Bradshaw’s Best: It Began With a Fiddle

By Jim Bradshaw

You’d never guess it today, when half the world comes to south Louisiana to listen to the sounds of a Cajun fiddle, zydeco accordion, or saxophone wailing out a swamp pop lick, but there wasn’t a great deal of music in Louisiana in our earliest days.

Musical instruments do not appear in Louisiana records until a 1780 legal document mentions a fiddle. In 1785, a Spanish government report says a man named Prejean played both the fiddle and clarinet.

His may have been the only clarinet in the colony, but it is likely there were more fiddles. Almost all early Louisiana music came from a fiddle, or sometimes was made with no instrument at all. The Acadians often made music only with their voices, sometimes singing words and sometimes mimicking instruments, keeping time by stomping their feet and clapping their hands.

At the time of their deportation in 1755, “the only instruments with which [the Acadians] left were their own voices along with the rich tradition of French ballads and dance tunes,” according to a study by Sharon Arms Doucet.

Once they settled in Louisiana, the Acadians continued to sing the old songs they’d known in Canada, but also created new music that was influenced by their new neighbors—Spaniards, black people from Africa and Haiti, Anglos from Kentucky and Tennessee, Germans, and, to a lesser degree, Native Americans.

LSU folklorist Harry Oster found, for example, that “when settlers from the southern mountains, inheritors of the tradition of the British Isles, made their way to Cajun country, they often brought with them southern mountain songs. Some of these found so much favor with the Cajuns they translated them into … French. Some followed the original text quite closely, with little or no modification to make the French words rhyme.”

As Louisiana French players began to change and adapt the old music, some of the most influential musicians were black Creoles who introduced elements of the blues into Cajun songs. This was just about the time that the diatonic accordion became popular, adding a new element to the music. Musicians such as Adam Fontenot and Amede Ardoin were among the most important of the early accordion players.

Zydeco comes from the same roots as Cajun music, but as radios and phonograph records began to introduce outside influences into south Louisiana, black musicians became more influenced by the blues. They developed a distinctive sound, at first called jure or la-la, which was the precursor of zydeco.

At the same time, white musicians became more influenced by Hank Williams and other country performers and by the Texas swing style of music played by Bob Wills and others.

There was a double effect as radios began to be heard in more south Louisiana homes. Cajun musicians were influenced even more by the music they heard and they also gained the opportunity to broadcast from local radio stations and enhance their popularity.

But those same stations also introduced big band sounds, and hillbilly, and rock and roll, and the British sound, and Louisiana French music was all but drowned out by it all.

Some say the revival began on March 26, 1974, when more than 12,000 people jammed Blackham Coliseum in Lafayette to hear “A Tribute to Cajun Music.” That event became the forerunner to the Festivals Acadiens et Creoles, that now attracts thousands to south Louisiana each fall.

It reintroduced Louisiana French music to a world that was apparently ready to listen. Musicians such as the Balfa Brothers, Bois Sec Ardoin and Canray Fontenot, D.L. Menard, Clifton Cheniere, Nathan Abshire, and others found themselves to be celebrities on festival stages around the world. People from other places began to come to Louisiana to hear or music and discover our cuisine.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

You can contact Jim Bradshaw at jhbradshaw@bellsouth.net or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 705i89.

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