By Ben Sandmel
The Cajun music of southwestern Louisiana and east Texas shines as one of America’s most significant and distinctive indigenous genres. Currently in the fourth decade of a rich cultural renaissance, Cajun music is most frequently performed today by bands in which the diatonic accordion is the dominant signature instrument. Fiddles, acoustic and/or electric guitars – and in some cases, steel guitars – provide accompaniment and contribute solos alike, and most bands are anchored by a rhythm section of an electric bass and a full drum kit. This familiar sound and visual image belie the fact that, during approximately 250 years of existence, Cajun music has undergone significant changes in terms of instrumentation and repertoire.
The term “Cajun” is a shortened form of “Acadian.” The Acadians were residents of Acadie, a prosperous French colony in what is now Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada. They had emigrated to Canada from western France, with two rich musical traditions in tow: fiddle music, and a capella ballads. Some of this music had clearly discernible medieval roots. The fiddle repertoire was primarily played to accompany dancing and included such song forms as waltzes, reels, contre-danses, jigs, mazurkas, and schottisches. The a capella ballads ranged from centuries-old historic narratives to children’s play songs and lullabies, and were sung more often by women than by men.
Britain took control of Acadie in 1713 and deported the Acadians in 1755. A significant number of Acadian exiles eventually settled in south Louisiana on the west side of the Atchafalaya Basin. Their rural, agrarian communities were quite separate from the urbane world of French New Orleans, and remained physically and culturally isolated until the early 20th century. Such separation nurtured the survival of Acadian music, but not to a monolithic extent. Cajun musicians interacted significantly with Africans, and several generations later, African-Americans, as well as Afro-Caribbean Creoles who came to southwest Louisiana from Haiti. In the mid-twentieth century these people’s French-speaking descendents would go on to create Cajun music’s Creole counterpart, zydeco. Louisiana’s status as a Spanish colony during the late eighteenth century left its imprint upon Cajun music as well, as did the musical traditions of local Native American tribes. Then, during the latter nineteenth century, German and Austrian peddlers brought the recently invented accordion to Louisiana. It caught on quickly, in that pre-electrified era, as the only instrument that could cut through the noise of a crowd at a dance, and has served as a symbol of Cajun music ever since.
The advent of the recording industry in the 1920s coincidentally documented the folkloric Cajun music of the day, which had yet to become commercially self-conscious, although such canny awareness would follow soon. At this time, Cajun music was dominated by accordion and fiddles playing two-steps and waltzes for dancers. The first such record in this mode, “Allons A Lafayette” by accordionist Joseph Falcon, (with guitar accompaniment by his wife, Cleoma), appeared in 1928. During the 1930s the accordion went out of vogue, temporarily, during an era of string-band dominance typified by the Hackberry Ramblers. The 1930s also saw the deliberate, extensive documentation of folkloric Cajun and Creole music thanks John and Alan Lomax’s crucially important fieldwork, conducted for the Library of Congress. Much of what we know today of Cajun and Creole music history is based upon these recordings.
The accordion returned to prominence after World War II, led in large part by Iry LeJeune, and Nathan Abshire. By this time many Cajun bands featured amplified instruments and were driven by bass and drums. Continuing a trend that had started in the ’30s,…