Did the Attakapas Indians give us the word zydeco?

by Jim Bradshaw

Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, December 29, 1998

According to the current popular explanation, the word zydeco comes from the French les haricots, which means 'beans,' and more precisely from the black Creole expression, les haricots sont pas salés , which means 'the beans are salty.'

In earlier times, black people in south Louisiana seasoned food such as beans with salt meat. When they had no money; they could not afford the salt meat, and the phrase was used to say that times were lean. Some folklorists say that the phrase was also used as "code" among black sharecroppers when they were underpaid for their crops. It meant that the (usually white) landowner had not paid them enough to buy salt meat.

Michael Tisserand in "The Kingdom of Zydeco," reports on a recording made in 1934 by Allen Lomax in Port Arthur Texas, in which Creole named Jimmy Peters sang, "O mam, mais donnez-moi les haricots. 0 yé yaille, les haricots sont pas salés. (Oh Mom, give me the snap beam. Oh yé yaille the snap beans are not salty.)" The word may in fact have other origins.

"Peters doesn't explain what he means, but the Lomaxes will learn a possible source when they hear the line again in New Iberia, where a worker named Wilfred Charles performs an unusual song about sick Italians, and concludes with: Pas mis de la viande, pas mis à rien, Juste les haricots dans la chaudière, Les haricots sont pas salés , 0! 0 nègre! Les haricots sont pas salés."

Tisserand translates: Put no meat, nor nothing else. Just snap beans in the pot . The snap beans are not salty. 0! 0 nègre! The snap beans are not salty!

There is no salt meat to put in the pot with the snap beans," Tisserand says. "Like early blues musicians throughout the South, the Creoles in Louisiana are singing about poverty."

In parts of South Louisiana, Les haricots sont pas salés or Les haricots sont salés was used as a standard response to the greeting, Comment tes haricots? It was used much as we might ask today, "How are things?" and receive the response, "Things are okay?"

Folklorist Barry Jean Ancelet points out that variations on the word zydeco appear in black French songs from as far away as the Indian Ocean. Tisserand reports on a "musical cousin" to zydeco "located on a number of Indian Ocean islands, especially the Rodrigues. Found here is a traditional musical culture that might be oddly familiar to zydeco fans: Creole French-speakers play a music called zarico or cari zarico on a goatskin drum, rattles, and an iron triangle. A dance called the séga includes a pantomime of the planting of beans. And in the séga is a step called en bas en base meaning 'bend low' -- suggestive of a Louisiana-born dance called the baisse bas. ... (that) tested the limits of what was acceptable in polite dances."

There might also be a link in Native American culture in Louisiana. Hubert Daniel Singleton, who has extensively researched the Attakapas Indian language and culture, claims that zydeco is a corruption of an Attakapas phrase.

Singleton says that group singing and dancing were an important part of the Attakapas culture, and that "at least once a week, painted to their best, they gathered for the social."

According to Singleton, "The dance could be of a religious nature, as was the Dance to Otsitat (Dance to the One Who Stands Above). That was the Attakapas' most solemn social, and it featured prayers led by the local chief with his arms and gaze on high. ... Another social was the Dance of the Old People. The historical Attakapas called it pum wash washi. It was a serious affair at which only the old people danced. ... A third social, one that we know with certainty to have been held monthly, was the Dance of the Young People. The Attakapas called it shi ishol. Unlike the (other) socials, it was a good-time dance enjoyed by all and eagerly anticipated by all each month."

According to Singleton, when the Spanish came to Louisiana in the 1690s, they changed the pronunciation of shi ishol to zy ikol. Then, "when the French first succeeded the Spaniards in Louisiana, they altered zy ikol to zy d'kol, and from that form today's ... zydeco derives."

At any rate, according to Tisserand, "Today, 'zydeco' is accepted as the name of the music as well as of the event at which it is played, and it is also used to describe what people do when they get there."