America’s Creole migration brought a whole new flavor to California.
Originally published in American Way, in conjunction with the documentary Zydeco Nation. Photos by John Noltner.
AT 4:00 ON A SATURDAY AFTERNOON, the cars start turning onto Embarcadero Way. The street in Palo Alto, Calif., has all the charm you’d expect from a Silicon Valley business park: squat office buildings, shrub-lined sidewalks, the high-pitched drone of a water-treatment plant. But as we get out of our vehicles, it’s immediately clear that none of us is heading to work. The sidewalk is a parade of cowboy hats and matching boots, flouncy skirts for dancing and festive Hawaiian shirts. We pull coolers and grocery bags from our trunks and look for a small sign trimmed with Mardi Gras beads. It has an arrow and a single hand-lettered word: ZYDECO.
We walk down a footpath. The sound of an accordion grows louder. Zydeco is an infectious dance music that comes from the Creole culture of South Louisiana. It’s filled with French, African and Haitian rhythms, and it’s sprinkled with American blues and R&B. We follow the sound, and soon another instrument reaches our ears: the corrugated metal rubboard worn as a vest and known as the frottoir.
Then our noses kick into action. We smell a slow cooker bubbling with seafood gumbo, as roux-y and hot as if it came straight from Louisiana’s bayous. Salmon sizzles on an outdoor grill. We arrive at the source of this happy commotion: a woodworking shop decked out with streamers in the Mardi Gras colors of green, yellow and purple. Once a month, the craftsman who owns this shop, John Seltzer, clears out a dance floor and hosts one of the hottest parties in the Bay Area’s thriving zydeco scene. Everyone is welcome; just bring food or drink and remember to tip the band.
And, Lord, what a band this is. Andre Thierry, the accordion player and frontman, is 32 and shy, a green-eyed virtuoso with parents and grandparents born in Louisiana. He wears a loose-fitting black shirt and plays with his head tilted back, saucer eyes facing skyward, as if channeling the generations of Creole accordionists who came before him. While Thierry sings in French and English, his band, Zydeco Magic, makes the concrete floors tremble. Everyone who is not slurping gumbo is dancing: indoors, outdoors, young, old, black, white, Creole, Asian, Louisianan, Californian.
It’s a rollicking, friendly party. It’s also the culmination of a century-long chapter in American history — an epic migration that transformed this nation’s cultural landscape.
DURING THE 1960s, THIERRY’S MATERNAL GRANDPARENTS, Lena and Houston Pitre, moved from tiny Soileau, La., to Richmond, Calif., just north of Berkeley. They were following a well-worn trail of Louisiana Creoles seeking a better life.
The Creoles are a French-speaking people of African ancestry mixed with various other heritages — blended “like jambalaya or gumbo,” says Warren Semien, a retired public-transit employee who came to San Francisco in 1966. Spread throughout South Louisiana (and into East Texas), they’ve traditionally made a living growing rice, sugarcane and other crops that thrive in the steamy subtropics. Farm work there was never-ending. “They had a word for it: You go to work from can’t to can’t,” says Wilbert Lewis, an 85-year-old frottoir player who lives in San Francisco. (In his gentle Louisiana accent, he pronounces the phrase “cain’t to cain’t.”) “You can’t see when you go in. You can’t see when you come out. That was some hard days, I tell you. And I was in it since I was about 12 years old.”
Lewis’ more famous sister is the zydeco accordionist Queen Ida Guillory, a Grammy winner and National Heritage Fellow. She, too, remembers working “morning to night” during harvest season. “My dad being a rice farmer, he even had me on a tractor at one point,” she says, “because the men were being called to go to war, to serve the country. We worked very hard on the farm. However, weekends, we would go to the zydeco dance.”
As Saturday approached, men on horseback, and later in cars, would travel along Louisiana’s rural roads announcing the next dance. Most of the events took place in houses, their living rooms cleared of furniture. The babies would be laid down in a bedroom, and the dancing would sometimes last till dawn. “Somebody will cook a big pot of duck gumbo or goose gumbo,” says 62-year-old R.C. Carrier, who has played frottoir for both Thierry and the band Motordude Zydeco. “People from miles around would come, and we all would dance and party and eat. Different musicians would switch off. Mamma and Pop would beat on a pot or a board or a washboard. And anybody who could play something would jump in, beat on something, make some noise.”
For all the joy, those were tough times. Basics like electricity were slow to reach South Louisiana, and standards of living were meager. “Every time the rain came, it was raining inside: clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack,” says Lena Pitre. “In the middle of the night, the wind would start and it was raining on our forehead. We just put the blanket on top of the head, and that’s the way it was.” What’s more, Creoles were subject to Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws, along with racial violence and the many other indignities of a segregated society.
Starting around World War II, Creoles began looking for a way out. Jobs abounded in the Bay Area’s shipyards and defense industry, particularly after President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring defense contractors to end discriminatory hiring practices. Packing their belongings into pickup trucks or taking trains like the Sunset Limited, they headed west in search of prosperity and freedom.
