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Accordions, Beer And God: Zydeco In Gran Texas

After years of attending church dances, Step Rideau says he was moved to connect with his heritage on a deeper level.
Courtesy of the artist
After years of attending church dances, Step Rideau says he was moved to connect with his heritage on a deeper level.

The modest, cream-colored '50s-era chapel that's home to St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Houston looks like many other places of worship you might find in urban America. The first clue to a unique tradition here pulls up Sunday afternoon.

It's a truck and a trailer with Louisiana plates. Out come the amps, the drums, an accordion and a washboard. Within the hour, under the giant wooden crucifix in the church's family center, Jeremy & The Zydeco Hot Boyz kick into gear and the dance floor gets busy. It's a party fueled by beer, boudin, and red beans and rice from the church kitchen. If it's Sunday in Houston, parishioner Bennie Allen Brooks says, it's zydeco.

"If you go to any of the Catholic churches, you have zydeco bands," Brooks says. "And most of our parishioners are from Louisiana."

Louisiana Migration

There's a reason for that. Houstonian Roger Wood, author of the book Texas Zydeco, traces the origins of the zydeco church dances to two distinct migratory waves from the poor towns and villages of Louisiana to southeastern Texas in the first half of the 20th century.

"After the Louisiana flood of 1927 and after World War II, black Creole servicemen came home and were no longer willing to be sharecroppers," Wood says. "They tended to migrate to where the work was. And in southeast Texas, it was 'Gran Texas' — 'Big Houston.' "

The migrants brought their washboards and their accordion driven la-la music, as they called it — which, once amplified, became known in Texas as zydeco. The term itself is a local corruption of a poor Creole lament: "Les haricots sont pas sale" or "the beans are not salted." Over the years, Wood says "les haricots" became "zydeco."

Faith, Food And Music

"What Chicago was to the blues, Houston is to zydeco," Brown says.

And in large part, that's because of these church dances, says Brooks, who's a lector at St. Peter's.

"It's natural, it's just natural," Brooks says. "It's kind of like shoes and feet. We dance and we praise God and it does talk about dancing in the Bible! It's just great."

For predominantly Catholic Creoles who'd left tightly knit small towns in Louisiana, Houston's churches fostered a new sense of community — not just as places of worship, but as spaces where Creole families could find each other in the big city and share their traditions from back home: faith, food and music.

Carrying On The Tradition

Step Rideau came to Houston in the 1980s: a Creole teenager looking for a construction job. After years of attending the church dances, he says he was moved connect with his heritage on a deeper level.

"At some point," Rideau says, "I just went and purchased an accordion. In fact, that's it back there. That lil ol' Hohner accordion came from a pawn shop for 45 bucks. I said if I can learn to play that instrument, if I can teach myself to play it, I would purchase the professional — the real one. And it's a C accordion."

Were it not for the church dances, Rideau doubts he'd have ever picked up an accordion and become part of a new generation of musicians carrying on a tradition started by those first immigrants. Today he records his own albums.

Zydeco dances are such an important part of church life and fundraising, many parishes long ago added the post of "dance chairman."

Percy Creuzot, in his 20s, grew up in Houston attending the weekly zydeco dances at the city's historically black Catholic churches. In the back window of his Texas-sized pickup is a decal that reads "Creole."

A fall zydeco church bazaar can draw more than a thousand fans of all generations and span three consecutive nights, like giant la-la parties back home. Today the churches in Houston maintain a coalition — the Inter-Catholic Association — which sets a formal rotation for the weekend zydeco dances. Creuzot is the ICA representative for St. Peter the Apostle.

"You'll see the same folks," Creuzot says. "They'll travel from bazaar to bazaar on different weekends, bring their family and just taste the different boudins, the gumbos, the different zydeco bands and every church has a little something different that they offer."

But it's what these historically black Catholic churches have in common that's remarkable: perpetuating a zydeco tradition that flowered here, and providing a living sanctuary for Creole culture deep in Gran Texas .

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Brown