As best I can tell Cajun is a corruption of the word Acadian. With the strong accent that the Cajun’s have it is not hard for us to see how we could get from Acadian to Cajun.
Of course the next question would be what does Acadian have to do with Cajun music? Well, it was way back in the 1700’s that the Great Expulsion took place. During the years 1755-1763, British troops and New England militia deported more than 14,000 Acadians mainly from what would later be Nova Scotia, Canada and some of the other Maritime areas.
Of these deportees, approximately one third did not survive. Many settled in Louisiana, when the Spanish governors offered the Acadians land in the prairies in the Southwest, where most began raising cattle and some crops. However, the now “Cajun” population was pushed into the swamp areas of the Mississippi River Delta as the population of wealthier English grew.
They brought with them music that had its origins in France but that had already evolved from contact with other settlers and the natives. These early ancestor songs of what would later become Cajun music were sung without musical accompaniment at family gatherings or special occasions. The fiddle came a bit later and normally supplied music for the dances.
The word “Creole” comes from the slave trade and described slaves born locally and not those brought in from Africa. Today, Creole generally means a French-speaking black and Cajun normally refers to a French-speaking white who is descended from the Acadians. Cajun music came from those descended from the Acadians and zydeco sprang from the Creoles in the 1940’s.
If you remember the old Reese peanut butter cups commercials, where the two main characters bang into each other and one complains that “He got peanut butter on my chocolate” and the other says “He got chocolate in my peanut butter” and then they both say “MMMMM.” This is kind of what happened with the French music of the Acadians and the music of the Creole.
The isolated bayou and prairie areas of Southwest Louisiana became kind of a musical hothouse as the different cultures all kind of came together in a melting pot of musical flavours with each culture adding it’s own spices and cooked up what became the Cajun musical style. This was how Cajun culture developed. While the people that attended these different parties and dances rarely mixed, quite often the bands would be multi-cultured or multi-racial.
Cajun and Creole musical styles at this time kind of developed in unison but separately. The music was primarily fiddle based until the late 1800s, when the accordion was invented and eventually made its way to Louisiana when German settlers introduced them and they were adopted by both Cajun and Creole musicians. These accordions were from Rudolph Kalbes of Berlin, Germany. The “Monarch” model, then the “Sterling” were the best out there until the war shut down the factories in Germany. They are collector’s items today.
The accordion became the instrument of choice for the music, as it was loud enough to be heard at the parties and dances. Fiddle became second fiddle and mostly played a supporting role in the music.
The first recordings of the music were in 1928 when the song “Allons à Lafayette” (Let’s go to Lafayette) was recorded by Joe Falcon and Cléoma Breaux. Most of the early recordings were done during the late 1920s by well-known folklorist Alan Lomax who was famous for his travels into the south and his field recordings.
Many notable musicians during the time period include Joe Falcon and Cleoma Breaux, Breaux Brothers, Segura Brothers, Leo Soileau accompanied by accordionist Mayuse (Maius) Lafleur or Moise Robin, and Dennis McGee accompanied by fiddler Sady Courville or Ernest Frugé.
Cajun music even had it’s own version of Robert Johnson per se, in that the date and place of his death is uncertain. Amédé Ardoin was a Creole musician credited with laying the foundation for the music.
The story is that Amédé was the victim of a racially motivated attack in which he was beaten almost to death. Apparently the daughter of the house, lent her handkerchief to Amédé to wipe the sweat from his face during a house party he was playing and this angered some white men enough that after he left the house he was run over by a car which crushed his head and throat. He was found alive the next day, lying in a ditch but he never recovered and he got weaker and weaker until he died.” Like Robert Johnson there were other versions of how he died some say that Amédé was poisoned, possibly by a jealous fellow musician. Also just like Robert there were only about 30 songs ever recorded by Ardoin.
Cajun has had a long history of great music and some of it’s biggest stars are the likes of Beausoleil, Joe-El Sonnier, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Wayne Toups and Michael Doucet to name a few. With plenty of great artists like these around it is easy to see why Cajun music thrives and is known throughout the world as lively fun music that is great for parties and dances alike.