Gonna Take You There: Zydeco on the Bayou

New Orleans is like no other city on earth. It’s a gem settled at the base of the Missippi River, a city where the past and the present, the living and the dead, suffering and joy, all blend together. The city is an enigma, welcoming everyone who visits it but refusing to share all of her secrets. It’s a place where the living and dead seem to comingle like the best of friends.      

In 2009, Disney released “The Princess and the Frog” starring Anika Noni Rose, Bruno Campos, Keith David, and legendary voice actor Jim Cummings. The movie took the classic German fairy tale, The Frog Prince, and re-imagined it in the Big Easy. 

The majority of the songs used in the film were written by Randy Newman, the man responsible for such classic Disney songs as “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from Toy Story, “Our Town” from Cars, and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc. Though he was born in Los Angeles, Newman spent a portion of his childhood living in the Crescent City, before alternating between family members’ homes in Mobile, Alabama, Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans. The experience would shape much of his music, with references to Louisiana and the South showing up in albums like Sail Away (1972), Good Old Boys (1974), and the songs “Louisiana 1927”, “Every Man a King”, “Kingfish”, and “Naked Man”. 

Along with the voice cast, Louisiana musicians like Dr. John, Terrence Blanchard, and Terrance Simien helped bring Newman’s compositions for The Princess and the Frog to life, highlighting the diverse musical traditions of the Pelican state. It is, without doubt, one of Disney’s best soundtracks, moving effortlessly between jazz, blues, zydeco, gospel, and R&B.

The music is so rich and varied that each number deserves its own article, a deep dive into the composition and the history that fed its creation.  This week, we’ll be taking a look at “Gonna Take You There”, the rollicking tune performed by the character of Raymond, a lovesick firefly. 

Before digging into the song, let’s take a look at the history of dance floor delight known as zydeco music. 

A Musical Gumbo

In 1929, Creole accordion player Amédé Ardoin and Cajun fiddler Dennis McGee stepped into a recording booth and made the first recording of a style known as “la-la music”. 

Amede Ardoin

Born in Evangeline Parish around 1898, Ardoin grew up speaking Acadian French. Embracing music, he refused to engage in the manual farm labor of his family, instead setting out around Louisana with his accordion in tow. He is said to have toted the instrument in a burlap sack as he hitchhiked the unpaved backroads from parish to parish. Along the way, he met McGee and their musical partnership began.

Dennis McGee

Mcgee was born in 1893 and also hailed from Evangeline Parish. His father was Irish and his mother was a blend of Seminole and French. He learned to play the fiddle at the feet of his grandfather, and cut his musical teeth by performing popular French dance parlor songs.

The Ardoin/Mcgee recordings give us a glimpse of a sort of proto-zydeco. As noted on Music Rising, their pairing is noteworthy not just for the music they produced, but because the laws of the time would almost certainly have prohibited them from performing together. An article in the Acadiana Advocate wrote that the pair, “crossed racial barriers and defied Jim Crow-era customs to play and record music together.”

Of course, that blending of cultures is a defining characteristic of zydeco (and the la-la music that preceded it). The influence of juré (field hollers performed by enslaved people) can be heard in the music. Listening to recordings of Ardoin, you can also how a variety of styles were married together. He ranges from waltzes to the blues, all with a driving syncopation that made the songs perfect for the dance floor. His vocals are reminiscent of those heard in the recordings of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Even his use of the accordion is indicative of the gumbo of cultures that created zydeco, with the instrument making its way to Louisiana from Germany and Austria in the 19th century.

Writing of Ardoin, Ben Sandmel notes, “he specifically exerted a profound influence upon two important musicians of the following generation: the black Creole accordionist Clifton Chenier, a.k.a. the King of Zydeco, and the Cajun accordionist Iry LeJeune. Clifton Chenier forged the zydeco sound which still defines contemporary standards by performing mainstream African-American blues/R&B hits on the accordion while singing their lyrics in French. LeJeune’s high-pitched emotional vocals and rough-edged accordion work, derived in part from Ardoin, continue to resonate in contemporary Cajun music.”

