Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser, December 29, 1998
Swamp Pop Sound Shows South Louisiana Origins
by Jim Bradshaw
The music known today as "swamp pop" began to appear during the 1950s, when young Cajun and Creole musicians began to experiment with the popular music of the day.
The result was something defined by the Encyclopedia of Cajun Culture as "a distinct rhythm and blues -- rock 'n' roll subgenre (that) combines New Orleans-style rhythm and blues, country and western, and Cajun and black Creole music."
According to the encyclopedia, "The swamp pop sound is typified by highly emotional vocals, simple, unaffected (and occasionally bilingual) lyrics, tripleting honky-tonk pianos, bellowing sax sections, and a strong rhythm and blues backbeat. Upbeat compositions often possess the bouncy rhythms of Cajun and black Creole two-steps, and their lyrics frequently convey the local color and joie de vivre spirit that pervades south Louisiana. Slow, usually melancholic swamp pop ballads ... exhibit the heart broken, what's the use of living laments common to many traditional Cajun and black Creole compositions."
The term swamp pop was coined by British music writer Bill Millar around 1970 and was popularized by John Broven in his book, "South to Louisiana: Music of the Cajun Bayous."
Shane Bernard, son of swamp pop legend Rod Bernard, wrote "Swamp Pop, Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues," the definitive text on the music. He finds the influence of Cajun and Creole music, particularly in bilingual songs such as Gene King's 1961 recording of "Little Cajun Girl" but there were other influences in the creation of swamp pop as well.
"The makers of swamp pop music describe the genre in various terms," he writes. "One might refer to it as white rhythm and blues; another as a combination of rock 'n' roll and country and western; and yet another as rockabilly with a strong blues element. A few swamp pop musicians deny the genre possesses any distinctive qualities, insisting it resembles music hailing from anywhere in the U.S. Others, however, refer to swamp pop as a blend of many influences arising in a specific geographic region ... I consider swamp pop to be a rhythm and blues hybrid that is influenced mainly by New Orleans rhythm and blues, country and western, Cajun and black Creole music, and that is indigenous to southeast Texas and the Acadiana region of south Louisiana.
"Unlike its Cajun and zydeco sister genres," he continues, "which divide along racial lines and depend strongly on folk instrumentation and francophone lyrics, swamp pop is a biracial genre that relies primarily on English lyrics and 1950s rhythm and blues instrumentation. No contrast exists between swamp pop performed by Cajuns and that performed by black Creoles. The sounds are one and the same. In fact so convincingly did Cajun swamp poppers mimic their black Creole counterparts, whom Cajuns tended to regard as superior artists and who originated the genre shortly before Cajuns adopted and contributed to the developing sound -- that many radio listeners and record consumers mistakenly regarded the Cajun swamp poppers as black performers."
In Bernard's view, there was no deliberate effort to create the distinctive swamp pop sound. Instead, he says, "Swamp pop represents the natural result of colliding cultural elements -- Cajun and Creole, black and white, French and English, rural and urban, folk and mainstream --- that coalesced on the prairies of southwestern Louisiana."
Bernard contends, "Although often misunderstood and even ignored by many enthusiasts of south Louisiana's ethnic music, swamp pop deserves recognition and preservation as the region's third major indigenous genre, along with Cajun and zydeco -- not only because it once thrived in the region and even attracted national audiences, but because it descends from traditional Cajun and black Creole sources. ... Although swamp pop is primarily a local rhythm and blues idiom, it bears the imprint of its ethnic roots and thus should be viewed not as an aberration of traditional music (as some maintain) but like Cajun and zydeco, as a positive expression of the entire Creole and black Creole experience."
Bernard and Broven reflect and report on an argument that has been on-going since swamp pop began to be recognized as a distinctive music over just what it is and what it isn't. They and others agree that though it can be argued whether it is closer to rock 'n' roll than to rhythm and blues, or vice versa, a definitive swamp pop element is its 1950s sound.
Bernard writes, "The genre evidently originated in the early 1950s among black Creoles playing a distinctive rhythm and blues style ... in largely rural and small-town south Louisiana nightclubs. Cajuns shortly adopted the sounds pioneered by their black Creole neighbors, adding strong Cajun and country and western elements. ... Besides these few minor alterations, swamp pop changed little after its adoption by Cajun swamp poppers, in fact, its stability seems to stem from the Cajuns' desire to imitate their black Creole counterparts. Swamp pop's resistance to change accounts for its retention of uniquely '50s melodies, vocal styles and instrumentation, and this conservatism in part explains the genre's ... near extinction during the ... 1960s, when most swamp pop artists refused to embrace the 'Mersey sound' of the British invasion."
Nobody knows for sure just when and where the swamp pop sound was first heard. It was probably in the early 1950s around Lake Charles, though it may have evolved simultaneously in Acadia, St. Landry, and Evangeline parishes -- an area that for years before was the center of traditional Cajun and Creole music.
Some people say the first swamp pop record was the 1959 recording of "Those Lonely Lonely Nights" by New Orleans rhythm and blues musician Earl King, who says he picked up the sound while playing in Eunice and Opelousas. But according to Bernard, "Newly found evidence suggests an even earlier birth than 1954. ... Lake Charles (record) producer Eddie Schuler has discovered contracts showing that he signed the swamp pop group the Boogie Ramblers later known as Cookie and the Cupcakes -- in July 1952. He released their first, albeit obscure, single, 'Cindy Lou/Such As Love' around 1954 or ... (probably '55). ... So while pioneer black Creole swamp poppers like Guitar Gable, ... Landry Perrodin, and L'il Bob appeared in the northern (Acadiana) prairie region during the early 1950s, other black Creole swamp poppers -- namely the highly influential Ramblers -- were active at the same time around Lake Charles, about seventy miles to the southwest."
Bernard's book contains a chart listing "Some Notable Swamp Pop Artists." It includes 71 names and is far from all-inclusive. Some of the names are Johnny Allan, Joe Barry, Rod Bernard, Joe Carl, Bobby Charles, Jimmy Clanton, Cookie Thierry, Dale Houston and Grace Broussard, Freddy Fender, John Fred, Guitar Gable, T.K. Hulin, Jivin' Gene, King Karl, L'il Bob, Little Alfred, Charles Mann, Johnny Preston, Phil Phillips, Rocky Robin, Bobby Scott, G.G. Shinn, and Warren Storm.
A list of swamp pop classics would certainly include Dale and Grace's "I'm Leaving It Up To You" (1963), a No. 1 national hit: Preston's "Running Bear" (1959), also a national chart-topper; Fender's "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" (1974), the third swamp pop record to rise to No. 1 nationally; Phillips' "Sea of Love" (1959), which recently got a new life in the movie of the same name; Clanton's "Just A Dream" (1958), which sold a million records; and such standards as "South to Louisiana" by Johnny Allan, "Mathilda" by Cookie and the Cupcakes, Tommy McLain's "Sweet Dreams" and Bernard's "This Should Go On Forever," which got him an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand television show.
Bobby Charles of Abbeville, though he never had a chart record, was also one of the most influential figures in the early development not only of swamp pop but New Orleans rhythm and blues. He wrote songs such as "Walkin' to New Orleans," which was a Fats Domino hit and Clarence Henry's "But I Do," and wrote and recorded "Later Alligator" which was recorded by Bill Haley as "See You Later, Alligator." The song became a national hit, and put a new phrase into the hip vocabulary of the time.
Copyright ©1998 by the Lafayette (LA) Daily Advertiser. Reprinted with permission.