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."
These bands don't just act like rappers. They also dress like them and comport themselves on stage with gangsta swagger. Some of the younger bands are not above cussing out and dissing the competition.
There's not just latter-day rap in the radical zydeco blender -- there's also pop. I have in my collection a Step Rideau instrumental called "Dry Bayou Drive" that is a take on Phil Collins's "That's All" with an acoustic guitar solo, and then there's J. Paul's "What About How I Feel?" which quite simply has to be heard to be believed. Who could ever have guessed that a zydeco rendition of Wham's "Careless Whisper" would work so well? "That to me is part of the magic of zydeco, whether you come at it from the blues perspective or a pop perspective," says Wood. "You hear something and it sounds familiar and yet exotic."
Texas Zydeco also delves into the reaction to these trends. Some in the younger generation are embracing zydeco's past -- much as country singers like Dwight Yoakam and Steve Earle invigorated country music in the '80s with their old-timey sounds, there's now a neotraditionalist zydeco movement that's embracing the old waltzes, the blues element, and even in some cases the Creole French language that has all but disappeared. Brian Jack, Robert "Ra-Ra" Carter and rising Sugar Land-bred superstar Corey "Lil' Pop" Ledet are all either playing old-school zydeco or learning to speak and sing in Creole or both. And then there's Cedric Watson, a 23-year-old Creole fiddler from San Felipe, out near Sealy. Watson's music harks all the way back to the pre-zydeco days of musicians like Amd Ardoin and Canray Fontenot.
Watson's is a beautiful, heart-tugging story, wonderfully told by Wood, but too long to relate in this space. Throughout the book, Wood's writing takes on the verve of the zydeco world, as do the pictures shot by his longtime collaborator James Fraher. The Chicagoan's shots by and large have a less formal feel than those from Down in Houston. Wood says that Fraher was in a portraiture phase when he met him, but that Fraher widened his scope as they worked together on Down in Houston and maintained that vision throughout Texas Zydeco.
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"By the time we started this project, he had a well-honed eye for portraits, but also a sense of 'Let's get the place,'" Wood says. "Like Down in Houston, this book is as much about place as it is people, and if you'll look in the book there's a portrait of just a swamp, and there's another taken from the top of the San Jacinto Monument that's a portrait of the Houston Ship Channel. The photos are not just portraits anymore -- they are portraits of people in place. There is so much information in his photos -- it's beyond just his composition of his lighting or whatever. A great photographer always makes a writer look good -- there are people who will open up these books and say they are great and probably haven't read a word of my writing."
All in all, both the pictures and the words in Texas Zydeco go a long way toward convincing me that if you had to pick one style of music to define what Houston sounds like, it might be zydeco. Sure, hip-hop might be more popular, but only the chopped and screwed stuff was invented here, and it is both an acquired taste and a branch off a tree that was planted elsewhere.
Zydeco has got just about everything else in it: blues, a little country and today, a lot of rap, soul, funk and pop. It unites young and old, black and white and every shade in between. You can hear it everywhere from restaurants like Pappadeaux and Jax Grill to little fairgrounds in the suburbs to parish halls all over town to gritty dives in the Fifth Ward. As Wood relates in the book, the word "zydeco" was invented here by local Creoles to distinguish it from the older music from back home, and it was local folklorist Mack McCormick who codified its spelling.
It sounds like home. It was invented here, it is ours, and it is us. Wood and Fraher have documented the proof. The Texas Zydeco Book Signing Party and All Star Jam is Sunday, September 24, noon to 6 p.m. (music starts at 2 p.m.), at Sig's Lagoon and the Continental Club, 3700 Main. The Zydeco Dots and many special guests will perform. Sneak preview book signing on Saturday, September 23, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, call 713-533-9525.