Zydeco by the Bay

May 9, 2012

Northern California and Southwest Louisiana might seem like they’re worlds apart. But they’re actually intimately linked––by food, by language, and by music.

Cajun and Creole people left Louisiana for California in the 1940s, and later in the 1960s--looking for work and opportunity in shipyards and on military bases. Many of those jobs have disappeared, but the sounds of the squeezebox have helped keep the community together. In fact, California is now home to one of the biggest Zydeco music and dance scenes outside of Louisiana.

As part of a radio documentary about the musical and social history of the accordion in California, I went to Richmond to find out more.

I’m at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Richmond, California. To be exact, this is the social hall—a bare bones gymnasium with a wooden floor, and basketball hoops at either end. On a makeshift stage, a band is playing. There’s a drummer, and a man scraping spoons up and down a rubboard — a kind of metallic washboard that hangs off his shoulders like a piece of body armor.  Next to him, Andre Thierry, a young-looking man wearing a page boy’s cap, wraps his arms around an accordion. Dancers of all ages fill the hall, spinning and stomping and laughing.

Andre Thierry has been playing Zydeco music on the accordion for more than 20 years. His grandmother started hosting Zydeco dances at this church back int he 1960s. Both sides of Thierry’s family migrated here from Louisiana.

They came as part of a long migration from the Gulf Coast to the West Coast. Starting in the 1940s, black and Creole people from Louisiana began to move – first to Texas, and then on to California, seeking work and opportunity in shipyards and on military bases. But it wasn’t until the  second wave of Louisiana migrants came west in the 1960s that Zydeco started to take root in California.

Andre Thierry’s grandmother, Lena Pitre only spoke French when she packed up her things and brought her young daughters out to California on a Greyhound bus.

Pitre, like those before her, brought her language, food, and music with her. By then there were enough other Creole people living in Richmond to gather on back porches, in living rooms, and at church.  

In the late 1960s, Pitre and her husband started holding Zydeco dances at St. Mark’s Church, inviting Louisiana musicians to California to perform. Church dances were a great way to raise money for the congregation, and a way to bring homesick Louisiana people together.  

“There were some big dances,” says Pitre. “And the kitchen had  gumbo and red beans and rice. Boudin. I made all of that.”

Zydeco was also finding its way to California by another route. Chris Strachwitz, a German immigrant who was a huge fan of black Southern music, lived in Berkeley, just a few miles from Richmond. One of the first artists he recorded for his then young record label, Arhoolie, was bluesman Lightning Hopkins.

“So I was in Houston hanging out with Lightning,” recalls Strachwitz.  “One night he said, 'Do you want to go hear my cousin?' And I said, 'Who's your cuz?' 'Ah, that's Cliff.' And I said, 'Cliff who?' 'Cliff Chenier.' So we got there, and it was a little blues joint. I remember the rats were huge walking across the street. He was there basically with this accordion on his chest. But he was singing the most low down blues I’ve ever heard, but in this weird patois. I had no idea what he was singing about. But it appealed to me right off because it was just pure, low down blues."

Strachwitz knew right away that he wanted to record this music, and got Chenier into a studio to make a record in 1965.

“He just used his brother on the rubboard, and a drummer, that's all,” said Strachwitz. “Just accordion, and rubboard and drums.  And man, that sound just hits you!”

Chenier melded the blues and R&B with traditional Cajun and Creole rhythms. This musical mash-up was eventually called Zydeco. It became a big hit, and Clifton Chenier started to be called the King of Zydeco.

Andre Thierry’s grandma Lena Pitre already knew Clifton was cool. When he started to make it big enough to tour, she invited him to come up to play the church dances she was throwing at St. Mark’s. Whenever Chenier came to town, he stayed at her house in Richmond. That’s where Clifton Chenier met a very young Andre Thierry. Chenier touched the young child’s arms, and told Pitre that her grandson was going to be a great accordion player.

“I’ve seen accordions all my life,” said Thierry. “Actually my grandmother always had one. She had one in her closet, and I would sneak and play it. I fell in love with the accordion, not really the music but the accordion. Now I love the music, but the accordion is what fascinated me because I wanted to make it do whatever it was doing. I learned all by ear and just watching people, but mostly by ear and records."

Thierry’s grandmother remembers the first time she heard Thierry play a song on the accordion. “Me and my husband were sitting on the porch one day, and we start hear a waltz,” she recalls. “There was a waltz, and my husband say, 'Honey, I think Andre play something.' I said, 'Andre ain’t playing nothing.' 'Yeah, he is.' He play, so I listened, and yeah, he was. I remember the waltz. I don’t know if Andre play that no more. The waltz was Malheureuse. Houston say, 'Boy, come on down here and play that for me!'”

Now in his 30s, Thierry makes his living as a Zydeco musician, playing at churches and dancehalls all over Louisiana and Northern California.

You can learn more about Andre Thierry's music at his website.
For more about the accordion's musical and cultural history, visit squeezeboxstories.com.

You can learn more about Zydeco dancing, and find out schedules for dances at sfzydeco.com.