THEY WEREN’T ALONE. THE CREOLE MIGRATION was part of a larger phenomenon that had started decades earlier. Between 1915 and 1970, 6 million Americans of African descent left the segregated South and headed toward the big cities of the North and West. Isabel Wilkerson, who chronicled the Great Migration in her book The Warmth of Other Suns, calls it “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.” The migration reshaped America’s cities and produced a generation of black leaders like former mayors Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and Willie Brown of San Francisco. Many of our greatest cultural treasures — Thelonius Monk, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Jackie Robinson, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Ray Charles — were migrants themselves or “children of the Great Migration,” writes Wilkerson. “There’s no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South.”
Arriving in California, the French-speaking Creoles sought one another out. And they recreated the zydeco dances that brought them together back home. There were house parties and private clubs — but the most celebrated gatherings took place in church social halls. Lena and Houston Pitre played a huge role in organizing the dances at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in their new hometown of Richmond. They hired Creole musicians living in the Bay Area, as well as visiting Louisianans like Clifton Chenier, the greatest zydeco accordionist of all time.
Those church dances were like family reunions. People came dressed to the nines. “Once you parked your car, you could hear the music,” says Semien, who now organizes dances at St. Paul of the Shipwreck Catholic Church in San Francisco. “You could smell the gumbo before you got into the hall. First thing you’re gonna do, you’re gonna shake hands, you’re gonna greet each other. And then me — I usually find the kitchen because I love to get a good bowl of gumbo. Maybe I’ll drink a beer. And then I’m ready to zydeco. You just zydeco all night long till the band stops.”
In the cultural patchwork of California, with its many lovers of ethnic dance, it was inevitable that South Louisiana music would spread beyond the Creole community. The wall was said to be first breached in the 1970s, with a live Thanksgiving Day broadcast of the Louisiana Playboys on radio station KPFA. From there, the music was recorded, featured in documentaries, and showcased at mainstream venues like the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “When it transferred over, it bloomed,” says Ray Stevens, an 87-year-old zydeco dancer who moved from Lake Charles, La., to Oakland, Calif., in 1944. “It got out of the rice field, and now it’s moving on.”
Today zydeco is everywhere, with events scheduled most nights of the week. Tuesdays belong to Ashkenaz, a Berkeley music club that features both zydeco and Cajun music. Friday the scene shifts to Eagles Hall, a fraternal lodge in Alameda. Some Sundays, the party is at 23 Club, an old cowboy bar in Brisbane. At these dances, you’ll meet the original migrants, along with their children and grandchildren. Often they’ll be outnumbered by Californians with no Louisiana roots at all.
TOUCHING DOWN IN SAN FRANCISCO, WE DRIVE STRAIGHT to No Name Ranch, a black-cowboy ranch in the hills above Hayward, south of Oakland. Amidst the horse stalls and wood-chip paths, there’s a huge wooden dance floor with a panoramic view of the valley. Corn is grilling on a sawed-off oil drum. A beer-and-burger tent does steady business. Two veteran dancers give lessons to newcomers — and then accordionist Mark St. Mary and his band take the stage. St. Mary comes from a large Louisiana musical family, and tonight he squeezes out two sets of his trademark bluesy zydeco. The music seems to coax the sun to set and the sky to turn a wheaty orange. We leave before the evening ends because today is also Thierry’s birthday. He’s playing for his own party, at an elegant Oakland nightspot called the Capri Lounge.
Tuesday we visit Ashkenaz, the nonprofit Berkeley music club that, back in 1976, gave many Californians their first live exposure to South Louisiana rhythms. With a bar in back selling tofu sandwiches and organic pale ales, Ashkenaz has a completely different vibe from the No Name Ranch. But the musical energy is similar. Accordionist Andrew Carriere, the 74-year-old son of the renowned Creole fiddler “Bébé” Carrière, has a radiant smile and the most massive biceps I have ever seen. He and his band — playing a mixture of zydeco, Creole, Cajun and country — turn the dance floor into a spiral of motion.
We end our week at John’s woodshop, where there is yet another birthday party for Thierry. (This time the cake is decorated with a bottle of Crown Royal.) This is where I meet Semien, the retired transit worker. Semien tells me that zydeco parties are “sacred” to him — and looking around, I understand what he means. For all the laughter, there is also a reverence, both for the music and for the coming together of old friends, Creole and otherwise. Admission to the woodshop parties is free, yet no one has to be reminded to tip the band. (There are $100 bills in the tip bucket.) And in the sweating and spinning of bodies, it’s easy to feel the transcendence.
So many people have described the dancing as having a power over them that borders on the religious. A woman named Betty LeBlanc, who is also at John’s woodshop, describes it best. LeBlanc, who is Creole, moved here in 1960. Now she organizes the dances at 23 Club. During one of our many conversations, LeBlanc talks about getting lost in the music and the movement. “It’s one of the highest fevers you could ever wish to have inside of your body,” she tells me in English inflected by the Creole French of her childhood. “You can’t control it. It control you. Just like you go into church — you’ve heard of the Holy Ghost spirit? That’s what comes over you: the Holy Ghost spirit. It’s just a part of you shaking and you don’t know why you shaking, and you don’t know why you can’t help yourself. That’s what good zydeco do.”