Zydeco and Cajun are the premier cultural expressions of the spirited and hardy people of southwest Louisiana. While the two styles have some similarities, they are also quite different.
Cajun music as we know it today can be traced back to early Acadian, French, Creole, and Anglo-Saxon folk songs. These early ballads and lullabies -- typically concerned with troubles and hard times -- were often sung a cappella. For the most part, they were performed at home and passed down orally from generation to generation; however, the singers of these traditional songs were eventually accompanied by simple instrumentation.
Cajun music is, of course, meant for dancing -- one-step, two-step, and waltzes. Traditionally, the Cajun dance ("Fais-do-do" in Cajun) was the major social function in Cajun society. The principal instrument in Cajun music is the diatonic accordion, preferably in the key of C. Although it is a German instrument, the Cajun people adopted it in the 1870s. To a lesser degree, the fiddle is also a favorite instrument in Cajun music. Early Cajun bands featured both of these instruments, as well as a triangle to keep the rhythm. Acoustic guitars were added to the lineup by 1920, then, three decades later, steel, electric guitars, and sometimes drums. Although Cajun music has changed somewhat over the years and has been influenced by other styles of music -- notably country and blues -- it has remained a distinctive style.
The first Cajun record was Joe Falcon's "Allons ý Lafayette" from 1928. Although the style was recorded only sporadically for several decades, Iry LeJeune, Harry Choates, Nathan Abshire, Lawrence Walker, Leo Soileau, and Vin Bruce had become influential Cajun artists by the middle of the 20th century. While the music's popularity continued to grow within Louisiana, it didn't enter the spotlight nationally until the mid-'80s, riding on the coattails of the Cajun food explosion. Today several traditional and contemporary Cajun artists -- including Dewey Balfa, Zachary Richard, and Beausoleil -- tour nationally and internationally.
Compared to Cajun music, zydeco music has a much shorter history. Like Cajun music, the dominant instrument is the accordion, but unlike Cajun music, zydeco adds electric bass, horns, and sometimes keyboards. In a nutshell, zydeco is Creole (Black) dance music of southwest Louisiana blending Cajun music with rhythm & blues and soul. The word "zydeco" is actually a bastardization of an early zydeco song, "L'Haricots Sont Pas Salls" (The Snap Beans Aren't Salted). The first Black-French recordings were made in 1928 by Amad‚ Ardoin, an accordion player who played in the Cajun style. However, the music we know as zydeco today didn't begin to evolve -- at least on record -- until the mid-'50s, when Clifton Chenier and Boozoo Chavis made their initial recordings.
Like Cajun music, zydeco didn't achieve national popularity until the 1980s, buoyed somewhat by Rockin' Sidney's surprise hit "My Toot Toot." By the '90s, several zydeco artists were signed to major labels, including Terrance Simien, Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Rockin' Dopsie.