Photo by Irene Young
Queen Ida Guillory discusses the Zydeco tradition and how she became a part of the band. [25:22]
Interview by Josephine Reed for the NEA
NEA: I want to begin by asking you, "How did you become 'Queen' Ida?"
Queen Ida: I became Queen Ida at a function that was given at one of the parochial schools back in 1975. It was a Mardi Gras celebration –-- and there's always a king and a queen of Mardi Gras. And so during the day youngsters were crowned king and queen, and in the evening, they crowned me Queen Ida, Queen of the Zydeco Music. That's how it all got started.
NEA: And it stuck.
Queen Ida: And it stuck. I wanted to change the name down the line. I, at that time, only probably had six or seven songs in my repertoire. And my brother had his own band. He had been playing around the Bay area for years; a small rock and roll band. And he asked me to come and sit in with them. And I said no. But then after I was dubbed Queen Ida by a reporter, Peter Levine, they kept asking to see this lady that was dubbed Queen Ida. That's when I decided okay I'll go and sit in and do two or three songs with him per engagement. And that's how it all got started. Then they started asking to see this band with this Queen Ida. So here I am!
NEA: Now you play the accordion?
Queen Ida: Yes I do.
NEA: And you sing.
Queen Ida: Yes.
NEA: You play the pushbutton accordion, which is different from the keyboard accordion. Can you describe what the difference is?
Queen Ida: Well, the difference is the keyboard, it doesn't matter if you extend the billows or if you bring them back in, on the keyboard, you have the same note. Whatever note that you're playing, you have the same note, same key or same sound. But with the diatonic accordion, which is the button accordion, if you push one chord or one note and you pull; it's two different sounds, two different notes. And so that is more difficult to learn to play than the keyboard.
NEA: When you played the accordion as a kid, your mother didn't think that was something a girl should do, certainly not in public?
Queen Ida: Yes, but I didn't grab the accordion until I was about 18. And it was still the same. Girls are not allowed to play accordions or any other instrument except a violin or a fiddle. That was feminine. The others were too masculine.
NEA: You grew up in Louisiana.
Queen Ida: Yes.
NEA: Your parents were strict.
Queen Ida: Very strict. We had to be escorted up until 18 whenever we'd go out with a boyfriend or wherever we'd go; we were escorted.
NEA: There were seven of you?
Queen Ida: Seven children. Four girls and three boys.
NEA: In Louisiana, your father was a farmer?
Queen Ida: Correct. My dad did a lot of farming. I was just telling one of the staff members here, that I had to work with my dad because he was a farmer. And during that time during the war, World War II, they started inducting guys to go to war. And my dad, because he was a farmer, he was able to defer several men, including my brother.
NEA: When you grew up, there wasn't a lot of money for extras, but your parents had wonderful gardens. In your book, Cooking with Queen Ida, you talk about some of the food that would come out of those gardens. Talk about that upbringing.
Queen Ida: Well, we had no water, no electricity as you mentioned. And we just had to get water from the wells. Sometimes the water was what we call hard water. It's very difficult to get any soap action. And so, we had to go to the canal. We had canals nearby for irrigation. And that water, for some reason, was easier to use for washing, scrubbing, and whatever. That's what we had to do to do the clothes for the workers and for ourselves. But we did have drinking water from the wells.
NEA: Talk about sausage making.
Queen Ida: Oh yes. Well, you know, at that time, they used the horn from the cows. They would take the horns after they butcher a cow or any kind of beef. They used the horns. They would dry them out. Scrub them inside to be sure that it was smooth. It was hard work for them to do. And then they would use that horn as the beginning of a casing, which is what you stuff the meat into. And of course, they use the ground meat, seasoned fairly high. It's always high seasoned. We would stuff it through this little horn into the casing. That was hard work.
NEA: When I told a friend that I was talking to you today, this is what he said. "Ask her about roux."
Queen Ida: Now roux is very difficult. For a beginner, you have to do some TLC -- tender, loving care. You have to use oil, most of the time we use something like Crisco or lard. Actually, in my time, when I was growing up, we used lard. You heat up the lard; not too hot. Add flour to the consistency of when you're making pancakes. Not too thin, not too thick. And stir and stir and stir until it gets a dark brown; not light – because that's the base of your gumbo or your stews.
NEA: And it gives a great flavor.
Queen Ida: It does -- although there are other ways of making gumbo. They use filé but then it's really more like a clear broth. But with the roux, it becomes thicker and not too thick. Then it becomes a stew. So, you have to really use a lot of, as I say again, TLC when you're adding the roux to the water or to the broth and let it cook a while so you can see the consistency of it being either too thick or too thin.
NEA: Queen Ida, tell us about the kind of music did you listened to when you were growing up.