Likewise, Mcgee’s influence continues to be felt. The webpage 64 Parishes states, “Modern Cajun music is largely defined by two song styles—waltzes in a 3/4 time signature and two-steps in 2/4 or 4/4 time—but McGee was a bridge to the broader range of rural Louisiana French music from the nineteenth century. His earliest recordings testify to his intense proficiency in reels, contredanses, mazurkas, and polkas…In his lifetime, he directly taught or indirectly influenced fully three generations of Cajun fiddlers in the complex and intense archaic style of playing that would come to be known, affectionately, as the “McGee style.”

In 1954, accordion player Boozoo Chavis recorded the song “Paper In My Shoe”, generally acknowledged as the first “official” zydeco song. However, it was Clifton Chenier who truly brought the music wide-reaching fame. He scored a hit with “Ay-Tete Fee” in 1955, and would later win a Grammy award. His music took zydeco and blended it with rock and roll, but he also played R&B numbers and referred to himself as a “bluesman”. He’s credited with being the first zydeco musician to amplify his band and introduced the rubboard as a rhythm instrument. 

Clifton Chenier

The genre has continued to grow and evolve, even incorporating aspects like reggae, hip-hop, and more. It’s a living, organic tradition, that seems content to keep the party going no matter what changes history brings. As Scott Billington writes on Zydeco Crossroads, “No one could have predicted that such an idiosyncratic and regional style would flourish into the twenty-first century, or that Louisiana’s Creoles would hold so tightly to their music, even as English became their dominant language and as their rural lifestyle slipped mostly into the past. Yet, at trail rides, rodeos, dance halls, church dances, and almost any celebration, zydeco is a rallying point of the culture, and if many zydeco musicians have enjoyed the opportunity to tour the world, the music is most vibrant at home.

Going Down the Bayou

Raymond Princess and the Frog

The zydeco song “Gonna Take You There” appears in the movie Princess and the Frog as Raymond the firefly is leading Tiana and Prince Naveen to see Mama Odie, a voodoo priestess that the pair hope can turn them human after both were transformed into frogs.

Ray calls out all of his “relationals” to help guide them, introducing his enormous extended family over the course of the song. The lyrics celebrate family and community, declaring: 

We all gon’ pool together, down here that’s how we do

Me for them, and them for me, we all be there for you

Ray, as everyone calls him, is Cajun. The term refers to the descendants of Acadians who moved from French Canada to Louisiana, settling along the bayous. An article about Cajun culture by the National Park Service states, “Many lived in the bayou country where they hunted, fished, trapped, and lived off the bounty of the Mississippi River delta. Some moved beyond the Atchafalaya Basin onto southwest Louisiana’s prairies to raise cattle and rice. The new arrivals learned new skills and shared what they brought with them with the many peoples already in the area: American Indians, free people of color, enslaved Africans and their descendants, and immigrants from Europe, Asia, and North and South America.”

Ray’s love interest in the movie, a distant star glimmering in the night sky, is named Evangeline, hinting at another key element of Cajun culture. In 1847, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem “Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie”. According to the Historic New Orleans Collection, “A tragic heroine, Evangeline proved to be the perfect symbol for the Acadians’ perseverance in the face of their history of misfortune and displacement.” 

We’ll dig more into the Evangeline story in a future post about the song “Ma Belle Evangeline”, but for the time being it’s enough to know that basic connection and symbolism. Ray (and his longing for Evangeline) functions almost as the soul of the movie, continually encouraging Tiana to persevere and trust her heart, and nudging Naveen toward the growth he needs to experience.

That said, the character was not without its critics. Prior to the movie’s release, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL), voiced objections to what they viewed as its stereotypical depiction of Cajun people. In their eyes, Ray, with his missing teeth and questionable intelligence, played on a common trope. Warren Perrin, President of CODOFIL, stated, “It’s a continuation of the stereotyping of Cajun people, which is inaccurate… It has been done in so many movies over so much time, people think that’s the way we are — and it’s just wrong. I can list several other movies where they have portrayed us as backward, toothless, illiterate people…”

Ray’s was provided by Jim Cummings, one of the great voice actors in animation history. Along with Ray, Cummings has performed as a plethora of beloved Disney characters, such as Winnie-The-Pooh, Darkwing Duck, Tigger, Bonkers D. Bobcat, the Cheshire Cat, Ed the Hyena, and Humphrey the Bear to name just a few. 

