In the 1950s Cajun music and Rock and Roll got together and produced a daughter – they called her “Swamp Pop”!
By now, regular readers will know I’m quite a fan of Cajun and Zydeco music but even I acknowledge that it can be something of an acquired taste. Back in the 1950s, a lot of young, Cajun musicians were thinking along the same lines. They liked their traditional music but could see that it didn’t have mass appeal outside of Louisiana and South East Texas. They were watching rock and roll and country singers like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, selling outside of their southern catchment areas, and they started to realise that folk-based traditional melodies, with lyrics sung in a French patois, weren’t going to cut it with a wider audience. It was time to ditch the fiddle and triangle in favour of electric guitars and drums, start singing in English and wrap some down-home R&B and country around their Cajun and Creole songs. This was the beginnings of what the critics would come to refer to as “Swamp Pop”, a genre typified by honky-tonk piano, electric instruments and brass sections, swirling around emotional lyrics of loves lost and lovers done wrong. The singers would change their names to disguise their Cajun backgrounds – John Allen Guillot became the famous Johnnie Allen, Terry Gene DeRouan became Gene Terry, Robert Charles Guidry became Bobby Charles. In each case it was their distinctive Cajun family name that would be jettisoned in favour of a more widely appealing persona and the music they would generate would, similarly, have that Cajun identifying sound wrapped into a more marketable output for the youth of America.
It was a purely economic exercise but one which reaped some rich cultural rewards. By the late 1950s and into the early 60s, Swamp Pop was serving up some very successful records and the artists themselves were drawing big crowds; and this music wasn’t just selling in America. For the first time, Cajun artists were finding substantial markets not just in the wider United States but also in overseas countries such as Japan and the UK. The genre’s heyday spanned a relatively short period, generally accepted as being from 1957 through to 1964, but during this period gave us some outstanding songs that have lived on through regular airplay and a variety of cover versions. Among the most famous songs of the Swamp Pop genre would be ‘Sea of Love’, ‘I’m Leaving it Up to You’, ‘Let’s Do the Cajun Twist’, ‘Later Alligator’ (made famous by Bill Haley and the Comets) and Johnnie Allan’s definitive version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’. The influence of the genre lives on in the modern Cajun music of artists such as Steve Riley and C.C. Adcock, who both cite Swamp Pop as a major influence on their music.
The genre lost ground with the British Invasion of the 60s but, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it would give birth to the newer, harder-edged “Swamp Rock”, replacing the influence of Louisiana R&B with the rockier sound of the British Beat boom. But that’s another article – and one that’s coming soon!
Cookie and The Cupcakes – ‘Mathilda’
Singer Huey “Cookie” Thierry joined Shelton Dunaway’s Boogie Ramblers and the band eventually became Cookie and The Cupcakes, via the rather more mundane Cookie and the Boogie Ramblers. ‘Mathilda’ is widely considered to be the defining Swamp Pop song and an unofficial anthem for the genre. Released in 1957 it would reach number 47 on the Billboard pop chart, a considerable success for an outfit that started life as the house band at the Moulin Rouge Club in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Clint West – ‘Big Blue Diamonds’
No relation to our own esteemed Features Editor (despite the similar beard!), Clinton Maurice Guillory (aka Clinton Joseph Guillory, aka Maurice Guillory, depending on which biographies you read) had started his musical career as the drummer with Cajun Band, The Vidrine Cowboys. He would go on to form his own Swamp Pop big band, the 10-piece Boogie Kings, who would become a popular draw in the dancehalls of Louisiana, as well as playing to audiences as far afield as L.A. and Las Vegas. West is known for his more soulful singing style and his performance of this genre classic is considered one of the best.
Randy and The Rockets – ‘Let’s Do the Cajun Twist’
You don’t need to dig too deep to find the Cajun influence behind this song, effectively just a rocked up, English language version of the Cajun French favourite ‘Allons a Lafayette’. Lead by guitarist Randy David, the band racked up a number of minor hits following their formation in 1957. Like many of the Swamp Pop acts, they recorded much of their material for the Jin Record Label.