Queen Ida: Believe it or not, mostly country western music. Because at that time, finally we got a little crystal radio as we became older and we'd listen to whatever we could get on the airwaves. And 90% of the time, it was country western. I listened to that as a youngster, very young. But then of course, as I became an adult, I would listen to what they called at that time, blues. Well, it's still blues. And very soft rock. It wasn't the heavy metal. And of course some jazz.
NEA: How did you come to play Zydeco?
Queen Ida: Actually my mother had two brothers that played Cajun and Zydeco. And they were playing and obviously it was in the family. And finally my mother told my brothers -- we were living in California at that time -- "I'm making a trip to Texas and Louisiana and I'll bring back some 78s." Those were at the time very fragile. And she managed to bring some home that were not broken that we could listen to. And she told my brothers, "I want you guys, you boys." She made that statement clear. "To keep up the traditional Zydeco music. It's been around for so many years. And it's our cultural music." And of course, Ida being Ida, a tomboy, I would listen to them.
My brothers began to play. My youngest brother Al, he began to play and follow the records. And it was sounding real great. And so I decided one day I'd borrow the accordion. And I started trying myself but it was so difficult to push and pull. I'm trying to find this note and it was on the push position. Trying to find the other one, it was on the pull position. So, it took me a while to understand really how to operate that little monster. They called it a monster.
That's how I actually learned and then my brother had a band. And he was playing around the Bay area. I would listen to him and his band and it was sounding so good because it was a complete band. It wasn't just the rub board and the accordion or a violin accompanying the accordion. It was a complete band and that, of course, made a big difference in the sound. And that's how I became interested in learning more and more. But I got caught in the act when I played this Mardi Gras celebration in San Francisco at this parochial school.
NEA: Can you describe what Zydeco music is?
Queen Ida: Actually Zydeco music has a lot of influences from other music such as the blues, naturally, a little country western, a little Mexican; salsa or what. All of those elements make up Zydeco.
NEA: You are Creole rather than Cajun and people often confuse the difference between the two. Can you explain what the difference between Creole and Cajun is?
Queen Ida: The difference is the Cajuns are actually by way of Nova Scotia, which are French that came into the United States. And it's a long story about the Queen throwing them out of Canada because they refused to speak English. And of course I mean they were just ready to say no I'm not gonna do it –and actually they did. And so she deported them. She had them brought to the nearest land, which was of course America. So the difference there is that they are more French actually and we are a mixture. We're a mixture of French, Spanish, Indian, and West Indies. So I'm a mutt.
NEA: But English was your second language.
Queen Ida: That's correct. I grew up speaking Creole even when I started school and well, at that time, they didn't call it kindergarten but the idea was the same. It was called primary. I couldn't speak a word of English. I could understand a lot of it but I couldn't speak it because my mom and dad didn't speak it at the time. My dad could speak it better than my mom, but they always spoke the Creole to us. And a teacher said, "You have got to learn to speak English." And she had a little ruler. And she spanked my hands, inside my hands, the palm. And I answered her in French. "I will speak it when I learn it." I was being a little bad girl there.
NEA: How did you get to California from Louisiana?
Queen Ida: My dad and my mom both had visited my sister that had moved to California. She was married and her husband was stationed in the San Francisco Bay area. And my dad came out for a visit. My mom did as well. But when my dad came, he loved the weather. He liked everything about San Francisco. So, he came back home and told my mom. I like it so when you take your trip up there, let me know if you like it. If you like, then we'll move.
And my mom said, "Just like that?" He said, "Yeah." He said, "I'm tired of farming because we have to pray from morning to night, every season at the rice season or any type of farming you do." And he said, "I'm tired." And my mom came. She loved it. She called him back and told him, "Yes I like it." He said, "Well, okay. Find a place, find a house and call me and tell me what it cost and I'll send the money." And that's how we moved to California.
NEA: How old were you?
Queen Ida: I was 17. It was 1947.
NEA: You got married and had three kids. You drove a school bus.
Queen Ida: Yes. After I got married and had three kids and they were all in school. And I decided to do some part-time work. I'm tired of doing the same work at home, you know, being a housewife and washing, cleaning, cooking. Taking care of the kids. And I decided to find a part-time job. And then I read the ad in a newspaper they wanted school bus drivers. They needed women school bus drivers. They didn't specify women but most women were there to apply for the job. There were men there but most women. And that's how I started a part-time job driving a school bus.
Two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. And that was perfect. I'd get home almost the same time with my kids. We'd leave pretty much the same time in the morning. My husband was working nights so he was always home when the kids were coming home. So, it worked out perfect.
