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Uncovering the Origins: A Deep Dive into Early Zydeco History

Early Zydeco was a blend of Louisiana French accordion music, Afro-Caribbean beats and the blues. Its forerunner was called Creole music (like most of the people of African descent in Southwest Louisiana) and also called "La La." This music was mainly featured at house dances, which provided sharecroppers and other hardworking country people in the early 20th century a chance to have fun.

Over the years, Zydeco has evolved and grown, with many talented musicians contributing to its unique sound. There are countless stories to be told and explored within this vibrant musical tradition. Zydeco has become a popular choice for dancing and celebrations. Whether you're a seasoned fan or new to the genre, Zydeco is sure to get your feet moving and your heart pumping.

Most of the pioneers learned to play the accordion by copying their fathers who played "La La." Zydeco found its first stars in Wilson (Boozoo) Chavis and Clifton Chenier. Chavis recorded his first hit, "Paper in My Shoe," in the 1950s and it is still a zydeco standard. Then, he quit playing music professionally until the 1980s. When he returned, he came out with a vengeance and released hit after hit -- packing dancehalls everywhere.  

Chenier was exposed to music growing up. He accompanied his father, Joseph Chenier, a farmer and player of the single-row diatonic accordion, to dances. His uncle, Morris Chenier, played fiddle. Musical influences that he cited from radio were Muddy Waters, Peetie Wheatstraw and Lightning Hopkins, while local influences included Creole musicians Claude Faulk, Jesse and ZoZo Reynolds and Sidney Babineaux. Clifton began playing accordion around 1947, and by 1950 was playing in a club in Basile with his brother Cleveland Chenier on rubboard. Prior to his professional music career, Chenier worked as a farm worker and at a Gulf Oil Refinery in Port Arthur, Texas.

Chenier is credited with coining the genre’s name, zydeco. He said, “When I start playing my music, I am going the call it zydeco." It comes for the French saying, “Les haricots ne sont pas salés,” which means “the snap beans aren’t salty.” Clifton Chenier was famous for playing blues music on the accordion. He also covered Fats Domino's hits like “Walking the Floor.” In the early 1950s, Clifton Chenier recorded several hits, and was not only a pioneer, but he was also the first ambassador – touring the world and introducing the world to our music. Chenier is known as the still reigning King of Zydeco. 

Fernest Arceneaux learned how to play the accordion by copying and accompanying his father Ferdinand Arceneaux, a Creole musician who performed at house parties in the 1950s. Arceneaux gave up the accordion to play guitar, which was more appealing to the young people of his generation. He was persuaded by his friend and fellow musician Clifton Chenier to start playing the accordion again. Soon after, Arceneaux started touring Europe, and the rest is history.  He was the first known to cover the song Boogaloo by Tom and Jerrio which was a dance craze in the 60s. The zydeco version of Boogaloo is called "

Zydeco Boogaloo and is also considered a standard today.

Alton Rubin, known professionally as Rockin' Dopsie, was given his first accordion at the age of 14 and was taught to play by his father who also played the instrument. He was left-handed and learned to play it upside down. He hit the club scene in the mid-1950s and took his stage name from a visiting dancer called Dopsie. Dopsie like the other pioneers had success first in Europe and later in the United States.​

According to a Living Blues magazine story. Wilson (Boozoo) Chavis traded a small riding horse for his first accordion, a little single-row model, and taught himself to play, at age 9. Two other articles in Offbeat and Sing Out! claim that Chavis bought his first accordion with money earned from either riding in a horse race when he was a teenager or that he bought the accordion at age 13 with horse race bet winnings. Chavis also played scrubboard and harmonica prior to obtaining his first accordion, and his father taught him early accordion lessons. 

black Paino Accordion

                                                                                                                                                                               -Corey Arceneaux (Zydeco History)

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Corey Arceneaux playing a big black piano accordion
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