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The Bittersweet Story of Zydeco in 2017

Five years after the Grammys stopped recognizing zydeco music, how is the Gulf Coast genre faring?

Six years ago, in a major overhaul of the Grammys, the Recording Academy eliminated more than 30 awards, narrowing their rolls from 109 categories to 78. While award shows trim fat periodically in order to streamline broadcasts and keep audiences engaged, the specifics of this move drew protests from artists and fans. The loudest criticism focused on the academy’s decision to pile three genre categories (Best Hawaiian Music Album, Best Native American Music Album, and Best Zydeco or Cajun Album) under the umbrella of Best Regional Roots Album, a grouping that is both inaccurate and ahistorical. For zydeco — the youngest casualty of the group, having only earned a designated Grammy category four years prior — the loss was particularly painful. Zydeco bubbles up from the Gulf Coast rhythm bed, where bands squeeze thick, playful harmonies out of diatonic accordions alongside percussionists rubbing out rhythms against the grooves of the vest frottoir (washboard). Skilled accordionists toss form by the wayside, stirring funk into their Creolized French blues and even weaving West Indian riddims into their rural back-porch vibe. That down-home veneer may be part of why zydeco can look to outsiders like a genre in stasis, even as it continues to evolve into a new era. This was the impression left by the Grammys’ decision in 2011, and it only deepened in 2016, when Buckwheat Zydeco — the original zydeco superstar, who ushered the regional sound into international consciousness — died at age 68.

Where does a Grammy go when it dies prematurely? I wonder about how we archive dead and dying genres. In the case of zydeco’s lost Grammy, it’s not necessarily the music that’s dying, so much as the Academy’s willingness to appreciate a living, breathing art form that exists outside the “urban” mainstream. The Grammys first recognized zydeco with its own category in 2008, when artists had been living off tours and festivals for five decades. That the category was put down so quickly after its arrival underscores the Grammys’ lagging respect for folk musics and, more specifically, for zydeco artists’ singular articulation of the lives, joys, and depths of the Gulf Coast.

Zydeco’s Acadian-French roots are reflected in the very name of the genre. In Creole etymology, the term “zydeco” suggests a particular lacking. It’s said to be a form of the French les haricots (beans), alluding to a 20th-century turn of phrase heard between the Louisiana countryside and urban areas of East Texas. A Creole cat might dap you up, asking, “Tu vas faire z’haricots?” (pronounced with the rolled French r and taking on the character of the English d) — which translates, roughly, to “Are you gonna get your beans?” or more colloquially, “How are you doing?” If you were in the know, you might respond, “Ouais, je vais faire z’haricots, mais z’haricots sont pas salés” — meaning that yes, you had some beans, but no meat or even salt to flavor them. In other words, you’d fallen on hard times.

The analogy of the beans suggests zydeco music’s key characteristics, from its conversational form to its weary lamentations. Zydeco songs are so intimate, they often feel like eavesdropping. The first recorded zydeco artist, Amédé Ardoin, placed his high-pitched 1920s wails on “Les Blues de Voyage” or “La Valse de Amities” in the midst of sizzling encounters between his own accordion and Dennis McGee’s masterful fiddle — merging the sounds so well that it can be hard to hear where one ends and the other begins. The intimacy of zydeco is especially potent on records like fiddler Canray Fontenot’s tearful 1940s song “Les Barres de la Prison,” which portrays a back-and-forth between a mother and her son who’s “condemned for the rest of [his] life behind the prison bars.” Old-style Creole joints like this, typically performed with a fiddle as the lead instrument, derived from traditional French folk, but the tone and content were closer to blues. Though the term “zydeco” can allude to a house party, the music played at the party, or the dances one does there, the genre’s earliest examples seem more like worried conversations taking place during a get-down. You can hear the singers laying their burdens down in song, while also adhering to the other ecstasy-inducing functions of the music being played. As legendary Texas bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins put it on his 1949 cut “Zolo Go,” the first recorded use of the term “zydeco” in music: “Let’s go zydeco, ’cause times gettin’ hard down here.” Zydeco shorthanded a kind of reprieve.