Prior to the movie’s release, Cummings raved that Ray was a new favorite and one whom he felt immediately comfortable voicing, given his time living in New Orleans, a city he thinks of as his second hometown. 

Speaking to Toon Zone in 2009, Cummings said, “I was born in Ohio, but I moved to New Orleans when I was about 18, in 1972. I got a job on a riverboat… many of them, for that matter, and on any number of these boats I was the only one for whom English was their first language, but yet they were all born in Louisiana. So I was really immersed in the Cajun culture.” 

Cummings performs the song with the help of zydeco musician and educator Terrance Simien. In addition to recording several albums–such as Zydeco on the Bayou, There’s Room for Us All, and Across the Parish Line–Simien is responsible for a live show called “Creole for Kidz & The History of Zydeco”, which lead to his association with Disney. 

On Simien’s webpage, Simien released a statement in honor of the film’s 5-year anniversary, reflecting on how the movie was a “game-changer” for zydeco music, crediting with “kind of Stealing the show.” 

In addition to the joy of bringing the genre to a blockbuster film, Simien viewed it as a great educational experience, later stating, “…it helped further our own mission to teach our student audiences about black roots music in ways we can never really measure – it’s been massive and opened doors to schools who would never have known what zydeco was, let alone hear the word or see an image of an accordion and a bug playing its rigged underbelly like a rubboard!”

Recommended Listening

Song: Les Blues de Voyage

Artist: Amédé Ardoin & Dennis McGee

Released: 1934

The Ardoin and McGee recordings are vital to understanding the roots of zydeco, bringing together Creole and Cajun musical styles. While McGee would live to be 96 years old, continuing to perform until shortly before his death, Ardoin would die at the age of 44 after sustaining massive injuries in a racially motivated assault. McGee would affectionately refer to Ardoin as, “une chanson vivant,” a living song.

Song: Paper In My Shoe

Artist: Boozoo Chavis

Released: 1954

Credited as the first true zydeco recording, Paper in My Shoe was Boozoo Chavis backed by Classie Ballou’s band, which did not know how to play the style. Listening to the track, this becomes obvious when you notice that Chavis and the band are not performing in the same key. As the recording session floundered, someone decided to give Chavis some booze, which helped loosen things up. According to record producer Eddie Schuler, “Suddenly there was a colossal crash in the studio, but as the take was the best so far I didn’t check what had happened until the number was finished.  When I opened the door there, before me, lay Boozoo.  He had fallen off his stool but managed to keep his accordion in the air and play on without missing a note…Afterwards I played the tapes back to see if there was anything there worth all the trouble and expense.  The number where Boozoo fell on the floor was still the best, so I thought I would edit it and then release it as a feeler to test public reaction.  The song was “Paper In My Shoe” and it was just one of those natural hits that seldom come along.”

Song: Ay-Tete Fi (Hey, Little Girl)

Artist: Clifton Chenier

Released: 1955

The first major hit for the man who would bring zydeco to prominence, Ay-Tete Fi was originally a composition by Henry Roland Byrd, better known by his performing name Professor Longhair. Chenier was also the first Creole to receive a Grammy award, and his playing style has influenced musicians such as Stanley Dural, Jr., better known as accordionist Buckwheat Zydeco. Chenier’s album Bogalusa Boogie became the first zydeco record to receive a 5-star review in Rolling Stone, and in 2016 it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry for being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.” 

Song: Walking to New Orleans

Artist: Buckwheat Zydeco 

Released: 1985

Though he was not originally a fan of traditional zydeco, he joined Clifton Chenier’s band as an organist in 1976 and quickly fell in love with the music. Speaking of the experience he said, “Everywhere, people young and old just loved zydeco music. I had so much fun playing that first night with Clifton. We played for four hours and I wasn’t ready to quit.” Two years later, he began playing the accordion and then formed his own band, releasing their debut album in 1979. Over the course of his career, he earned five Grammy nominations and one win (for his 2009 album Lay Your Burden Down). “Walking to New Orleans” is his take on the classic Fats Domino song written by Bobby Charles. While the original has a slightly melancholy feel to it, in Buckwheat Zydeco’s performance it becomes a laid back, joyous love letter to the city. 

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