Zydeco is a type of music that evolved from an acoustic folk idiom known as la-la, dating back to the 1920s and unique to black Creoles originally from rural southwestern Louisiana. The modern form emerged in Southeast Texas in the late 1940s and 1950s among immigrants from this ethnic group, who came to cities such as Houston and Beaumont to find employment. There they fused old Louisiana French music traditions with urban blues and R&B to create a distinctive sound.
In zydeco the primary lead instrument is the accordion, and the fundamental cadences come from the polyrhythmic manipulation of hand-held metal utensils such as spoons scraped for percussive effect against the surface of a washboard (known in French as le frottoir). But since the 1950s, zydeco instrumentation has included standard drums, electric bass, electric guitar, and even piano, organ, saxophone, and trumpet. Zydeco singing—plaintive vocalizing in a blues style—typically combines English and French.
Singer and accordionist Amédé Ardoin (1898–ca. 1950) is generally recognized as the most influential figure in the early development of Creole music. This native Louisianan made seminal la-la recordings, heavily influenced by traditional white Cajun music played at a regular measured tempo, between 1929 and 1934. These included a session on August 8, 1934, at the Texas Hotel in San Antonio for the Bluebird/Victor company.
In subsequent years, la-la increasingly came to highlight Afro-Caribbean rhythms, in which accents shifted to various beats. The role of the washboard became more pronounced, laying the trademark "chanka-chank" foundation over which a featured accordionist would perform. And the repertoire began to expand beyond old-style French songs to encompass urban sounds and more technologically advanced instruments. These innovations occurred especially in Houston, where the black Creole immigrant population was concentrated in the Fifth Ward neighborhood known as Frenchtown, which was incorporated in 1922.
The origins of the word zydeco have been traced to a French lyric that surfaced first in various Creole folk songs in Louisiana: "les haricots sont pas salé" (roughly, "the snapbeans are not salted"). Zydeco derives from the first two words, "les haricots." Among various attempts at making an English spelling correspond to the black Creole pronunciation, z-y-d-e-c-o eventually prevailed, under the influence of Houston folklorist Robert Burton "Mack" McCormick. He formalized the now-standard spelling in his transcription of lyrics for a two-volume 1959 record album A Treasury of Field Recordings on the 77 Records label. McCormick originally intended for the term to apply only to the fusion of Texas blues and Creole la-la that he heard in Frenchtown.
The first two recordings to use variants of the term zydeco to refer to a style of music and dancing (as opposed to the original French sense referring to a vegetable) were produced in Houston. One was issued around 1947 on the song erroneously titled "Zolo Go" by bluesman Sam Lightnin' Hopkins on Gold Star Records, and the second appeared in the 1949 recording of "Bon Ton Roula" by rhythm-and-blues performer Clarence "Bon Ton" Garlow on Macy's Records.
The key event in the movement of black Creole music into the public venues of Houston occurred at Irene's Café on Christmas Eve 1949, when accordionist Willie Green played an impromptu concert that drew large crowds and established the zydeco sound as a form of popular entertainment. Soon after that, the owner of Johnson's Lounge in Frenchtown decided to cease booking big bands and to feature Creole accordion music performed by stalwarts such as Lonnie Mitchell, who later assumed operation of the club. Eventually the lease reverted to Johnson's heir, Doris McClendon, who rechristened the lounge the Continental Zydeco Ballroom, the city's (and probably the state's) premier venue for the music throughout the latter half of the twentieth century.
One black Creole who moved to Texas in 1947 and became part of the Frenchtown scene was Clifton Chenier (1925–1987), generally acknowledged today as the "King of Zydeco"—the musician most responsible for popularizing the music. Among Chenier's innovations were the employment of the large piano-key chromatic accordion, which has a wider musical range than the traditional diatonic instrument, and the invention of the modern washboard vest, which expanded the musical possibilities for percussion beyond the limitations of the previously hand-held household utensil. In 1964 at the Gold Star Studio in Houston, Chenier recorded the classic song "Zydeco Sont Pas Salé," in which the producer abandoned the French phrase les haricots for the potent new word.
Since then, with Southwest Louisiana, Southeast Texas has remained a hotbed of zydeco culture—home to recording and touring artists such as Chenier, Wilfred Chevis, Step Rideau, Brian Terry, Cedric Watson, Corey Ledet, and The Zydeco Dots. Contemporary zydeco has continued to evolve, incorporating progressive elements of various styles of popular music, especially including rock and hip-hop. Zyde-rap, the fusion of zydeco and rap, gained momentum in the 1990s and for a time was a dominant trend for young bands. In the early 2000s, however, a number of young artists took a neo-traditionalist approach to zydeco and performed old songs in the French language.
In 2007 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized zydeco as an acknowledged music genre and established a new category for its Grammy awards—Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Album. Across Texas, especially in the southeast region, a number of festivals featured zydeco, including the Creole Heritage Zydeco & Crawfish Festival in Baytown in 2015.