Cajun music is a genre that arose in southwestern Louisiana from the Francophone folk music traditions of the Acadians.
Cajun music is an accordion- and fiddle-based, largely francophone folk music originating in southwestern Louisiana. Most people identify Cajun music with Louisiana’s Acadian settlers and their descendants, the Cajuns, but this music in fact refers to an indigenous mixture with complex roots in Irish, African, German, Appalachian as well as Acadian traditions. As distinct from zydeco music, Cajun music is most often performed by white musicians. While zydeco tends to incorporate elements of rhythm and blues, blues, and more recently hip hop and rap, Cajun music has historically been influenced by Western swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and country music. Although the historical and cultural center of Cajun music continues to be southwestern Louisiana, interest in the music has spread in recent decades, and practitioners and fans of Cajun music can be found today throughout the world.
Cajun music is marked by its exclusive use of the diatonic accordion (zydeco musicians, in contrast, use either the triple-row, chromatic, or diatonic accordion). Resilient folk instruments that may have been brought to Louisiana by German settlers—though the earliest documentary evidence finds them in the hands of African American musicians—diatonic accordions are button accordions that feature a fairly limited melodic range. Most diatonic accordions played by Cajun musicians are tuned to either C or D major scales. Accordions are the loudest instrument in Cajun music and often begin and end any particular song. Along with the diatonic accordion, the fiddle is the instrument most central to Cajun music. Although a variety of tunings may be employed, Cajun musicians normally play in standard violin tuning (GDAE) or “tuned-down,” one whole-step below standard tuning.
A typical modern Cajun band, performing for a public dance, includes accordion, fiddle, guitar, bass, and drums. Other instruments, including the pedal steel guitar and the triangle (or ’tit fer) are also common. Many early recordings of Cajun music feature a trio of accordion, fiddle, and acoustic guitar; or simply accordion and fiddle. In addition, a distinct twin-fiddling style associated with Cajun music exists, in which one fiddler plays a melody, while the other provides rhythmic accompaniment, or “seconding.” In most instances, accordion and fiddle provide melody (together or separately), while the rest of the band acts as a rhythm section. Steel and six-string guitars, however, also may be used as melody instruments.
In a public dance setting, most Cajun songs can be described as two-steps or waltzes, in accordance with the tradition’s most common dance steps. Two-steps are faster songs in a 2/4 time signature, while waltzes are slower songs, in 3/4 time. In Cajun music, a “blues” normally refers to a slower song in 2/4 time, which may or may not conform to a standard 12-bar blues formula. Cajun two-steps, in addition, may be played with a “swing” feel, reflecting the historical influence of Western swing on the Cajun genre.
Both early recordings and field recordings made by folklorists in the homes of Cajun musicians throughout the twentieth century point to a broader array of song types than those found in public dance performance—an older tradition related to, but distinct from, the indigenous accordion and fiddle based styles. A cappella ballads, some dating back hundreds of years, have persisted into the twentieth century, primarily in the private, domestic repertoire of female singers. Other song styles with roots in European folk music and dance, such as the mazurka, the hornpipe and the reel, are evident in early recordings, though they have largely disappeared from modern Cajun music.
The contemporary Cajun music repertoire includes hundreds of traditional songs and an ever-expanding list of newer material. Although many authors of the songs that form the core repertoire have been lost to time, commercial recordings have helped preserve credits for many twentieth-century songs. Prominent songwriters, including D.L. Menard, Marc Savoy, Adam Hebert, and Ivy Dugas, have succeeded in writing new songs in a traditional vein. Although the fluency in southwestern Louisiana’s vernacular French continues to decline with the demise of native speakers, young songwriters continue to compose in French and add original songs to the repertoire.
Over time, a small number of Cajun songs have become “hits,” reaching audiences outside the local Cajun population and crossing over into mainstream popular culture. Most famously, the song “Jolie Blonde,” first popularized in the 1946 recording by Cajun swing fiddler Harry Choates and by numerous artists afterward, became a nationwide hit. In addition, a number of songs qualify as regional hits, including Jimmy C. Newman’s “Lâche pas la Patate” and D.L. Menard’s “La Porte d’en Arriére.” As these hits have faded from broader popularity, they have been retained as part of the traditional repertoire.
A Brief Chronology
Although Cajun music has remained dynamic over time, certain trends and currents are evident in commercial recordings, the first of which were made in the late 1920s. These first recordings have come to embody a “classic” period in the music, largely because they were the first recordings of the music widely available. “Lafayette” by Cléoma and Joe Falcon, as well as the duos of fiddler Dennis McGee with both Creole accordionist Amédé Ardoin and fiddler Sady Courville, form the core of the early “classic” acoustic sound. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Cajun accordion temporarily faded in prominence, largely because of the craze for fiddle-based, more melodically complex Western swing.
After World War II, interest in the accordion reignited with the powerful playing and singing of Iry LeJeune. The 1950s saw the rise of figures such as songwriter/accordionist Lawrence Walker, who managed to accommodate the accordion to a smoother style reminiscent of the swing era, but owing more to the influence of country and honky-tonk sounds. In the 1960s, Aldus Roger and the Lafayette Playboys helped to merge the driving accordion style of LeJeune with the smoother sensibilities of Walker, even as the Balfa Brothers, in step with the nationwide folk boom, found widespread acclaim with a more acoustic, folksy sound. Some musicians, such as D.L. Menard, ran the gamut of stylistic possibilities, playing in acoustic settings while also performing with a full band in the Cajun/honky-tonk style that earned him the moniker, “The Cajun Hank Williams.”
Beginning with the triumphant performance of Dewey Balfa, Louis Lejeune, and Gladdy Thibodeaux at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Cajun musicians increasingly began traveling and performing abroad, typically via the emerging folk festival circuit. As a result of the music’s broadening recognition, young revivalists of the 1970s and 1980s, such as Zachary Richard, Michael Doucet and Beausoleil, and Cajun/rock sensation Wayne Toups, established successful professional careers that persist to this day. During the same period and into the 1990s, husband-and-wife duo Marc and Ann Savoy cultivated a barebones acoustic approach to the music, while Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys explore both traditional and progressive sounds.
While all of the different styles discussed above persist in one way or another today, the late 1990s and early twenty-first century can be characterized as a neotraditional phase, in which many of the most popular groups scoured past recordings for inspiration. Bands such as The Red Stick Ramblers and the Lost Bayou Ramblers hearkened back to the experimentations of the early swing era, while Balfa Toujours (led by Dewey Balfa’s daughter, Christine) and the Pine Leaf Boys perpetuated both the twin-fiddling style of the Balfa Brothers, as well as the dancehall styles of earlier decades.
In general, contemporary Cajun music features a dynamic range of styles, drawn both from the local tradition and from other genres of American music. Live Cajun music may be heard throughout southwestern Louisiana at dance halls like La Poussière in Breaux Bridge and Randol’s Restaurant in Lafayette, as well as at local festivals like the annual Festivals Acadien et Créole or the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.