. Paul Jr. and the Zydeco Newbreeds, Lil' Brian Terry and the Zydeco Travelers, and Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws.

An in-demand national performer and recording artist, the 33-year-old Rideau -- like Chenier, Chevis and many others before him -- was born in Louisiana but came of age as a player only after migrating to Texas. Despite popular misconceptions to the contrary, he knows he's at the center of the action. "Houston is the true zydeco city," he says. "New Orleans isn't. It's jazz and all that other stuff. But this is where it's really at for zydeco."

Roger Wood contributes the chapter on southeast Texas zydeco in the forthcomingThe History of Texas Music: From the Beginnings till 1950 (Texas A&M University Press).

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