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New Orleans


Dixie, Blues, Cajun & Zydeco: History of Music in the Big Easy

Land of Dixie
After the Louisiana purchase in 1803, ten-dollar bills were printed bilingually in French and English. "Dix,’ French for 'ten,' was engraved in large letters on the back, and the bills were known as "dixies. "It was either from the land of these dixies or from a corruption of the "Mason-Dixon line" to Dixieland jazz got it’s name. Dixieland style is hard to define. Commonly harder-driving than other forms of jazz, instruments often include a banjo and a tuba, and vocalists are rare. The ensemble musicians take turns improvising in solos. It’s upbeat, with a 4/4 meter, but a 2-beat style, something like ragtime.

Bit of the Blues
The blues may have originated elsewhere, but a blues sensibility runs deeper here than the river currents.
Starting in 1949, Fats Domino took R&B to gold on the hit charts with "The Fat Man" and "Blueberry Hill." Bluesman Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair ( Fess to his friends), began as a tap dancer, played piano in honky-tonks, and created a style that mixed Latin rumba, mambo, and calypso stylings with an Afro-Caribbean beat interpreted with a percussive keyboard style.
His "Go to the Mardi Gras" became a local anthem.
In the '60s Creole pianist Allen Toussaint penned hits for Queen of the Blues, Irma Thomas, Aaron Neville, and Ernie K-Doe. With the invasion of English rock bands like the Beatles and the Stones, the blues were swept aside until the ‘70s, when New Orleans Jazz & Heritage festival reintroduced the style to new generations of music lovers.

Cajun & Zydeco Music
Cajuns, who were expelled from Acadia in Nova Scotia in 1755, brought music of French origins with them to Louisiana.
Then it simmered in a gumbo of Native American, Creole, West Indian, British, Spanish, and other European influences. Now, Cajun tunes are primarily thought of as dance music: gallops, reels, polkas, cotillions.
After 1925, the accordion, a German addition, accompanied the fiddles and pumped up the volume to carry across crowded dance floors. Cajun singers pitched their voices high and cried out, both from emotion and to be heard above the din.
The steel guitar and other instruments came a few years later. Mixing the same European and New World ingredients, Creoles threw in African / West Indian rhythms and soulful blues and produced a variation of the Cajun music.
Then, in the '40s, influenced by Creole compositions, piano accordionist Clifton Chenier formed a band with his brother, Cleveland, who played percussion on the washboard. Cleveland graduated to corrugated tin played with spoons and bottle openers and finally to the trademark Zydeco instrument, the frottoir.
The name "Zydeco" came from a French phrase, "Les haricots sont pas sales" ( The snapbeans aren't salted).
In Cajun dialect it emerged as Chenier’s signature song: "Zydeco Sont Pas Sale."

Sidney Bechet  Statue in Armstrong Park in New Orleans
Sidney Bechet Statue in Armstrong Park in New Orleans



Document Information
Source: New Orleans CVB, Written by native New Orleans, Lisl M. Spangenberg
Last modified: 20040920
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