What is Cajun Music?
The Basics You Need To Know:
Cajun music is fiddle based and is often sung in French. It first evolved from the music the Acadians brought with them when they arrived in Louisiana, and was later influenced by different music styles around the world.
The Acadians had their own style of music, which was originally from France. However, as the British entered French Canada, the music became influenced by the English and Celtic. After their exile, songs that were once English and Scots-Irish jigs, reels, and hornpipes were changed into ballads about their life in Louisiana. These ballads included themes of mourning, lost love, and death, and they were sung without music, or with only a fiddle. By the 1800s, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, and Native Americans further influenced the Acadians’ music in Louisiana.
- Native Americans contributed a wailing singing style and new dance rhythms.
- Africans and Afro-Caribbeans added new percussion, syncopated rhythms, and improvisational singing styles.
- They also learned new melodies from the Spanish settled in Louisiana.
The fiddle is one of the oldest instruments used in Cajun music. Musicians like Dennis McGee and his partner Sady Courville played a twin fiddle style. This involved one fiddle leading while the other provided rhythm. It remains to be a popular music style.
The accordion arrived in Louisiana near the end of the 1800’s. It was being imported by Jewish German immigrants. However, these early accordions could not accompany the fiddle in Acadian music because they were tuned in the keys of A and F. The fiddlers could not tune their fiddles to play in these keys because they used an open string type of tuning. However, by 1925, the introduction of the German accordion tuned in the keys of C and D which allowed this instrument to be used with the fiddle for some Cajun songs.
The accordion became very popular in Cajun music because it was louder and more durable than the fiddle. New songs had to be composed because the accordion couldn’t play all the old fiddle tunes.
With the development of the radio and recording industry in the late 1920s, Cajun musicians were first able to make recordings of their traditional music. At that time, a Cajun band was comprised of the accordion, the fiddle, and the guitar or triangle for rhythm.
Oil was discovered in Louisiana in 1934, which resulted in Cajuns becoming more Americanized, and American styles of western-swing and bluegrass music started to influence Cajun musicians.
Western-swing and string bands, like the Hackberry Ramblers, became a major part of the Cajun music sound, and the accordion virtually disappeared. This was also because the accordion had to be imported from Germany and the events of World War II prevented such interactions. The steel guitar replaced the accordion in a string band, however, the fiddle remained the lead instrument. Sometimes a banjo or mandolin was even heard.
In 1948, independent record labels such as Eddie Shuler’s Goldband Records in Lake Charles started recording more Cajun music, which brought back the traditional accordion and fiddle music and it was recorded in French. But, Cajun music had evolved with amplification and drums. From the 1950’s through the 1970’s, country music and early rock-and-roll had a somewhat detrimental effect to the traditional sound of Cajun music--especially when Cajun musicians tried to copy those successful songs in French.
In 1957, Floyd Soileau of Ville Platte began recording traditional Cajun songs by local musicians. Swallow Records was established in 1958 and became the label for Cajun French music.
Dewey Bafla’s performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island in 1964 started a revival of the popularity of traditional Cajun music. Bafla and other traditional Cajun musicians, with the help of Soileau, worked to teach Cajun music to the younger generations.
by Meghan Sylvester
Cajun Music Festivals:
Cajun Music Radio Stations: