Browse through the "Blues" folder in America Online and you'll find the usual suspects - Fabulous Thunderbirds, Dr. John, the Vaughan brothers. Some folders feature generic subjects, such as "South Florida Blues News," "San Francisco Bay Blues," and "Blues Festivals." But one of the most-posted folders is an odd little sub-genre called "Cajun, Zydeco and Swamp Pop," and its popularity - when Big Mama Thornton's file got zapped for lack of activity - is astonishing.
The folder's success is due in no small part to a Lafayette, Louisiana writer named Shane K. Bernard, who has all the right genes. His father is Rod Bernard, whose version of "This Should Go on Forever" is considered to be among the very best of the swamp pop hits. The younger Bernard has taken considerable pains to clearly distinguish Cajun music from zydeco, and include the rather mysterious genre known as swamp pop.
Part of the enigma of swamp pop is the origin of its name. The term was coined by British writer John Broven, who was dumbfounded to find there was no name for the music he traveled to America to document in the early Seventies. It was true; from the mid-Fifties when Bill Haley followed "Rock Around the Clock" with "See You Later Alligator," written by Abbeville's Bobby Charles, a unique sound from Southwestern Louisiana created national hits that have become out-and-out classics of rock & roll.
But Bernard defines swamp pop as a "sister genre of Cajun and zydeco music," the strange amalgam of "rhythm & blues and country & western and - most importantly - Cajun and black Creole elements." His distinction is crucial because while Cajun and zydeco are misused interchangably, swamp pop is still fighting to be recognized, and all three often get lumped in erroneously with New Orleans' music. Once you can settle on a basic definition - Bernard's is a good start - the next issue gets raised: Is swamp pop more authentically black Creole or white Cajun? Rock, pop, or blues? Derivative and imitative, or original hybrid? For a sound that is simple by nature, its musical politics are complex, a point best illustrated by the clause in zydeco performer Buckwheat's contract: "...Please do not use the word Cajun in connection with Buck or zydeco music. Cajuns are the `white' descendants of the original French settlers of Nova Scotia.... Buckwheat, and all the French speaking black people of Southwestern Louisiana refer to themselves as `Creole.'...refer to zydeco as `Creole Dance Music' or `Louisiana's hottest music' ...but not Cajun music."
Swamp pop, then, may be best illustrated by the durability of its anthems: Jivin' Gene's "Breaking Up Is Hard to Do," Tommy McLain's "Sweet Dreams," Cookie & the Cupcakes' "Matilda," Johnnie Allen's "South to Louisiana," Guitar Gable & the Swing Masters with King Karl's "Congo Mombo," Jimmy Clanton's "Just a Dream," Rod Bernard's "This Should Go on Forever," and Warren Storm's "Prisoner's Song." These were black and white artists coexisting in the pre-Civil Rights Movement in the South, bound by a love of music. It was, however, an almost exclusively male genre; the few female names include Grace Broussard of Dale & Grace's "Leaving It Up to You" and Barbara "You'll Lose a Good Thing" Lynn. And, interestingly, Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and "Before the Next Teardrop Falls" are 100 percent swamp pop. A Texas-born Chicano, Fender cut his teeth playing the South Louisiana circuit.
Like all trends in music, swamp pop's stars were destined to fade eventually. Its heyday was over by the mid-Sixties, and make-out standards like "Sea of Love" and "Got You on My Mind" were replaced by British rock that changed not just music but fashion. (Interestingly, an East Texan named Edgar Winter drafted a number of ex-Boogie Kings in the late Sixties and revamped their horn-heavy blue-eyed soul into his very successful White Trash band.) Still, a tightly knit circuit - stretching through most of the 22 parishes of Cajun Country and into East Texas but centered around Lafayette where bands like Kenny & the Jokers, Rod Bernard & the Twisters, and the Boogie Kings once ruled - supported those bands long after their music was passé, and swamp pop languished (save the freak popularity of Freddy Fender's Seventies re-release of his earlier hits). Those who had basked in the warm glow of fame in the Fifties and Sixties found haven in the Seventies and Eighties at clubs and motel lounges around Lake Charles and Lafayette, places that offer the best in swamp pop even today.
And as music kept evolving, what was old became new again. By the Nineties, swamp pop was officially being acknowledged and noted as a distinctive sound and influence. Jukeboxes all through Southwestern Louisiana still carry those titles, and radio shows such as Paul Marx's "Louisiana Music Show" on KJEF in Jennings highlight the songs and players. Meanwhile, as bands like the Bluerunners inject zydeco into rock & roll, ex-Boogie King G.G. Shinn has opened a swamp pop club in Lake Charles, and reclusive swamp pop godfather Bobby Charles released a critically acclaimed record this summer, not to mention a flurry of reissues and collections: Cookie & the Cupcakes, By Request (Jin); Various Artists, Another Saturday Night (Ace [UK]); Eddie's House of Hits: The Story of Goldband Records (Ace [UK]); Lafayette Saturday Night (Ace [UK]); Louisiana Swamp Pop (Flyright [UK]); Sound of the Swamp: The Best of Excello Records, Vol. 1 (Rhino); Swamp Gold, Vols. 1-4 (Jin). Also moving the genre into a new age is a young white Louisiana roots-rocker named C.C. Adcock, who recently brought the ailing Rod Bernard out of retirement and reunited black Creole swamp popper Guitar Gable with his one-time partner King Karl for the first time in 35 years.
Shane Bernard closed his America Online account when he transferred to A&M a couple of months ago, but the folder still buzzes. And, now he's taken it one step further: Swamp pop is alive and well with its own page on the Internet. For a sound that is virtually extinct, swamp pop's legacy is unmistakable. n [C.C.Adcock will be performing at Antone's Saturday, October 14, with swamp pop legends King Karl and Guitar Gable. For swamp pop on the Net: http://tam2000.tamu.edu/~skb8721/swamp.html]
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