Johnnie Allan – ‘South to Louisiana’
Johnnie Allan is one of the great pioneers of Swamp Pop music and a huge influence on modern Cajun music and musicians. Born in Rayne, Louisiana he grew up in a musical family and was already playing guitar in a professional band, Walter Mouton’s Scott Playboys, by the time he was thirteen. Heavily influenced by seeing Elvis perform live he has been one of the most successful of the Swamp Pop artists and, as well as scoring a number of major hits, has toured around the world throughout his musical career. This track is his paean to his home state of Louisiana that saw him write new lyrics to rockabilly singer Johnny Horton’s ‘North to Alaska’. Allan is something of a renaissance man, having written two music-related books “Memories: A Pictorial History of South Louisiana Music” and the biography of Swamp Pop musician Jimmy Donley “Born to be a Loser” and turning to teaching as a profession at the end of his musical career.
Warren Storm – ‘Prisoner’s Song’
Another singing drummer, Warren Schexneider hails from Abbeville, Louisiana and started his musical career in the early 50s. He would regularly visit the clubs in New Orleans with fellow musician Bobby Charles and it was listening to the drumming of New Orleans R&B drummers like Charlie “Hungry” Williams that would influence his own style and lead him into Swamp Pop. His cover of the old country number ‘Prisoner’s Song’ gave him his first big hit and he went on to have a very successful career as a singer and bandleader. When C.C. Adcock and Steve Riley formed their Cajun supergroup, Lil Band O Gold, Storm was one of the first people they sought out.
Bobby Charles – ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’
Bobby Charles (Robert Charles Guidry), Warren Storm’s New Orleans clubs buddy, was one of the major writers of the Swamp Pop movement. The original composer of Bill Haley’s hit ‘See You Later Alligator’ he also wrote such well-known songs as ‘Walking to New Orleans’ and ‘(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do’, which appeared on the “Forest Gump” soundtrack. He has co-written with the likes of Rick Danko and Willie Nelson. He continued to compose and record until his death in 2010, though much of his material, along with that of a number of other Swamp Pop artists, was lost in the Universal Studios fire of 2008.
Irma Thomas – ‘Time Is On My Side’
Swamp Pop seems a resolutely male musical form and there are few female artists associated with the genre but the great New Orleans chanteuse, Irma Thomas, just about sneaks in. Though rightly known as more of a soul singer, Thomas got her early start on the Minit label, which was bought up by Imperial Records, both labels having some association with the Swamp Pop genre. Listen to this early version of Time is ‘On My Side’, later a hit for the Rolling Stones, and you can hear that same rolling honky-tonk rhythm associated with other Swamp Pop songs.
Jimmy Clanton – ‘Another Sleepless Night’
Born in Baton Rouge in 1940, Clanton earned the sobriquet of “the Swamp Pop R&B teenage idol”, being just 18 when his first hit record, ‘Just a Dream’ hit the charts. He would go on to have a number of other hits, of which the most famous is probably ‘Venus in Blue Jeans’, a top 5 hit in the UK when recorded by Mark Wynter. Clanton’s version reached number 7 on the Billboard national charts but his only UK hit would be 1960’s ‘Another Sleepless Night’.
Rod Bernard – ‘This Should Go On Forever’
Born to French-speaking Cajun parents in Opelousas, Louisiana, Bernard started out performing in his Grandfather’s dancehall, the Courtableu Inn. His first performances were as a traditional Cajun musician but an early hero was Hank Williams and then he fell under the influence of New Orleans R&B, especially the brand played by another musical hero, Fats Domino, a big influence on a number of Swamp Pop artists. Bernard is considered another early pioneer of the sound; ‘This Should Go On Forever’, recorded with his band, The Twisters, became a national hit in 1959 and is a classic of the genre, with its sax driven vamping over a walking country guitar riff, backed by very Fats style piano playing.
Tommy McLain – ‘Before I Grow Too Old’
Finally, I bring you a man who not only helped to establish the genre of Swamp Pop but is still keeping the fires burning as an 80-year-old, regularly out on the road, when such things are allowed, with his Mule Train Band. Tommy McLain first performed in the early 1950s, often in tandem with Clint West, and he was a member of West’s Boogie Kings at one point. A successful recording artist, songwriter and actor he remains an important and relevant artist to this day. His song, ‘Don’t Make Me Leave New Orleans’ is considered one of the finest ballads written in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster and his version of ‘Before I Grow Too Old’ was one of Lily Allen’s Desert Island Discs when she appeared on the programme.