The Musical and Cultural Roots of Louisiana Creole and Zydeco Fiddle Tradition

By D ‘Jalma Garnier


One of the most renowned and beloved figures in Louisiana music is Canray Fontenot, who was an extraordinary fiddler and storyteller. No one, black or white, doubts his contribution to the two major folk streams, Cajun and Creole, and their intertwining, but too few have stopped to wonder about the larger black fiddling tradition of which he was a part. Today‘s Creole fiddlers follow in his footsteps, steps that go far back in time and include many undocumented musicians who were slaves and/or free people of color. They spoke French, played music for themselves and for dances, and lived alongside others who did the same, swapping ideas no matter what the racial boundaries were.

Creole fiddler Canray Fontenot played old time Creole music with accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin until Fontenot's death in 1986. Photo: Nicholas R. Spitzer.

Unfortunately for our modern understanding, whenever Creole fiddle is brought up, it is too often within the context of the contemporary musics we know so well, Cajun and zydeco. This association obscures Creole fiddle‘s unique musical and cultural history. The Creole fiddle, and its contemporary moniker zydeco fiddle, arrived in South Louisiana in the seventeenth century, coming ashore with French-speaking Africans from Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. As both slaves and free people of color, African Americans contributed melodically and formally to American music. Some traditions, like jazz and blues and zydeco, have thrived in changing times and others seem to have come and gone, like ragtime. Creole fiddle would seem to be one of the eclipsed musics, but no one should mistake its current lack of prominence for its demise. The advent and commercialization in the fifties and sixties of zydeco focused on the big sound produced by the accordion. The fiddle has not, however, been left behind by African American musicians like the banjo, which has been passed on to bluegrass and old-time musicians. Instead, it is simply another instrument within zydeco and an essential instrument in Creole music ensembles. While zydeco has gotten the lion‘s share of attention, like its twin Cajun music, because it has so often been recorded, Creole music as a distinct genre continues to be played in homes and clubs in Louisiana. Creole fiddle has survived the recording industry, arguably better than other folk cultural forms in the face of mass culture.

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Terence Simien performs "The Prison Bar," from The Tribute Sessions, on AIM Records. CD B00005KJ15.

We do not know how old the Creole fiddle tradition is. Few documents record the lives of ordinary people, let alone enslaved Africans. What few glimpses we have into Louisiana‘s past are often passing references in the accounts of travelers who had not come to see the slaves but their owners, not farmers in the out country but wealthy businessman in town. One of the few early references we have to African American fiddle music is to an African slave who was noted as playing a fiddle at a dance in Virginia in the 1690s. Incoming slaves from African and the West Indies as well as free people of color brought with them an impressive amount of music. In addition to any African melodies, they also knew French and Spanish baroque and chamber music, various European folk musics, opera, and church hymns. Of all these, the biggest influences were the African drum, the banza (banjo), and the dances the slaves brought with them such as the kalenda.

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Excerpt, Zydeco. Music and Mardi Gras are at the heart of both Creole and Cajun rural culture in Louisiana. This clip presents a glimpse into this vibrant world, showing music performances and a Creole Mardi Gras traditional ritual. The music performances feature an elaborate fiddle tune and also display the pulsing rhythms of a live performance at a dance hall. The Mardi Gras gathering on the dusty roads culminates to the chasing of a chicken for the gumbo pot. Produced and directed by Nicholas R. Spitzer, 1981.

Africans also brought with them a distinct musical aesthetic, which places a high value on timbre and the willingness to "bend" notes, a kind of sliding up or down a pitch achieved differently on various instruments. This aesthetic can be found in early hollers that are the roots of gospel music and the blues, and in the many finger glissandos of Creole fiddling.

