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Accordion Americana introduces the Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band

June 17, 2019

[Bruce does a post, surprising Rowan! This hasn’t happened in a while. Now that I’ve published my book, I hope to talk more about my sources and inspirations.]

I’d like to recommend Accordion Americana’s article on the Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band. I had not heard of them. And they have all their music free to download on their site! We’ll play some of this on Accordion Noir Radio.Photo of band; Accordion Americana Header; and: "The Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band, a Kansas City ‘Happening’: Long ago in the 1980’s, there lived a bold band of ribald music makers who used the piano accordion as the backbone of their sound. Known as the Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band, they combined elements of bawdy, bravado and bayou and became the foremost dance band in Kansas City. The prairie folk journeyed from the city, towns and farms, near and far, to Hurricane’s in Westport, to dance and party their cares away as the band played on."

I recommend the article, and it made me ponder a number of things. I’m curious whether Richard Lucente’s “black Cajuns” quote a recent one? “The Bon Ton Soul Accordion Band follows ‘the style of black Cajuns, who call themselves Creole, which is more Rhythm and Blues oriented.'” Buckwheat Zydeco had it written into his contract that he would cancel shows (and still get paid) if any advertising or promotion appeared that used that term. He was coming out of 80s Louisiana when “Cajun culture” was being pushed by the tourist industry, and some Black Creoles felt that their own music, which may have included accordions longer (if anyone was counting), was being called an outgrowth of Cajun. Like, “when Blacks took up Cajun music they changed it and made up zydeco.” That wasn’t right.

The band’s apparent emphasis on New Orleans is interesting too. The Creole culture where zydeco was born wasn’t based in New Orleans, but more from the western and northwestern French speaking (traditionally) areas of Louisiana, and importantly stretching across the border into east Texas. Houston may be the real birthplace of zydeco, with Louisiana-born players bringing it back to Louisiana like Chicago blues. But the Louisiana tourist bureau doesn’t promote that.

The Bon Tons definitely seem to emphasize the soul and r&b arm of zydeco which brings in New Orleans (and Memphis, Chicago etc) connections. I’d like to hear a discussion amongst folks who know more about this than me. Traditional Creole music of accordion, fiddle, and triangle or washboard go back to the popular spread of the German button accordion in the 1860s. The use of scrapers are all over African diaspora accordion traditions. It was interesting to try to piece together the history and summarize it in a single chapter of my book. That and klezmer and norteña/conjunto — I told people clearly there were plenty of other references they should rely on more than me.

Book cover, with photo of well dressed couple, Cleoma Breaux with guitar and Joe Falcon on button accordion

Cajun Music: A Reflection of a People (Vol 1, 1986) by Ann Savoy (Reportedly Savoy is working on Vol 2 now.)

Ann Savoy included photos of Clifton Chenier’s first piano accordion in her book Cajun Music, a Reflection of a People (1986) (see above re: Creole/Cajun). I don’t know of another instance where the entrance of the piano keyboard into a tradition is documented like that. Chenier pretty much single handedly made piano accordion part of Creole music, followed by Buckwheat taking it up after playing organ in Chenier’s band.
There’s many more button accordion players in zydeco these days, but the style was created by taking up modern Black styles (blues and r&b) and mixing them with Creole tradition. Boo Zoo Chavis and others did that with button accordion, Chenier with piano. The Bon Ton’s seem to fit within that pretty well. 

Nowadays a lot of zydeco players have taken on rap influences too. I guess there’s debate amongst some whether this is still zydeco. It’s interesting since the form was created by incorporating old and new things together. I like that many (most?) traditions include both changes and complaining about changes. (I’ll have to talk to more people about modern Creole and zydeco music if I do a sequel to my book.)

Checking out the Bon Ton band’s records and liner notes [downloadable for free!], dang, some of their 90s records were uncensored! It’s the 2 Live Crew of zydeco. As a white guy I can’t even do the parental advisory straight: “If you be’s a snot-nose kid we gwine slap yo’ hand if you open da lid.” Looks like the records added slackness as they went. “Ain’t No Zydeco, But it’s Something Else!” (1984) seems quite tame compared to 1991’s Dirt Muffin. That’d be an interesting conversation about that shift. I’m pretty repressed, but we could probably air some of the profanity on Accordion Noir since late-night broadcasting regulations are less puritanical than in the US. I wonder though, what people would say today hearing some of their party lyrics about borderline stalking and violence against women and girls?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. unwashedmass permalink*
    June 17, 2019 1:15 pm

    “lyrics about stalking and violence against women and girls”

    Yup, sounds like folk music to me! What, no murder ballads as part of the zydeco tradition?

    • Accordion Americana permalink
      June 19, 2019 11:17 am

      Isn’t that what ‘ribald’ means? I’ve never used that word before, but thought I would flag everyone beforehand, Lol.

      • June 19, 2019 12:02 pm

        The lyrics by themselves read as gratuitous on the page. “kick me daddy, treat me like a dog.”

        Spinal Tap script [did they really script this stuff out? I thought it was improv?]:

        Ian: if the singer’s the victim, it’s different. It’s not sexist. We shoulda thought of that….
        David: We were so close….
        Ian: I mean if we had all you guys tied up, that probably woulda been
        David: It’s such a fine line between stupid an’…
        Derek: …and clever.

  2. June 17, 2019 1:36 pm

    There’s a lot of innuendo in classic zydeco. It was funny but maybe more subtle?

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