If you go to a Zydeco festival around Lafayette, you may very well see Zydeco Joe Mouton, even if he's not on the program. He'll be there to listen to the music, to dance, and, if there's an opportunity, to perform a number with whatever band is on the stage. Given the chance, he can improvise lyrics in Creole French about almost anything, accompanying himself with the accordion with rhythmical notes to match his words, which he sometimes then repeats in English.
Born Joseph Adam Mouton in Lafayette on October 25, 1943, he was "raised up in Carencro" (as he sings in one of his songs), living on a farm growing cotton, corn, and potatoes. At the age of 13, he borrowed a Sears Silverstone guitar and learned how to play. For a while he performed with Rockin' Dopsie's band, but then decided to give up music.
According to the liner notes to Zydeco Joe's CD, Jack Rabbit, he learned to play the accordion when he was 45 after a close friend, Robley Hebert, died in a car accident. Robley's mom gave Zydeco Joe the accordion that her son had been trying to learn to play. He was reluctant to accept it, but finally agreed. An old friend, the late Dudley Broussard (his wife's uncle), helped him learn to play, and in 1988 Zydeco Joe formed his own band.
In one of his most popular songs, "Mama Fred's Back Yard" (he once said in an interview that Mama Fred refers to his mother-in-law), he celebrates the way in which Zydeco brings everyone together–people from all races and backgrounds, in sharp contrast to the segregation that he remembers as part of his childhood. As he explained to Laura Haymark in an article published June 21, 1999, in the Baton Rouge Advocate, everyone mixes together at Zydeco dances: People "tell me it must be something about the music: it just makes people forget about hatred...I'm glad it came about. It took 600 years before it finally did."
He also told Haymark that he plays both Zydeco and Cajun songs, as well as the blues: "I'm a zydeco player, but I play for people. I watch my crowd because I don't play for a certain race. I'm very proud to do that, and they enjoy it."
Or, as he says in the notes to his CD, "I play my music from the heart. You can say it's back porch jam high energy Zydeco music that pulls people together for a good time."
Once you hear and see the intensity of Zydeco Joe's performance, you will quickly understand that when he says he plays from the heart he really means it.
Like many people his age in Southwest Louisiana, he was once punished in school for speaking the French language that he learned from his grandmother, who raised him and who did not understand English. Today, he says, "I'm so proud I speak French and can communicate with people all over."`
Zydeco Joe originally released a self-produced CD, which quickly became hard to find. Meanwhile, songs like "Jack Rabbit" and "Mama Fred" continued to receive extensive air play on programs like KRVS's "Zydeco Est Pas Salé," KVPI's "Front Porch Zydeco," and Ed Poullard's Sunday evening zydeco show on KEUN. Eventually, Floyd Soileau's Maison de Soul label released the CD in 2001 as Jack Rabbit, making it available worldwide.