H-Town Zydeco

Dr. Roger Wood and James Fraher serve up another heaping helping of Houston music lore

Zydeco is one of the more misunderstood musical genres in the national consciousness. Most people in places like Wisconsin and Boston and, often enough, right here in Houston, associate it strictly with Louisiana and even specifically with New Orleans. (And you can't really blame them -- every tacky souvenir shop in the French Quarter blares zydeco nonstop.)

Dr. Roger Wood's new book, Texas Zydeco, puts that myth to rest. Just as Muddy Waters developed the urban blues in Chicago and exported it back to his native Mississippi Delta, so too did Clifton Chenier and others take Louisiana Creole folk music and mix it with blues and R&B to create zydeco, and they did so most often here in Houston's Frenchtown section of Fifth Ward and in places like Beaumont and Port Arthur.

I met up with Wood, once a frequent Houston Press contributor, last week at Sig's Lagoon (3700 Main), where he will launch the book this Sunday with a signing and an afternoon zydeco jam next door at the Continental Club. "The idea that zydeco is from New Orleans is really misconstrued," he says. "If you look back at the early, early history of zydeco, before Texas really became involved in it, it was all in the area of Lafayette and Lake Charles, which is a world away from New Orleans, that sharecropping world on the Louisiana plains."

Another myth Wood dispels with this work is that zydeco is a quaint, static folk music, popular only with old black people and white people who want an "authentic" soundtrack for their crawfish boils and spicy seafood dinners. In the black community here, zydeco is alive and well, thriving, still evolving, popular with young and old, men and women, rich and poor.

That vitality, captured so well in Texas Zydeco, is something that was lacking from the subject material in his last book, Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues, which, like Texas Zydeco, is a collaboration with photographer James Fraher. In that book, the glory, sublime as it was, was mostly long past. "The blues musicians and audiences that we documented in Down in Houston are an older generation, one that is in its sunset," Wood says. "But here, the audiences are every age. You go to any wide-open zydeco jam in Houston, and at some point some little kid is gonna get on the stage and play. A lot of little kids in the black Creole culture here today own those little $5 toy accordions, and you'll see them at the church dances running around playing with those things like they will with any other toy. But they're holding a facsimile of a musical instrument in their hands, and they're growing up in a culture where the guy that holds the accordion is cool. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid, I didn't think anyone holding an accordion was cool."

Zydeco has stayed relevant by keeping up with the times. It has always done so -- the inventors, people like Chenier and Clarence Garlow, created it in the late '40s and early '50s by updating the rural black Creole music called "la-la" with the blues and R&B of people like Ray Charles and Guitar Slim. Former Houstonian Buckwheat Zydeco later brought in influences from both soul and classic rock -- he has recorded the Rolling Stones chestnut "Beast of Burden," Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe," the Mungo Jerry ditty "In the Summertime" and the Latimore chitlin' circuit smash "Take Me to the Mountain Top." (The late Beau Jocque had a funk bent -- War's "Cisco Kid" and "Low Rider" were staples of his live shows.)

In Texas Zydeco, Wood credits Houston's Sam Brothers Five as vital rejuvenators of the music. In the late '70s, they were mixing updates on the classic Clifton sound with stuff like "S.A.M. (Get Down)," a zyde-fied rendition of the Chic disco smash "Le Freak." And they looked cool, for the time -- with their Afros, matching outfits and bell-bottoms, they looked like a bayou version of Earth, Wind & Fire. "Nobody really knew it at the time," Wood wrote, "but this band of Texas-born brothers arguably laid the foundation for what would later be known as zydeco nouveau."

Today, zydeco nouveau takes on many forms and several other names. (I've also heard "zyde-rap" and even "hip-hopaco.") Pioneering rap-zydeco fusionists Lil' Brian and the Zydeco Travelers call their music "Z-funk," a play not just on zydeco and Parliament-style funk but also on the West Coast gangsta beats of Dr. Dre. Locals Step Rideau and the Zydeco Outlaws, Nooney and the Floaters, and J. Paul and the Zydeco Nu-Breedz are also heavily influenced by rap.

In the book, Wood recounts a story about his interview of a foul-mouthed 16-year-old fan of a northside zydeco rapper/accordionist called Big Mike, who was a regular denizen of a nightspot called Club Classic.

Writes Wood: "When I inquired about the phenomenon with the owner of that now-closed Crosstimbers Road establishment (who volunteered 'Redell' as the only moniker he was willing to share), he explained that he booked a lot of what he called 'radical zydeco' specifically because the younger crowd could relate to it -- and would turn out in large numbers to hear it performed live."

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