In my recent little trawl through the Americana music of Louisiana we’ve had Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop so, finally, we come to a close cousin, Swamp Rock. Swamp Rock started to be identified as a musical trend in the late 1960s and early 70s, as the Swamp Pop of the 50s became influenced by the harder, guitar-driven sound of the ‘British Invasion’ of the States, started by the Beatles.
Swamp Rock owes less to Louisiana and South East Texas than its predecessors because wider influences were coming into play; apart from the British Beat Boom the most notable of the local influences was the soul music coming out of places like Memphis and Georgia. There was also a healthier infusion of country blues than had been incorporated in the previous genres – but you can still hear the Cajun rhythms, along with the influence of New Orleans R&B, in many of the best Swamp Rock songs and some major Swamp Rock artists, like Mac Rebennack/Dr. John and Tony Joe White hailed from Cajun country. Unlike Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop, you didn’t need to have your roots in the Louisiana swamplands to be accepted in Swamp Rock circles and many of the more well-known bands associated with the genre had never been within a few hundred miles of Bayou country. John Fogerty, through Creedence Clearwater Revival and, later, as a solo artist, built a distinct sound and a very successful musical career on an association with Swamp Rock, despite hailing from Riverside County in California, just over 2,000 miles from the Louisiana swamplands!
There is a romance about a lot of Swamp Rock that is, perhaps, something of a hangover from Swamp Pop and a little at odds with the harsher realities of the songs of purer Cajun and Zydeco artists – life in the bayou is not all about fishing for catfish and drinking moonshine whisky – but the better songs still have quite a dark edge and a number of the acts associated with Swamp Rock incorporated political and social commentary into their songs, reflecting the dissatisfaction of the youth of the time with the American establishment and often showing an early appreciation for preserving the swampland environment.
Pull on your wellies, douse yourself in DDT and watch out for Alligators – we’re heading for the swamp….
Dale Hawkins – ‘Oh! Suzy- Q’
Is this where it all started? ‘Suzy Q’ is the song often held up as being the first Swamp Rock single. Delmar Allen “Dale” Hawkins was born in St Mary Parish, Louisiana, deep in Cajun country, in 1936 and made his first recording twenty years later. He was an early adopter of Swamp Pop, mixing rockabilly guitar with Cajun melodies, but Hawkins wanted to bring in more of the blues he heard from the Creole communities around him (though credited to Hawkins his composition “borrows” heavily from a song of the same name by bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson). ‘Oh! Suzy-Q’ (also known as just ‘Susie Q’) was recorded in 1957 and was considered part of the Swamp Pop movement at the time but you can hear it has that harder edge and a stronger guitar sound than other Swamp Pop releases of the period. It’s probably no coincidence that stronger sounding guitar is being played by a young James Burton. Creedence Clearwater Revival covered it for their debut album and also released it as a single. Despite its length (8mins 37secs on the album – cut into parts 1 & II for the single A & B sides), it is, famously, their only Top Forty singles success not written by Fogerty himself.
Tony Joe White – ‘Undercover Agent for The Blues’
For me, no one artist symbolises Swamp Rock more than the late, great Tony Joe White. I make no apologies for being a major fanboy when it comes to the songwriting and guitar playing of this pioneering Louisiana musician, though his work is often better known for the covers than for his own original recordings. The man who wrote ‘Polk Salad Annie’, ‘A Rainy Night in Georgia’, ‘Steamy Windows’, ‘Undercover Agent for the Blues’ and many more great songs, Tony Joe White was a leading light of Swamp Rock and you can feel that clinging heat and humidity in his songs, delivered in that slow, southern drawl. White signed his first recording deal in 1967 and was still going strong right up to his final album release in 2018 (he died from a sudden heart attack a few months after the record came out). He never changed his music to suit the fashions of the time and stayed true to his Swamp Rock sound all the way through his career.
Creedence Clearwater Revival – ‘Born on the Bayou’
When it comes to Swamp Rock this band would probably be the first outfit that came to mind for most music fans. Ironic then, that the band weren’t first discovered singing authentic swamp blues in some Louisiana Juke Joint but came from the San Francisco Bay area and started out as a chart covers band under the name of The Blue Velvets, with older Fogerty brother Tom fronting the band as lead vocalist. The Swamp Rock sound of CCR was always John Fogerty’s vision and he pursued his ambitions for the band relentlessly – Fogerty’s own book, ‘Fortunate Son’, is remarkably honest about his obsession and the history of what is still, rightly, remembered as a great band; a highly recommended read.