This mixing of African musical approaches and European repertoires eventually led to the birth of one of America‘s grandest contributions to the world of art, jazz. Yet, like much of the rhythms and phrasing that we take for granted in early jazz, Creole fiddle takes a lot of its cues from the African banjo music of the Americas—it is not African strictly speaking, it is American. Louisiana Creole fiddlers Canray Fontenot and Calvin Carrière were very familiar with four-string tenor (jazz) and five string banjo music. Much of the syncopated rhythm and short staccato phrases in American fiddling is basic to banjo technique and came from African dance melodies. Most violin music is played with a smooth legato bowing. The "slurring" of many notes in one bowstroke is often the norm. It is uncommon to play one note per bowstroke up and down all the way through like in most American fiddle tunes. The choppiness of American black fiddle music like Creole, black string band, and rag is difficult to learn. Though Bébé Carrière plays tunes that are melodically simple, his bow technique can take a lot of unlearning for classically trained violinists: it matches perfectly with the short attack of the banjo.

While there is more to be said about the parallel development of the broad spectrum of African American musics, there is also a straightforward influence, or borrowing as many musicians term it. Many black fiddlers of the bayous and prairies felt a funky affinity with New Orleans rags and rendered their own versions out of their experiences and sensibilities: recorded examples include Canray Fontenot‘s "Fido (Dixieland)," "Shoo Black," and "Canray‘s Breakdown"-which is a jazz standard "Salty Dog." Musicians like Fontenot and the Carrières loved New Orleans jazz and string bands. Calvin more than once told me of the chord solos of the banjo player he worked with. The "Slow Drag" Canray Fontenot loved to play no doubt has roots in the "Bucktown Slow Drag" of 1896. Canray‘s version of the "Dallas Rag" is played with the original 1927 black string band feel of the Dallas String Band.

The funky feel is Louisiana Black French music‘s first priority. Humor is always present, and a lot of grief, sorrow and tears are channeled into the music. Many Creole and zydeco musicians play music but not necessarily at dances. Some will "sit in" now and then, like the late Paul Young playing for and within the local community. They play for the pleasure and family, not for profit.

While black fiddle music may be unknown to a majority of its native population, such a state of affairs does not apply to prairie Creole communities. The fiddle, though rare, have never fallen out of favor among Creoles. In every generation that can be remembered, there has always been a person of color somewhere in someone‘s kitchen in south Louisiana, fiddling away the time.

In two hundred years, Clifton Chenier once noted, Canray will still be the best. But don‘t take my word for it. Listen for yourself. Louisiana Hot Sauce, Creole Style (Arhoolie 381) is the Creole fiddle king at work. La Musique Creole (Arhoolie 445) features Bois Sec Ardoin on accordion and Canray Fontenot on fiddle. Listen especially to the 1966 recording of "Bon Soir Moreau" and "Tit Monde." I should also note that all of the Ardoin family recordings with Fontenot are often covered by both Cajun and zydeco bands.

La-La:Louisana Black French Music (Maison de Soul 1004) features the Carrière Brothers, Eraste and Bébé, as well as the Lawtell Playboys with Eraste‘s son Calvin Carrière. Folklorist Nick Spitzer produced Louisiana Creole Music, which contains both great recordings and a very informative booklet. Check out the Lawtell Playboys performing "Allons Dancer Colinda." Les Miséres dans le Couer (Louisiana Radio Records) with Goldman Thibodeaux on accordion and Calvin Carrière on fiddle, is Carrière‘s last recording session.

Clifton Chenier‘s Bon Ton Roulet & More (Arhoolie 345) has Morris Chenier showing the blues side of Creole fiddle. Listen to Carlton Frank play on The Creole Connection‘s The Masked Band--I‘m not sure any of us will ever be able to turn "Oh Mom" like him. Lawrence "Black" Ardoin‘s Tradition Creole (Arhoolie 9012) features Ed Poullard on fiddle, and it is pure La-La.

Poullard, Poullard & Garnier (Louisiana Radio Records) has my own take on the tradition on display in tunes like "La Valse de Quatre Vingt Dix Neuf Ans" and "Fi-Fi Poncho."

D‘Jalma Garnier is a musician who researches Louisiana Creole music. This article originally appeared in Louisiana Folk Roots‘ publication, Routes to Roots, Volume 2 in 2007.