The Zydeco Legend of Amédé Ardoin

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The great musicologist Alan Lomax weighs in on Amédé Ardoin’s music and tragic death.

I recently read an article in the New York Times by Campbell Robertson about a New Orleans musician lost in time. His name was Amédé Ardoin (b. 1898–1942). With his virtuosic talent as an accordionist, he woud cross white Cajun and black Creole lines at a time when it was otherwise unthinkable. Ardoin is credited with creating what would later become known as zydeco music.

Zydeco is soul Creole music from Louisiana. Its roots are in black music and French Creole folk music brought to New Orleans by Cajuns who immigrated from Canada. The term ‘zydeco’ comes from a New Orleans Creole saying that goes like this:

“Tout va bien?” or “Ça va?” (How’s it going?)

“Non, les haricot ne sont pas salés.” (No, the green beans aren’t salty.)

This quixotic green beans response would have been understood to mean, “I’m not doing that well,” or “I’ve got the blues.” And with that, “les haricots” eventually evolved into colloquial Creole for “zydeco.”

Amédé ArdoinAlthough a living legend throughout Louisiana, tragically, Amédé Ardoin died an obscure death in 1942 at the age of 44. According to Robertson, Ardoin was buried in an unmarked grave, referred to only as Case No. 13387 by a Louisiana state mental hospital. The New York Times article was about trying to locate his grave and honoring his memory with the respect and recognition that he deserves.

The great label, Arhoolie Records, released one of Ardoin’s albums. With its sides cut back in the 1930s, it is one of the few recordings he did. Listening to it, I was reminded of a much more famous singer, the blues great Robert Johnson (b. 1911–1938), who himself died of mysterious circumstances at age 27. Most of his total output of 29 songs were recorded in a makeshift studio in Dallas. There is a great deal of myth surrounding Johnson’s life, as it’s been rumored that he was poisoned by a jealous girlfriend. Others say that he sold his soul to the devil in a faustian deal to become the greatest blues singer of all time. The latter story involved Johnson taking his guitar to Dockery Plantation at midnight to seal the deal, which turned out to be a meeting at the crossroads. Years after his premature passing, the 1961 release of King of the Delta Blues Singers propelled Robert Johnson to blues stardom.

Robert Johnson
Robert Johnson (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

The music of Ardoin and Johnson has a certain edge that captures the energy of their youth. Songs like Ardoin’s “Blues de Basile,” parallel the same piercing, exhortatory urgency of Johnson’s “Preaching Blues.”

Like Johnson, he invented a new style of playing, in this case, the rootsy black Cajun music that predated the famous zydeco musicians of today: Beau Jocques, Buckwheat Zydeco, Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas, and numerous others. Whereas Johnson was a guitar master who influenced countless others, Ardoin was an accordion virtuoso who influenced literally everyone after him. As itinerant musicians, both traveled and performed throughout the south, recording in both Louisiana and Texas. And in 1934, Ardoin even traveled to New York to record his songs, returning home a sensation. According to Campbell Robertsonwhen Ardoin played, “women wept, men danced, rivals became jealous, and whites grew angry.”

Amédé Ardoin - Mama, I'll be Long GoneDespite Ardoin’s merging of white Cajun and black Creole music traditions, and what had been his ability to cross the color lines, racism was the cause of his untimely death. One night after performing at a white dance hall, the daughter of the white farmer (in whose barn Ardoin lived) handed him her handkerchief to mop the sweat from his brow. The story goes that some white out-of-towners saw this exchange and lay in wait for him after the show, savagely beating him within an inch of his life before they then ran him over with a Ford Model A, crushing his vocal cords. This horrific episode left him “stone crazy,” and he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Pineville, Louisiana, where he died six weeks later in September of 1942.

Let’s hope that Amédé Ardoin’s grave can be found so that he can be honored with the same respect that Robert Johnson has received.

And for all you zydeco fans, the Bayou Festival comes to Long Beach this weekend. For the artist line up and tickets, click here.

Robert Johnson’s “Preaching Blues.

Amédé Ardoin’s “Blues de Basile.”

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