Airs Friday, February 23, 2018, at 9 p.m. Zydeco Nation is an hour-long, music-rich documentary that tells the story about an epic chapter in modern American history. Starting during World War II, French-speaking Louisiana Creoles began moving across the country to Northern California in search of both jobs and freedom. They were part of the Great Migration: the movement of six million African Americans from the Jim Crow South to the big cities of the West, North, and Midwest starting in 1915. In her recent bestseller The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson calls that migration “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.” The Creoles came from the rice and cane fields of South Louisiana and East Texas. The Oakland area offered shipyard jobs and the promise of better futures—so off they went. They brought with them the musical soundtrack to their lives back home. It was a bluesy, French-inspired, dance music played on the accordion and washboard. They called it zydeco—from the French word for green beans.
Zydeco Nation tells the story of these migrants, the culture they built, and the music that made them famous. It features such characters as Ray Stevens, an 87-year-old zydeco dancer who was chased out of Louisiana by a racist police officer when he was a teenager; Queen Ida Guillory, an 83-year-old Grammy-winning accordion player who grew up driving a tractor on her father's rice farm; and Lena Pitre, who organized the church dances in Richmond, California starting in the 1960s. And it introduces listeners to the hero of the next generation: Lena Pitre's shy, super-talented accordion-playing grandson, Andre Thierry. Zydeco Nation is produced by Richard Ziglar and Barry Yeoman and funded with a generous grant from the California Council for the Humanities.