A smiling musician playing a metal washboard with thimbles on his fingers on stage next to a microphone.
I Went to the Dance. Photo: Argot Pictures

When last this column featured the works of Les Blank, three of his Berkeley-focused short subjects were screening at Pacific Film Archive. This week, we get to enjoy one of his feature-length documentaries, J’ai été au bal (I Went to the Dance), the director’s 81-minute tribute to Cajun and zydeco music. Newly restored and looking fabulous, the film opens at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Sept. 15; the 7 p.m. screening will feature live music and appearances by editor Maureen Gosling and Blank’s son Harrod.

The first time I ever heard the word “zydeco” was courtesy of The Clash, whose 1978 song Last Gang in Town includes the following verse:

But not the Zydeco kids from the high rise
Though they can’t be recognized
When you hear a Cajun fiddle then you’re nearly in the middle
Of the last gang in town

What on earth was a zydeco kid, pondered 16-year-old me. Were they the latest of Britain’s many youth subcultures of the time, existing side by side with goths, punks, skinheads, teddy boys, mods and new romantics? Would I know a zydeco kid if I saw one? Had I ever heard any zydeco music? The answer to each question was (despite The Clash’s suggestions to the contrary) “no.”

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Things began to change with the release of Walter Hill’s outstanding thriller Southern Comfort in 1981. Hill’s taut Vietnam parable exposed a national audience to Cajun music for the first time and was followed four years later by Rockin’ Sidney’s breakthrough hit My Toot Toot, which against all odds shot up the pop and country charts. While his record eventually went platinum, Rockin’ Sidney never had another hit and My Toot Toot is now probably considered a novelty song. Nonetheless, many people — including yours truly — finally knew what this music sounded like.

Emerging from the multi-cultural and multi-racial stew of coastal Louisiana, zydeco and Cajun songs feature four-to-the-floor beats propelled by fiddle, accordion, washboard-style percussion and lyrics sung primarily in French — a nod to the music’s Creole and Acadian roots. Indeed, Cajun and zydeco music have provided American roots music with one of its richest veins, and their influences echo throughout jazz, rock, blues and skiffle. The region’s proximity to New Orleans has assured that, whether we know it or not, a lot of our favorite music includes at least a few strands of zydeco’s DNA.

Blank’s film — co-directed by the recently deceased Arhoolie Records founder and roots super-enthusiast Chris Strachwitz — features plenty of infectious music and priceless interview footage with practitioners, some of them (such as fiddle player Dennis McGee, who got his start recording with the legendary Amede Ardoin) nonagenarians born in the 19th century. There’s also performance footage from the San Francisco Blues Festival, where we see Queen Ida and the Bon Temps Zydeco Band tearing it up (Queen Ida is still with us at 94, and now lives in the Bay Area).

More questions arise as one watches this film: Does 21st-century pop culture have room for zydeco and Cajun music, and does either style still exist in the same way they did 30-plus years ago? In pre-internet 1989, southern Louisiana was largely untouched by outside influences, its indigenous music still the preserve of working-class people who liked to cut a rug to it on Saturday night. I hope the music lives on, not as legacy but as living culture — but if it doesn’t, at least we have I Came to the Dance to help us remember the way things were.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...