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How a Housewife Became Queen Ida, Evangelist of Zydeco

February 11, 1988|Mike Boehm

Ida Guillory remembers the day her mother brought the accordion home, even though it wasn't meant for her.

Today, Guillory is Queen Ida, a folksy, robust woman of 58 with a rich, hawing laugh, six grandchildren and a secure domain: In the world of the pulsing black Cajun dance music known as zydeco, she is one of the most prominent bandleaders.

Back in the late 1940s, she was Ida Lewis, a San Francisco teen-ager, the fourth of seven children in a family that recently had pulled up its Louisiana roots to seek a better living in California.

Ida's mother brought back the accordion after visiting her kin in Louisiana's Cajun country. To Elvina Lewis, the gift from back home, with its double row of buttons for squeezing out notes, wasn't just a plaything for her kids. It was, she hoped, a musical link to rural traditions that her family had left half a continent behind.

Actually, as Guillory recalled recently in an interview from her home in Daly City on the San Francisco Peninsula, her mother was counting on the boys in the family to learn the old songs and uphold the heritage of Louisiana's French-speaking blacks. "Don't let it die," she told them.

But it was Ida who--in an improbable, late-blooming rise--took up the accordion in her 30s, performed in public for the first time at 44 and won instant acclaim as Queen Ida, the first female regent of the zydeco accordion. The attributes of this queen include a rough, amber voice, a simple but sprightly instrumental style and a personality that projects easy good spirits.

So far, they have brought her a 1982 Grammy award for best ethnic/folk album, appearances on "Saturday Night Live" and in the film "Rumblefish" and a touring itinerary that keeps her on the road half the year (Friday night, she'll be the Forum Theater in Yorba Linda).

Guillory has helped fulfill her mother's wish that Cajun roots might take hold in faraway soil--and then some.

When Guillory was a girl in Lake Charles, La., Cajun and Creole songs were as much a part of her home life as the kitchen table. Uncles would come over to play waltzes and two-steps; Ida's mother would sing along and sometimes tap out a tune of her own on the accordion.

For the children, Guillory recalled, the accordion was an object of mystery rather than a device for mastery. "We'd pick it up when they'd put it down, and try to find out what's happening. 'What's making this thing sound so good?' We pulled and pushed, but the way we were pulling and pushing, there was nothing coming out of it except one ugly note."

Nobody in the family tried to lead her beyond aimless tugging at the buttons and bellows. "My mother didn't encourage the girls to play the accordion. We were brought up very sheltered, very ladylike and very formal."

When her mother brought the accordion to California, Ida was still intrigued by it, enough to take it down to the basement when nobody was around, in hope of coaxing out a tune. It came as a surprise when she discovered that her mother knew what she was up to.

"One day she said, 'How you doing?' I said, 'Not very well.' She said, 'Come downstairs and give it to me.' She started to play a little melody. I looked at her and said, 'Mom, how do you do that?' "

Ida, still in her teens, got her first lesson then, and her first encouragement to learn music. She also picked up pointers from her younger brother, Al, the natural musician in the family. But it was a false start.

"I didn't last very long. I couldn't get very far, and I'd get discouraged."

Her main goal at the time was a career in nursing. Later, she would marry Raymond Guillory and raise three children. Her favorite music at the time was as far removed from the rowdy, rough-hewn Cajun tradition as you could get: Guillory liked the pop crooning of Perry Como and Andy Williams.

When all her children had reached school age, Guillory said: "It was very quiet. It was too quiet. It was just a daily routine. Every day, nothing different, except weekends, when we'd go out and hear Al and his little group."

Before long, Guillory had picked the accordion back up and was practicing again, alone in her house. "I seemed to do better alone because I wasn't afraid of anybody listening, hearing me make mistakes. It started coming to me."

In 1969, a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival sharpened Guillory's resolve.

"One day I heard 'Bad Moon on the Rise' (the actual title of the hit, written by John Fogerty, is "Bad Moon Rising"). That sound coming over the radio was so different from anything I'd heard. Creedence had brought some vibe, some rhythm from Louisiana that I had not heard in the Bay Area. To me, that rhythm was Louisiana style. It motivated me. 'Wow! It's coming! That sound is in San Francisco!"

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