Little Feat – ‘Fat Man in The Bathtub’
Probably the band that incorporated more of that New Orleans funk and R&B in their sound than most, Little Feat are another Swamp Rock band originating out of California, rather than the swamplands themselves but lead guitarist and principal songwriter, Lowell George, was always in thrall to the sounds of the Crescent City. Famously sacked from Zappa’s Mothers of Invention for writing a song with drug references (‘Willin’’ – though Zappa has said it was just an excuse to get George out and fronting his own band) the band that George went on to form and lead became one of the great melting pots of southern music, drawing heavily on country, folk, blues, soul, swamp pop and R&B to create their signature sound.
Dr John – ‘Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya’
Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. has to be one of the most iconic figures of the New Orleans music scene of the 20th century. In his persona as Dr John, The Night Tripper, he brewed up a complex stew of blues, jazz, funk and swamp pop rhythms that left people stunned when he released his debut ‘Gris Gris’ album in 1968 – no-one had ever heard anything quite like it before. Drawing heavily on New Orleans Voodoo culture, the character of Dr. John was originally created, by Rebennack, as a performance vehicle for his friend and fellow musician Ronnie Barron. Luckily for Mac, Barron decided to pass on the project and he was forced to assume the identity of Dr. John himself. The rest, as they say, is history.
Delaney & Bonnie – ‘Lonesome and a Long Way from Home’
Accenting the “blue-eyed soul” aspect of Swamp Rock, husband and wife duo, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, were often better known for some of the people who passed through their “Friends” band than for their music. That’s a shame because this duo produced some fine music, as evidenced by this great cut from their 1971 album, ‘Motel Shot’, co-written with another Swamp Rock legend, Leon Russell. Delaney was an accomplished guitarist from Mississippi who had been an L.A session musician. Bonnie, born in Granite City, Illinois, had been a professional singer from the age of 14 and was the first white Ikette in the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. Musicians who, at one time or another, played with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends famously included Eric Clapton and George Harrison but also both Allman brothers, Leon Russell, Dave Mason, Rita Coolidge and even Gram Parsons along with a host of others. Sadly the band never really managed to transfer the excitement of their live shows to their recordings and finally broke up in 1972 after just five years as an active unit.
Redbone – ‘Wovoka’
Probably best known for their single ‘Witch Queen of New Orleans’, celebrating the legendary Voodoo Priestess, Marie Laveau, Redbone were another Swamp Rock band that originated out of California. Fronted by brothers Pat and Lolly Vegas, the band took their name from a Cajun term for a native American of mixed race, the Vegas brothers being of mixed Yaqui, Shoshone and Mexican heritage. The band was completed by drummer Peter DePoe, who claimed Southern Cheyenne and Chippewa ancestry and lead guitarist and keyboard player Tony Bellamy (born Robert Anthony Avila) also of Yaqui and Mexican decent. They’re credited as being the first Native American Rock Band to have singles success in the U.S.
Lucinda Williams – ‘Crescent City’
This’ll be an inclusion that will raise a few eyebrows but while Swamp Rock, as a genre, peaked in the seventies, I’d contend that its spirit still abounds in a lot of modern Alt-Country. Lucinda Williams was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the heart of the swamplands and the influence of Cajun music is clear to hear in many of her songs and especially on this track, her tribute to the Crescent City of New Orleans.
Ray Wylie Hubbard – ‘Choctaw Bingo’
Ray Wylie Hubbard is another current artist whose music owes more than a little to the sounds of Swamp Rock. Born in Soper, Oklahoma his family relocated to Dallas, Texas when he was eight years old, so his music has become heavily influenced by the sounds of his adopted State. While the bulk of his music probably leans more to Country and Blues than Swamp Rock, on tracks like this and the ever popular ‘Snake Farm’ you can hear those rhythms of the swamp starting to creep through.
JJ Grey & Mofro – ‘Country Ghetto’
We end this trawl through the swamps with one of the newer names to be associated with Swamp Rock. This band is the project initially launched by John Higginbotham, aka JJ Grey, and fellow Jacksonville, Florida native Daryl Hance, as Mofro Magic. Combining their love of rock and funk the band, renamed as JJ Grey and Mofro, celebrate the swamplands of Florida and their music often reflects on the changing landscape and the impact of industrial development on the natural beauty of the region and the lives of the people that live there.
That concludes this short series of features about the music influenced by Cajun and Creole cultures, but the interest they’ve attracted has convinced us there’s plenty of love out there for this music, so we’ll be re-visiting Cajun country from time to time in our upcoming ‘Cajun Corner’ spots. Remember – Keep it Cajun!