NEA: During all this time your accordion, so to speak, was in the closet. You weren't playing. Then one day you took your accordion out of the closet. What made you do that?
Queen Ida: Bored. You know, you can get bored. You want to do something. I picked up the accordion. I had the radio on and I was home. And I was listening to music. And I heard Credence Clearwater playing and that sound was so much like Zydeco sound because they had a big tub as what they call a gut bucket, as a baseline. And I thought, "Oh my goodness. This is great." I grabbed the accordion and that stayed with me because of the sound.
And then I started buying Credence Clearwater's albums. At that time, they were albums. I started trying to follow and was not at all able to do. But I kept the tune in my mind. I kept it in my head. And then I would play around it as I would think about it. And of course, that was a lot of trying to find the right notes and the right sound.
And I learned how to play, not exactly right but sounding like "Lodi" and the different songs that they had.
Then after that I became more interested in picking up the accordion and trying to play other songs that my mother's brothers were playing the music at their functions or at their Sunday afternoon on the back porch and all this and then their home parties. And so I started trying to play all that. And finally, I mastered some.
NEA: In the meantime your brother was playing in a Zydeco band, wasn't he? And I have to say, Louisiana's two great gifts are cooking and music, and he decided he would combine that to give people a real taste of Creole culture and give away gumbo at his concerts.
Queen Ida: Right, right. He did that. Very instrumental. We would play at small clubs because that's what he was doing in that time. And they would advertise and he would tell the promoter, "Look, we're gonna bring gumbo. We're gonna make gumbo. We're gonna bring it and we're gonna give it away so they'll know the culture and the food that we Creole have used in Louisiana." And we did that. And you'd be surprised at the amount of people that came and- and of course, the word of mouth is really how we really were able to get our music a round and about.
NEA: Tell me about the first time you sat in with the band.
Queen Ida: I was nervous of course. And all the men, a few women, but mostly men came right in front of the stage because it was strange to see a woman play an accordion. And I was nervous, very nervous. But I kept my cool and I thought oh well, this is it. They're either gonna like me or they're not going to. And fortunately for me, they did.
NEA: You have so much energy on stage. Have you always been that way?
Queen Ida: Well, I think I've always been a very active person, energetic. You know, especially in my younger days and even up to now, the kids will laugh at me sometimes. The music will be playing and I like the music and I'll start dancing by myself. For some reason, you know, that music will give me energy. Don't ask me how and why, but it does. It does something to my body. It does something to me. And that when I hear it, if I'm not tapping my feet, I'm up and dancing alone. Well, of course, this is at home. It's not at an engagement or anything. But at the engagement, I start playing and I feel real energetic and I'll even dance on the stage. That's just natural of me I suppose because I seem to do it most of the time.
NEA: Often in Zydeco music you hear people talk about a "fais do-do". What is this?
Queen Ida: Okay, "fais do-do" means to put to sleep. Well, they would have their parties and they would call them the fais do-do. It was usually house parties and they would bring the kids. And of course, they would fais do-do the kids the way they'd put us to bed. And while they party at a certain time they would after about 9:00, 9:30; we had to fais do-do. We had to go to sleep. And so that's why they called it the fais do-do because they would dance and party until 12:00, 1:00. And the kids were asleep.
NEA: In your book you told a beautiful story about your dad buying a dress.
Queen Ida: I was helping my dad in the field when at the end of a crop, they go out to the field and rake up all the dead grass or weeds or whatever out in the field. And this was in my mother's garden, which was called a truck patch because a garden is small but a truck patch can be an acre or bigger. And I would go out and help my dad getting all the old tomato stalks and other stuff, pile them up and he would burn them. And I didn't mind. I was always an outdoor person. And I would go out and help him. And then one day he said, "I'm gonna buy you a new dress for this." And I thought, "Oh my God." And he did. And of course, the other kids said, "Now why does she get a dress and we don't." He said, "Well, if you'll recall, she was out in the fields with me all hours helping me rake up these weeds and dead stalks. And none of you showed up. I didn't ask her. I didn't ask any of you. But she volunteered." And that's how I got at the top with a new dress.
NEA: Your career really took off. You've had 11 albums and a Grammy award. What was it like playing Carnegie Hall?
Queen Ida: That was fantastic. I played with the Mambazo Group [Ladysmith Black Mambazo]. And we opened for them actually. And after we did our 45 minutes whatever it was, we went off stage. And we had a standing ovation. And so one of the stage managers came up and said, "Do you have a three minute song?" He said, "We're gonna allow you a three minutes to do another song because if I've ever seen a standing ovation, this is one." And I said, "Yes." And so we gathered the boys and went back on and did another song. And it was just fantastic. The place was packed. Sellout. And it was again, a standing ovation but of course, we couldn't go back. We had done our bit and it was time for the Mambazo Group to go on. That was fantastic. Highlight of my life.
