They weren’t alone. The Creole migration was part of a larger phenomenon that had started decades earlier. Between 1915 and 1970, 6 million Americans of African descent left the segregated South and headed toward the big cities of the North and West. Isabel Wilkerson, who chronicled the Great Migration in her book The Warmth of Other Suns, calls it “the first big step the nation’s servant class ever took without asking.” The migration reshaped America’s cities and produced a generation of black leaders like former mayors Tom Bradley of Los Angeles and Willie Brown of San Francisco. Many of our greatest cultural treasures — Thelonius Monk, Diana Ross, Oprah Winfrey, Jackie Robinson, Spike Lee, Toni Morrison, Ray Charles — were migrants themselves or “children of the Great Migration,” writes Wilkerson. “There’s no way to know what their lives might have been like or if their achievements would have been possible had it not been for the courage of the parents or grandparents who left the South.”
Arriving in California, the French-speaking Creoles sought one another out. And they recreated the zydeco dances that brought them together back home. There were house parties and private clubs — but the most celebrated gatherings took place in church social halls. Lena and Houston Pitre played a huge role in organizing the dances at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in their new hometown of Richmond. They hired Creole musicians living in the Bay Area, as well as visiting Louisianans like Clifton Chenier, the greatest zydeco accordionist of all time.
Those church dances were like family reunions. People came dressed to the nines. “Once you parked your car, you could hear the music,” says Semien, who now organizes dances at St. Paul of the Shipwreck Catholic Church in San Francisco. “You could smell the gumbo before you got into the hall. First thing you’re gonna do, you’re gonna shake hands, you’re gonna greet each other. And then me — I usually find the kitchen because I love to get a good bowl of gumbo. Maybe I’ll drink a beer. And then I’m ready to zydeco. You just zydeco all night long till the band stops.”
In the cultural patchwork of California, with its many lovers of ethnic dance, it was inevitable that South Louisiana music would spread beyond the Creole community. The wall was said to be first breached in the 1970s, with a live Thanksgiving Day broadcast of the Louisiana Playboys on radio station KPFA. From there, the music was recorded, featured in documentaries, and showcased at mainstream venues like the Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “When it transferred over, it bloomed,” says Ray Stevens, an 87-year-old zydeco dancer who moved from Lake Charles, La., to Oakland, Calif., in 1944. “It got out of the rice field, and now it’s moving on.”
Today zydeco is everywhere, with events scheduled most nights of the week (there’s a master schedule at Calendar10.tripod.com). Tuesdays belong to Ashkenaz, a Berkeley music club that features both zydeco and Cajun music. Friday the scene shifts to Eagles Hall, a fraternal lodge in Alameda. Some Sundays, the party is at 23 Club, an old cowboy bar in Brisbane. At these dances, you’ll meet the original migrants, along with their children and grandchildren. Often they’ll be outnumbered by Californians with no Louisiana roots at all.