In the late 1970s, the rest of America’s growing fascination with the Gulf Coast’s Cajun and Creole food and culture meant that outsiders began to discover zydeco. At the time, the genre was evolving into its modern form, as many zydeco artists migrated from Louisiana to proper recording studios in East Texas and upgraded from stripped-back traditional instrumentation to include standard three-row accordions, low-end-grooving rhythm sections with guitars and drum kits, and horns.

By the 1980s, zydeco music had produced virtuosic national acts in the form of Clifton Chenier, Queen Ida, and BeauSoleil. Though they didn’t enjoy very much chart success, these artists’ recordings and live gigs earned them quite a reputation, and even Grammy nods in folk album categories. Queen Ida’s irrefutably natural weaving of zydeco and Tex-Mex textures pushed the genre forward, making her the first zydeco artist to earn a Grammy in 1982. Chenier, once labeled the King of Zydeco, accrued a significant following outside the Gulf Coast after his Grammy-winning 1983 album I’m Here and his appearance on PBS’s Austin City Limits. BeauSoleil, too, won for their 1995 zydeco/calypso communion, L’amour ou la Folie, after almost two decades of touring and recording. But even then, despite having no Grammys of his own, the indisputable gatekeeper of mainstream zydeco in these years was Buckwheat Zydeco.

Born Stanley Dural Jr. in Lafayette, Louisiana, Buckwheat fronted a funk band in the ’70s before dedicating his life to the preservation and popularization of zydeco. His funky spin on the music of the Gulf Coast was sprawling and imaginative, informed by the sound of the West Indies; his accordion’s grin was dwarfed only by the one perpetually on his face. Buckwheat’s charm and savvy resulted in a successful decades-long zydeco awareness project that paved a path from zydeco’s heartland in Lafayette to an international following.

Best Zydeco or Cajun Album was added as a Grammy category in 2008, following years of lobbying led by Terrance Simien — an eighth-generation Louisiana Creole whose soul-touched zydeco has powered a 30-year career, including over 7,000 concerts and contributions to Disney’s Princess and the Frog — and his wife Cynthia. “It was a revelation one day,” Cynthia Simien told the Christian Science Monitor in 2008. “So many musicians had passed away without recognition.” After a six-year campaign assisted by Louisiana’s then–lieutenant governor, Mitch Landrieu, and the Memphis chapter of the Recording Academy, the national organization accepted their bid. Yet the category survived only four years before the Academy clumsily lumped the genre together with other indigenous music. At the time, Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow stated vaguely that the change would “ensure all fields are treated with parity.” Unsurprisingly, zydeco devotees and local musicians were unsatisfied with this explanation. “All I can say is it’s a very big disappointment,” “Rockin’ Fiddler” Waylon Thibodeaux told a reporter at the time. “The toughest part about it is all the hard work people did to get it on there and now it’s gone.”

This year, there are no zydeco artists nominated for the Grammys. It could be an off year — there were two Cajun or zydeco nominees last year. But the Grammys’ decision to stop recognizing zydeco as a vibrant art form in its own right adds to the sinking feeling that the genre’s growth may have been halted for now. Despite being the birthplace of so much rich culture, from the blues to jazz to zydeco, the Gulf Coast has never been a region that held national attention for too long — neither in triumph nor tragedy. When a Grammy dies, it goes back home, held close in the bosom of loved ones, until the rest of the world remembers to appreciate the music and — more importantly — the people it stood for again. Until then, zydeco joints sprinkled across Lafayette roads — and younger acts like Soul Creole, nouveau zydeco artist Chris Ardoin, and fiddler Cedric Watson — remain the most hopeful spaces for the genre’s revival.

Two years before he died in September 2016, Buckwheat Zydeco sat beside his best friend, club owner Sid Williams, and shot the shit in Lafayette. The scene, captured in the recent documentary Zydeco Crossroads: A Tale of Two Cities, has only grown more poignant with time. Williams, with his arms crossed in front of him, leans back and remarks, “El Sid O’s Zydeco [and Blues Club], it’s been goin’ a long time.” “It’s still goin’, man,” Buckwheat interjects. “Yeah,” Williams replies, “but not like it used to!” The duo laughs, and Buckwheat, sensing the concern underneath his old friend’s remark, offers him an old gem commonly heard between East Texas and the Louisiana countryside: “Well, you know how they used to say it back home: You gotta take them bitters with the sweets.”

This post has been edited since publication.