NEA: You also appeared at Parting the Waters , a benefit for the victims of Katrina. Tell me about that.
Queen Ida: That was great. That was fantastic. A lot of bands were there. A lot of people, you know, doing poetry – not just bands. Some soloists playing piano or guitar and bass. That was great. That was fantastic. And it was for such a good cause. We enjoyed it because we knew what it was for because of the Katrina disaster in New Orleans and our hearts were into that.
NEA: Is it different when you and your band go back to Louisiana and play there than if you play for a more general audience in New York City who may or may not know Zydeco, who may or may not know Creole culture?
Queen Ida: You know that's a good question because as you said the people in Louisiana already know about Zydeco. But people in other states out of Louisiana, even including Texas, which is adjacent; they seem to appreciate it more because it's new, something different, lively. They're laughing. They're smiling. They're tapping their feet. They're bopping their heads. They're actually moving. They don't realize that they are a great, great audience with a great, great feeling. When I first started this music and went around the United States, they didn't know. They've never heard of it. They didn't know what Mardi Gras was. That was in the ‘70s. And they didn't realize any of this. So it was like I was from another country, not a state within the States. It was so different to them and so new.
NEA: And yet it was so interesting what you write in your book about going to Ghana. It's French speaking so you have the language connection but there also seemed seemed to be a musical connection when you performed.
Queen Ida: Yes, there is a musical connection. We did this song and I had the audience repeat after us or sing along with us. As the concert ended and we're on our way home, you could hear a group of youngsters out in the road. And they were singing on their way home. I thought that was great. That made me feel real good because they understood.
NEA: Music is dynamite, it does change. And I was wondering if in the years you have been playing and performing Zydeco music, have you seen some changes in the music itself?
Queen Ida: Definitely. Definitely. There are some bands that are playing mostly American music and not the old traditional Zydeco. Now there's a limitation to Zydeco music because all the oldies have gone beyond and there's no more to learn except what we are able to put together because it's not written. And so, you just combine music together and call it Zydeco. But not necessarily straightforward any type of music. Now blues is an influence to rock and roll for sure. And of course, blues has been an influence to us in the Zydeco field. So, we have this mixture of blues and as I said, country western and salsa; not per se in its purity but you can hear all those elements when we're playing Zydeco.
NEA: Who are you passing along the Zydeco tradition to?
Queen Ida: So far my son, and he has one son, who is only 15 years old now. The other son doesn't have a son. My daughter doesn't have a son. And so it seems like it's not gonna go too much further but I keep telling my son to push on, to keep going -- but he finds it difficult with work and doing Zydeco music because you don't make enough money just around the area where you live. You have to go on tour. That's where you make your money.
NEA: You were touring over 200 days a year.
Queen Ida: Oh yes, and more. Yes. And I remember one year I told my agent [John Ullman], I said, "John, I've got to slow down. I have not been home more than four, five days in a month. And I'm always on the road." So okay, he said, "Well, next year we're gonna slow down." And I think that's when it came to 200 days. It wasn't much of a slowdown. However, it was a little rest.
NEA: Do you see cross generations in the audience?
Queen Ida: Oh yes. We have them from 90 down to 15, 16. They're into it. It's unbelievable because when I got started those kids -- 15 and 16-year-olds -- weren't interested. You didn't see many of them there. But now, you see them at that age and of course, as I've said, up to 90 because I have seen one lady I know; she's been following our band for years. And she is at every festival that I have ever attended. She's there. Ninety. Now, she's more than 90 now I think. She dances by herself. She said, "This music just keeps me going." And I believe her. She's already 90,
NEA: It is very special to play with your son or to see him on the stage with you?
Queen Ida: Yes, it is. It's a great feeling. And actually I'll tell you the truth of the matter of why I was in the business this long is because I had him with me, which is my son; my brother Al was also with me and I felt at home. I felt my family was with me -- although all my family wasn't with me, but those two was with me and then my brother Willie, who played the rub board was with me. And then my other son, Ronald, would be with me playing rub board. So, we were almost a family band. And I didn't mind being away from home because it felt like I was at home because I was with them.
NEA: How did you find out you won a National Heritage Fellowship and what went through your mind?
Queen Ida: He called me and he said, "Queen Ida?" I said, "Yeah, speaking." He said, "This is Bergey (Barry Bergey). You have won an award from the NEA." And I said, "What?" And he said, "You have won an award." I said, "Excuse me but I can't talk very well right now. I am so pleased and so nervous I don't know what to say. He just laughed and he said, "Well, I just wanted you to know and we're happy for you." Oh gosh, that was a thrill.