Under the rubric "French music in Texas" one might first think of Cajun music. However, the Francophone musical heritage of East Texas and southwestern Louisiana is quite complex. In fact, at least four major French-speaking groups have left their musical imprint on the American Southwest over the past three centuries.
French exploration of Texas began as early as 1682. In 1685 René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, had built his rudimentary Texas Settlement (often called Fort St. Louis) near Matagorda Bay. However, France was unable to establish a permanent presence along the Texas-Louisiana coastline until the founding of New Orleans at the mouth of the Mississippi River in 1718. Early in the eighteenth century, French settlers built a thriving port there, through which they could control the flow of goods up and down the Mississippi between the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. The descendants of these original French colonists, known as "White creoles," generally remained in New Orleans, where their art, music, and literature largely reflected that of their peers back in France.
Some early French settlers also brought Black enslaved people to Louisiana. These slaves came from various regions in Africa and the Caribbean and consequently spoke a variety of languages. Over time, the slaves and their descendents, known as "Black creoles," developed a common patois, or mixture of the French language with their own dialects. By the time the United States acquired New Orleans and the rest of the Louisiana Territory in the Louisiana Purchase (1803), thousands of former slaves living in the area had gained their freedom. These French-speaking free Blacks soon spread across the region from New Orleans throughout southwestern Louisiana and into East Texas. With the constitutional abolition of slavery in 1865, thousands more Francophone African Americans moved westward into Texas. World War II brought a boom in the petrochemical industry along the upper Gulf Coast from Houston to Port Arthur, and thousands more French-speaking Blacks looking for work migrated into the state during the 1940s and 1950s.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Black creoles and their descendants had a profound impact on the musical development of Texas and the Southwest. Blending African rhythms with gospel, blues, R&B, and other genres, French-speaking Blacks in Texas and Louisiana created a new musical style by the 1940s that would come to be known as "zydeco." The word zydeco, a derivative of the French term les haricots, or "snap beans," first appeared in print on sound recordings made in the Houston area during the immediate post-World War II era.
The Louisiana-born brothers Clifton and Cleveland Chenier were the first Black Francophone musicians to popularize zydeco on an international level. They developed a customized metal washboard (or frottoir) that could be worn over the chest and strummed with spoons or other metal objects to create a sharp, rhythmic sound. They added accordion, drums, and guitar to produce an energetic blend of blues, R&B, and traditional creole styles, with lyrics sung both in French and English. Based in Houston for many years, Clifton Chenier, the "King of Zydeco," performed throughout Texas and Louisiana and even toured around the world before dying in 1987. The immense popularity of the zydeco style is evidence of the broad and lasting impact of Francophone African-American music in Texas and across the country.
Perhaps the best-known French-speaking group to have left a distinct musical legacy in Texas and Louisiana is the Cajuns. The term Cajun is a derivative of the French Acadien, which denotes an inhabitant of the region in eastern Canada known as Acadia. French settlers began arriving in this area in 1605, most coming from the northern and western coastal areas of Brittany and Normandy in France. Consequently, their music reflected both French and Celtic traditions.
In the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), France ceded Acadia and other parts of eastern Canada to the British. Since many of the French-speaking residents of Acadia refused to pledge an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, Great Britain began imprisoning and deporting Acadians. By 1755 British forces had expelled at least 8,000 Acadians and confiscated their homes, farms, and businesses. Many sought refuge in New Orleans, with its large French-speaking population. However, authorities in New Orleans, fearful that these uprooted Frenchmen would bring poverty and disease into the city, directed the refugees to settle in the less populated bayous and swamplands of southwestern Louisiana.
Except for limited interaction with local Blacks and American Indians, the Acadians, or Cajuns, as they came to be called, managed to live in relative isolation until the 1930s, when technology, industrialization, and highway development brought the region into closer contact with the outside world. Because of decades of cultural isolation, Cajuns were able to preserve much of their musical heritage well into the twentieth century.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, thousands of Cajuns migrated westward into Texas. Again, the rapid growth of the oil and gas industry along the upper Texas coast during the 1940s and 1950s was a leading factor. As more and more Cajuns settled in the Lone Star State, their music began to blend with other regional musical styles, including western swing and honky-tonk. Just as Cajun musicians started to absorb certain "Anglo" musical influences, English-speaking country bands also began to adopt traditional Cajun styles, some even producing cross-over country hits with such Cajun tunes as "Jole Blon." Although Cajun music is often thought of as being a distinctly Louisiana-based music, several of the most influential Cajun musicians lived and recorded in East Texas. Cajun music and Cajun culture in general are now widely celebrated throughout the United States and the world.
The fourth major group of French-speaking people to settle in the region arrived in Texas during the mid-1800s directly from France. The largest contingent, which settled in and around Castroville near San Antonio under the leadership of Henri Castro, was from Alsace in eastern France. Alsace, which straddles the border between Germany and France, has long had a culture that reflects both German and French influences. The Alsatian immigrants who settled in Texas during the mid-nineteenth century enjoyed a wide variety of music, ranging from the formal works of Europe's most noted composers to the rich and complex folk music of the French working classes. Through their celebration and preservation of cultural traditions, these Francophones, along with all the others who made Texas their home, have contributed to the richly diverse musical mosaic of the state.
Gary Hartman, The History of Texas Music (College Station; Texas A&M University Press, 2008). Chris Strachwitz and Pete Welding, eds., The American Folk Music Occasional (New York: Oak, 1970). Roger Wood, "Black Creoles and the Evolution of Zydeco in Southeast Texas: The Beginnings to 1950," in Lawrence Clayton and Joe W. Specht, eds., The Roots of Texas Music (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. Roger Wood, Texas Zydeco (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006).
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