Make your way to the corner of North Saint Antoine and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and you’ll be at a spot that has inspired many visits to Lafayette. During the day, the building itself is a beige painted cinder block and brick, mainly recognizable because of the canopied front entrance that reads simply “El Sid O’s.” Located in the historic Lafayette Truman neighborhood, El Sid O’s Zydeco and Blues Club has been drawing crowds since it opened on Mother’s Day 1985.
Owned and operated by Sidney “El Sid O” Williams, member of one of the founding families of zydeco and brother to zydeco star Nathan Williams. Sid is an accomplished accordion player in his own right, as well as a well-known local businessman (he also owns Sid’s One Stop, a convenience store just down the street). The annual Thanksgiving food drive show at El Sido’s (now in its 28th year!) is legendary, having featured a who’s who of zydeco including Boozoo Chavis, Buckwheat Zydeco, Beau Jocque, Nathan Williams, Rockin’ Dopsie, Keith Frank, Horace Trahan, Terrance Simien, and many more.
A visit to El Sid O’s is always memorable. Upon entry, zydeco music is already playing on the sound system, interrupted at regular intervals by Sid, breaking in from a microphone he keeps behind the bar. The messages are half announcements about upcoming shows or the band of the evening and half a pitch for drink specials, but it is understood that Sid not only runs the show, but is a part of it. Regulars and visiting musicians alike seek him out to pay homage upon entering. At some point in the evening, Sid, wearing a black cowboy hat, comes from behind the bar to visit all around. A gracious host, he introduces himself throughout the seating area, making sure that everyone has what they need and are comfortable. Décor includes beer and liquor signs, as well as banners and posters from events past and future.
As the club begins to get crowded, the band takes the stage. Sound levels are checked, and after Sid’s brief word of welcome from behind the bar, the accordion bellows breathe and come to life, beckoning the other instruments to join in. Sound fills the room, and a wave of activity begins as couples get up from their seats to fill the dance floor. Over the course of the night, several accordions might be used, from the oversized piano type made popular by Clifton Chenier to the older, more traditional diatonic button variety. The stage lights are reflected in the instrument’s polished finish as the accordionist moves in time to the music.
Zydeco dancing can be a magical thing to watch. Despite the basic steps, every couple makes it their own, adding personal flourishes and gestures until the basic underlying structure is not the primary focus anymore. Dance styles range from dancing in place with barely perceptible movement of the feet with very little upper body action, to a wide ranging swing style that involves partner twisting, synchronized side-stepping, and small jumps. The faces are often stoic as they complete complicated dance moves, seemingly effortless and in sync. Examining the multitude of styles on display at any one time can be hypnotic.
After about an hour and a half, the band puts down their instruments and stops for a well-deserved break. The dancers need it too. Sid gives a call over the microphone for a round of applause and reminds us that this short break is a great time to get an ice-cold beer. Music is pumped through the PA system again, and suddenly the dance floor is filled with a zydeco line dance interlude. Maybe I was wrong about the dancers needing a break. It’s getting close to midnight and El Sid O’s still has a lot of life left in it.
John Sharp, a documentary filmmaker and folklorist, is the Assistant Director for Research at the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His 2011 film, Water on Road, deals with the natural and man-made issues facing the Native American community of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. His current research and film project is Dancehalls of South Louisiana, for which he won the 2012 Louisiana Filmmaker award from Louisiana Economic Development. For more information on Sharp’s current project like him on Facebook or visit LouisianaDancehalls.com.