What It Is—Swamp Music—Is What It Is
By Jerry Wexler
Billboard Magazine, December 1969
At drummer Sammy Creason’s Halloween party in Memphis, his new boss, singer Tony Joe White, holds his breath to close his pores, removes a black widow from his personal mason jar of spiders and puts it on the back of his hand.
The spider bites, the assemblage murmur their orison of Far Outs, somebody puts on Tony Joe’s new Roosevelt and Ira Lee record on the record player. Tony Joe courteously offers a spider to Stax producer Don Nix, discoverer and producer of Delaney and Bonnie. Don, who has been wearing Buffalo Bill hair and a Dennis Hopper Easy Rider getup for five years now and who has been roaming the southern hills and marshes and savannahs all these years in monomaniacal pursuit of some private musical vision, has no problem in passing the spider in favour of a roach.
At 3614 Jackson Highway in Muscle Shoals, writer-guitarist-singer and embryonic guru Eddie Hinton works out a Taj Mahal rhythm with drummer Roger Hawkins, and it is finally figured out the only way to start the beat on two instead of one. The session is Ronnie Hawkins’ first for Atlantic and the tune is “Who Do You Love”, and although Ronnie has been owning a couple of farms outside Toronto and a night club or two in Toronto, he is still stone Arkansas swamp and you’ll never hear a bitter breath or bad vibration from the guy who lost Rick, Rick, Levon, Garth and Robbie to Dylan and Fred Carter to the Nashville studios and John Till to Janis Joplin.
At the Ash Grove in L.A., it’s a Monday night jam with Taj on harp and noble Jesse Davis on guitar. Leon Russell sits in on piano and then Big Boy Crudup comes on to sing, and that, as Stanley Booth, the sweetest pop journalist south of the Smith & Wesson line says, makes some kind of blues band.
At Ungaro’s, 70th near Broadway, Dr. John extinguishes flambé headgear, waits for the goofer dust to settle and the gris gris to dry up a little and finally applies ass to piano stool. Delaney Bramlett, Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker sit in and they do things to “Tipitina” that could possibly make you forget Professor Longhair, the marvelous valetudinarian architect of this New Orleans all-time 8-bar anthem. You could sing “Stack O Lee” to these changes, or “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” or “Cherry Red”, but the way Dr. John (ne Mac Rebennack) phrases it, it’s got to be Longhair’s swampy incantation that sounds like “moolah wallah da” and how the hell did we ever spell it on the lead sheet?
At another studio in Muscle Shoals, Rick Hall’s Fame, Bobbie Gentry cuts her fantastic song “Fancy”, and Rick’s new Rhythm section burns in a beautiful track. Solomon burke gets an advance copy of Tony Joe White’s new album from Donnie Fritts, the elegant Alabama Leading Man, and does a hell of a cover on Tony Joe’s “The Migrant”—at 3614.
Two weeks later at the Criteria Studio in Miami, Brook Benton, with the promising new Florida rhythm section Cold Grits, does Tony Joe White’s “A Rainy Night In Georgia”. The Pasha, Arif, is producing, and his Soulful Turkish Eminence gets a fantastic track from Tubby-Harry-Jimmy-Billy with Cornell Dupree extra added on guitar and Dave Crawford on piano.
In Memphis the MGs are still the top funk group and Duck Dunn is running with Don Nix a lot, and Chips Moman’s guys at American are doing tremendous things behind Elvis, Dusty, Herbie Mann and Dionne. Clapton has joined Delaney and Bonnie. Leon Russell is in England cutting his LP with Harrison and Clapton backing. Father Mose Allison is carrying on in his spare, flame-under-a-bushel style. Creedence Clearwater is taking the world. Aretha is cutting a Dr. John tune. Pickett cuts another. Dusty did Tony Joe’s “Wille and Laura Mae”. Doug Kershaw is making small seismic waves and Clifton Chenier is getting reviewed by Greil Marcus. Huey Meaux is back on the stick.
What it all is is swamp music—is what it is.
That is what everybody is calling this emergent thing which is just about here getting past our noses and laying where you can get a look at it and say “I Be Dog”. Sure!! It is the Southern sound! R & B played by Southern whites! It is up from Corpus Christi, Thibodaux, Florence, Tupelo, Helena, Tuscaloosa, Memphis! It is the flowering of the new Southern lifestyle! It is Duane Allman, the Skydog guitar wizard out of central Florida whose hair is longer than Dennis Hopper’s and who was more shook after seeing Easy Rider than, at a guess, Jack Newfield or Albert Goldman. It is Southern rhythm sections made up of young country cats who began with Hawkshaw Hawkins and turned left behind Ray Charles and Blue Bland. It is Joe South and his great gift of melody and the lowest-tuned guitar this side of Pop Staples. It is the spirit of Willie Morris, born in the Delta, schooled in Texas, and arrived on the literary scene in New York as editor of Harper’s at 32, and who with Faulkner calls the black people of his home his kin.
It’s country funk. The Byrds put something in it, Ray Charles added a lot. It’s a pound of R & B, and an ounce or three of country. The music has Cajun swamp miasma, a touch of Longhair’s New Orleans blues rhumba, some of the Taj’s recreations or Cow Cow Davenport’s buck dance thing. It has been shaped by Otis Redding’s horn thinking, Steve Cropper’s and Reggie Young’s and Chips Moman’s fantastic section guitar work—part lead and part rhythm on the same tune. It has Tommy Cogbill’s structured variations of the rhapsodic Motown bass lines. It has Roger Hawkins’ gut-stirring, beautiful snare hit. Jim Stewart and Rick Hall and Chips and Tom Dowd picked up where Sam Phillips left off and poured it into Sam & Dave and Clarence Carter. It’s a lot of gospel changes and very, very rarely 12-bar blues.
It’s not a rockabilly, either, but the echoes of early Sun are there. Ghosts of beginning Elvis and Cash and Vincent; to listen to “Suspicious Minds” live with the Sweets backing Elvis, and that’s definitely it.
The words? They are plain old representational words—Southern folk communicating with each other in beautiful, unornate spare earth talk. There is field lore. There is love on a farm. There is swamp myth. The people who play it and sing it are conditioned by the way they grew up, Southern lifestyle: it’s in the ground they walked on, the grits they ate, the water they drank. Their imagery has humor and insight, and the references, although they are regional and even parochial, are easily comprehended.
What it isn’t: it isn’t the private replay of a trauma that happened to a 12-year-old girl balladeer in her aunt’s hayloft in Barnstable, Mass. The sounds aren’t super-overdubbed. There is no use of feedback, 10-foot amplifiers, excessive reverb, no souped-up treble.
What it is is authentically country Southern, and the exceptions, Taj, Fogerty and four of The Band, don’t disprove a rutting thing because they know what the roots are.
And it is also available for export: Listen to “Come Together” or “Midnight Rambler”. The superb, fantastic Abbey Road has them kind of tracks, Cousin, and the magnificent Rolling Stones are a super rhythm section. “That’s what we are,” Mick says, “a rhythm section.”
What else? Well Sir Douglas, yes, and Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard; they surely fit into this swamp thing, and Jerry Lee Lewis today and the great, tragically underrated Charlie Rich.
And Phil Walden is in it, in Macon where he and Otis began and from where he manages Duane and Tony Joe and Clarence Carter.
There’s more—it’s only just beginning.