Creole Zydeco Farmers
My Big Foot Woman
The solid set of zydeco dance grooves here on My Big Foot Woman was recorded in 2004. But, in the very best sense, this album could have been recorded in 1974. (Or another twenty years earlier, apart from one song, "Zydeco Lady," that's a Creolized interpretation of a mid-Seventies disco hit.) That's because The Creole Zydeco Farmers work within the glorious cultural time-warp that distinguishes so much good music in South Louisiana. Their style and repertoire, with its rural rough edges and exuberant imperfection, harkens back to the 1950s.
That was when Clifton Chenier forged contemporary zydeco, setting the standards that still prevail today. Chenier did so by combining countrified Creole folk roots and Afro-Caribbean rhythms with the then-hippest new sounds in African-American popular music: blues, R&B, and swing. The hit-makers of the day included Ray Charles, Louis Jordan, B. B. King and Fats Domino. Clifton Chenier adapted their music to the piano accordion, sang their lyrics in Creole French and voila zydeco!
Throughout the ensuing half-century, zydeco has continually absorbed new trends from the African-American mainstream. Sixties soul and Seventies/ Eighties funk gave way to the rap and hip-hop influence that persists today. But there is still a core group of veteran musicians who maintain a classic Fifties sound, with few if any modern frills. The British music journalist John Broven aptly described this sound as "serenely unspoiled." And the reigning elder statesmen in such serenely unspoiled circles are The Creole Zydeco Farmers.
The Farmers formed in 1989. Most of the members came from the recently-disbanded Fernest and the Thunders, a popular zydeco band that was led by accordionist Fernest Arceneaux. But the Farmers' individual careers date back much further. The great drummer Clarence "Jockey" Etienne has performed and recorded for nearly five decades. Working with many of South Louisiana's greatest blues, soul, and swamp-pop artists, Etienne's suave-yet-gritty drumming put the pulse in such hits as Slim Harpo's "I'm A King Bee" and "Got Love If You Want It," and Guitar Gable's "Congo Mambo." More recently, Etienne has recorded with the futuristic torchbearer C. C. Adcock. Jockey also performs at the annual roots-music summit in New Orleans known as the Pondersosa Stomp.
All zydeco bands feature the accordion, but The Creole Zydeco Farmers uniquely carry two alternating accordionists. Warren Prejean, Sr., has fronted his own bands and worked with singer Little Bob, of "I Got Loaded" fame, and the late, great zyde-funk trumpeter Warren Caesar. Accordionist Morris Francis has led his own bands on this instrument, and played bass with Little Bob, Rockin' Sidney, and Rockin' Dopsie, Sr. Warren Prejean and Morris Francis also alternate as the Farmers' lead singers. Bassist Charles Goodman's resumé includes long tenures with Clifton Chenier, Fernest Arceneaux, and Rockin' Dopsie, Sr.; Rockin' Dopsie, Jr., returns the favor by playing frottoir (rub-board) on this album. Joseph "Black" Rossyion has played guitar with the Farmers for years, and also worked with Houston-based accordionist Wilfred Chevis.
Although My Big Foot Woman is a studio recording, it has the ambience and pace of a live set at a country dance-hall. The dance kicks off with a two-step tribute to Clifton Chenier. A slinky slow blues follows on "Slide By Side, featuring Francis on the chromatic piano accordion. "C. C. Rider," a song that's popular in every American roots-music genre, gets an uptempo funk treatment here, with Prejean singing and playing the diatonic accordion. Prejean stays up front for the plaintive waltz "Tu Connais Que Je T'Aime" ("You Know That I Love You.") and then hands it back to Francis for an aptly-entitled romp "You Can't Keep Still When You Come Around Zydeco." This song has a particularly ferocious groove, and Rossyio's primal guitar solo recalls the style of the late Earl King.
The title track, "My Big Foot Woman," is a sensual shuffle that laments the unfortunate paths on which our feet travel, often against our better judgement. "Allons, chere, pour un 'Rtit galop" ("Let's Go Baby, For A Little Run") suggests that those feet should used to run away together. The destination may be a romantic rendezvous for two or perhaps a Creole trail ride, as indicated by the French word "galop" (gallop.) In either case, the galloping mood continues on the one-chord stomp, "Mary Lee." Next up is "Hound Dog," a song most often associated with Elvis Presley. But "Hound Dog" was written and first recorded by Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton. Thornton was based for years in Houston, and it's a good bet she sang "Hound Dog" on the black club circuit in South Louisiana.
The equestrian trail ride theme is reprised on "Shetland Pony," with Prejean tearing it up on both accordion and vocals, followed by a forceful zydeco treatment of Johnny Taylor's "Disco Lady." As with many interpretations of hit records in zydeco, the bridge is not included. The dance party ends on an uptempo note with a rather unusual number, "The Woodpecker Song." There are several songs with this title, from a children's ditty by Danny Kaye to some with x-rated wordplay on the word "pecker", but The Creole Zydeco Farmers' version is unrelated.
For those rowdy dancers who insist on an encore, check out the reprise of "Hound Dog." And don't miss The Creole Zydeco Farmers when they come to your town with their serenely unspoiled blend of zydeco, blues, R&B, and swamp-pop. Five years into the new century, their Fifties style represents a venerable and vanishing art-form. Ben Sandmel
Ben Sandmel is the author of Zydeco!, a collaborative book with photographer Rick Olivier, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Sandmel is currently working on a book about the New Orleans R&B singer Ernie K-Doe. Sandmel is also the drummer for the Cajun/western swing band, The Hackberry Ramblers, and the producer of their Grammy-nominated album, Deep Water