Tony Joe White, Swamp Rock Legend, Dies at 75

A look back at the man who introduced us to polk salad

Homemade Ice Cream on 8-track

Once, some friends of mine went to Carol’s Pub, the renowned country bar in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Recounting the night later, one guy mentioned that he asked the honky-tonk band to play “Polk Salad Annie.” (They knew it, and played it.)

Another person naively asked why he would ask the band at a country bar to play “Polk Salad Annie” in the first place.

The first person said that EVERY bar band knew “Polk Salad Annie,” but I didn’t let that slide. I told person #2 that this song was one of those tunes that happened to be rock, soul, and country simultaneously. The second guy said, “okay, okay, I don’t need a lecture!” While I didn’t want to geek out on him, he certainly would have gotten a lecture from me after that statement.

As a Tony Joe White fan I knew that his music had that kind of cross-genre appeal. You don’t have to be a musicologist to hear that. Between the funky backbeat and the down-home lyrics, well, that’s the soul and country fields taken care of right there. And this is the kind of thing that rock bands pillage for inspiration and cover material all the time. Something for everybody. So the honky-tonk band knew this song? Why should this be surprising? On YouTube, there is a 1970 clip of Tony Joe on Johnny Cash’s TV show, duetting with Johnny on “Polk Salad Annie.” Johnny sounds very comfortable with the funky rhythms, and might have done a decent version himself. Neither man sounds out of their depth; this is country-soul at the root.

White, who died of a heart attack on October 25, was considered to be at the forefront of a genre called swamp-rock. His lone Top 40 hit, “Polk Salad Annie” (1969), crossed Delta blues with rockabilly and James Brown funk. His gift as a songwriter led others to cover his songs – Brook Benton had a major hit in 1970 with “Rainy Night In Georgia,” Elvis Presley himself covered “I Got A Thing About You Baby” (as well as “Polk Salad Annie”). Others had that same sound during the same time frame: Bobbie Gentry (whom White said was a major influence), Jim Ford, Joe South, Kelly Gordon and Travis Wammack all had that same Delta-fried sound. However, White was not a third-stringer in a genre of many. His numerous albums showed that he handled this rock-soul-country fusion like a boss. White was not afraid to be tastelessly funny, nor reluctant to repeat himself, either – several of his best songs sounded like “Polk Salad Annie, Part Two.” Even though he had a definite groove, he could still switch it up at the right moments.

Here are some of his finest moments on wax and otherwise:

 

 

 

Black & White and …Continued (1969)

These two albums more or less introduced White to the world in 1969, although a few random 45s preceded both. Black & White includes “Polk Salad Annie,” plus a few other self-penned tunes like “Soul Francisco” (his tribute to the hippie movement) and “Willie & Laura Mae Jones,” which was later covered by Dusty Springfield and Waylon Jennings. (The entire second side was given over to cover versions of songs he performed during his live set, like “Who’s Making Love,” “Baby Scratch My Back,” and “Wichita Lineman.”) The second album, …Continued, was entirely original, and showed that White was a talent to contend with. Contains his original version of “Rainy Night In Georgia.” (These two albums, plus his third, Tony Joe, were later combined in a four-disc box called Swamp Music. In addition to the three albums, the set includes a live set, a few non-album 45s, plus various odds and ends that are just as good as the released material.)

 

 

 

Tony Joe White (1970) and The Train I’m On (1971)

While these LPs have an unflashy production similar to the singer-songwriters Warners was signing at the time, at no time does Tony Joe fool you into thinking he was James Taylor. While the swamp sound is still in full effect, the songs seem more introspective than previously. Quirkier, too: the spoken bit on “The Change,” and the first recorded version of “Even Trolls Love Rock & Roll.”

 

 

The Real Thang (1980)

Short version: BUY THIS ALBUM. Long version: this is the Tony Joe White record that might have scared away any would-be fans, just from sizing up the cover. It’s on Casablanca, which was just wrapping up a slew of disco-million sellers. Sure enough, there’s a song called “Disco Blues,” which appeared one year after the whole craze had died down. He even gets in on the ground floor of an emerging trend with “Swamp Rap,” which proves that hip-hop did make it to the bayou that early. Combine this with a soft-focus shot of Mr. White on either side of the album sleeve, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a cocked attempt to ride the trends. However, this comeback attempt is TJW at his funkiest and funniest. The single was “I Get Off On It,” which was a hilarious look at S&M, semi-naked flashers, tobacco chewers, cross-dressers, and a woman who loves to eat candy bars during sex. Other highlights: “Mama, Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Babies” (featuring guitar and background vocals from Waylon Jennings), remakes of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Even Trolls Love Rock & Roll,” plus “Redneck Women,” who Tony Joe praised for wearing “disco sucks” T-shirts. Which brings us around to “Disco Blues,” which is a million times better than the title would lead you to believe. It starts with a John Lee Hooker-ish boogie beat, then switches into something funkier, but at no time lapses into a plastic four-on-the-four groove. This is still Tony Joe White we’re talking about here. (Also worth checking out: Live From  Austin, TX, a live set on New West which documents his appearance on the Austin City Limits program around the same time.)

 

 

Dangerous (1983)

By this time he’d moved to the Columbia label, where they tried to market him as a country singer. Odd, considering he’d gone on record as stating he wasn’t a country fan at all. As with the would-be disco album, this is yet another brilliant swamp-rock record. While the tone is slightly more urbane (with quite a few love songs), he’s not afraid to let his eccentric side show with “Do You Have A Garter Belt,” another John Lee Hooker-ish boogie with lyrics that only TJW could pull off (“I ain’t kinky, baby, but I know what I like”). There’s also a re-recording of “Swamp Rap,” just in case you didn’t hear him the first time.

 

 

 

One Hot July (1999) and The Beginning (2000)

Tony Joe had been really active during the last couple of decades. The resurgence more or less started with these albums. One Hot July was released on Mercury, The Beginning was on his own Swamp label. Neither one attempted to ride any bandwagons – it was just the slow-burning sound of Tony Joe’s voice and guitar. Brilliant moment: during “Rich Woman Blues,” where Tony Joe White manages to use the clunky five-syllable word “condominium” and make it work.

 

Tony Joe White was a consistent artist and there are several great records I haven’t mentioned. As I sit here ruminating on his genius, I am reminded of R.L. Burnside, the Delta blues musician who had a spell of popularity in the 90s. I was privileged to jam with R.L. at a folk festival workshop in 1994. Myself on harmonica, a couple of other people (including a bluegrass musician) and R.L. himself on guitars. All of us sitting in a circle, swapping the first songs that came to mind. All of a sudden, R.L. starts in with the first bars of a familiar song that it didn’t take long to identify…”Polk Salad Annie.”

If Tony Joe could have heard this, he would have loved it. And maybe joined in with him.

Rock in power, Tony Joe.

 

 

 

 

James Porter

James Porter writes about rock & soul history. He is also a DJ on Chicago's WLUW.

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