A great Christmas present I was delighted to receive one year was four CDs under the collective title of ‘American Roots Music’: in amongst those tracks was one from Clifton Chenier, a Creole French speaking Louisiana man.
Not strictly a Blues man in the Robert Johnson tradition but one of his songs recorded in 1971 is a mix of several styles and very Rhythm and Bluesy, not to say brilliant. With the accordion in there you can hear all the influences but the rhythm structure is so traditional R&B it makes my heart turn over.
Like so many American originals, the accordion player and singer was able to synthesize several older genres of music into a new form. He added to Cajun music a touch of the Blues, Rhythm and Blues, and rock & roll to create a driving pop version of Zydeco. He explained, “People been playing Zydeco for a long time, old style like French music. But I was the first one to put the pep to it.”
A native of Opelousas, LA, he started his career performing on weekends near the oilfields, where he worked at his day job. During the ’50s he was associated with R&B, recording for legendary labels like Specialty and Chess. His influences were not older Cajun musicians, but guys like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair and Joe Liggins. By the time Chenier hit his stride, traditional Cajun and Creole music had begun to take different paths: Cajuns were becoming more interested in country music, while Creole players preferred blues and R&B, abandoning the fiddle in favour of the wash-board and sometimes a horn section. In 1964 Arhoolie Records producer Chris Strachwitz persuaded Chenier to play more zydeco – a move that renewed his career and led to a long series of hit albums. Among his later hit singles were 1964’s “Louisiana Blues” and 1965’s “Black Gal.” He also recorded what has become the national anthem of Zydeco, “Zydeco Sont pas Sale,” and my personal favourite which I must have played a thousand times, “I’m a Hog For You” – just brilliant!