Bayou Underground: Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Musicby Dave Thompson
The Bayou is a World of Its Own-a marshy, sometimes treacherous, oftentimes sinister land of creeping darkness and living shadows, secret legends and vivid mythology. It is that darkness and those shadows that permeate Bayou Underground, a headfirst plunge into the music, the mystery and the magic of life and lore away from the bright lights of big city New Orleans
The Bayou is a World of Its Own-a marshy, sometimes treacherous, oftentimes sinister land of creeping darkness and living shadows, secret legends and vivid mythology. It is that darkness and those shadows that permeate Bayou Underground, a headfirst plunge into the music, the mystery and the magic of life and lore away from the bright lights of big city New Orleans.
Bayou Underground explores the music of the region through the legends and rumors that created it in the first place. From the House of the Rising Sun to the legend of Stagger Lee, from Marie Laveau to the axman who loved hot jazz, Bayou Underground unearths the people and the cultures that have called the bayou home, revisiting their words and lives through the music of so many rock outsiders. Bo Diddley, Nick Cave and Alice Cooper pass through the pages to document past history, or creat a new one. It is the world of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jerry Reed and Elvis Presley; it is the music of Dr. John, Joe Satriani and the Oak Grove Swamp Fox.
Part social history, part epic travelogue and partly a lament for a way of life that has now all but disappeared, Bayou Underground is the gripping story of American music's forgotten childhood and the parentage it barely even knows about, seen through the emotions, dreams and enchantments that the bayou instills in all of us.
"In this part travelog, part music history, and part personal reminiscence, prolific rock writer Thompson . . . conjures up images of a mythical Louisiana. He uses 18 rock ’n’ roll songs as a backdrop to weave a tale of voodoo queens, riverboats, swamps, crocodiles, prostitutes, and pirates." Library Journal
"A head-long dive into the music and culture of New Orleans and its environs . . . Bayou Underground unlocks secrets and back-stories worth savoring." Wall Street Journal Online
"Kind of like listening to a good album for the first time; the paths taken may surprise you." antimusic.com
"An intriguing folklore travelogue . . . the focus is on the filter through which writers (sometimes thousands of miles away) view the southern states of the US. This neatly illustrates the far-reaching impact that New Orleans continues to have on the wider music community." Record Collector
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Read an Excerpt
Tracing the Mythical Roots of American Popular Music
By Dave Thompson, Jen Hale
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2010 Dave Thompson
All rights reserved.
"Promised Land" by Elvis Presley from the LP Promised Land (RCA) 1975
"Swamp rock" is a horrible term, but every time I attempted to explain to friends what this book was about (friends, that is, who actually care enough about their music to try to slap intellectual labels on it) someone always stopped me halfway through my explanation, raised a hand and then pronounced knowledgeably, "Ah, you mean swamp rock."
To me, swamp rock has always sounded like something that was bred by the Cramps in the sewers of late seventies New York City, nurtured by the Gun Club, obsessed on by the psychobilly movement and last seen heading towards Japan, where all the musical dinosaurs seem to flourish forever.
I suppose, if I was to pause for a moment, I could conceive of another definition — but after 30 years spent writing about rock and pop in all of their most fashionable guises, I'd had enough of labels for a while, and wanted to try my hand at something else ... a musical style that wasn't simply indefinable in general terms, it probably only existed in my own imagination.
Even with the headphones on, and a homemade CD pumping mud through my bloodstream, I struggled to discern any coherent musical thread that united Alice Cooper screaming "Black Juju" and Nick Cave lionizing the killer "Stagger Lee," between the Sensational Alex Harvey Band celebrating "Amos Moses" and Creedence Clearwater Revival hearing something through the grapevine. Add a little Robert Johnson to the brew ... but only because I couldn't find my tape of Wild Willy Barrett doing "Me and the Devil Blues," a jag of Juicy Lucy and a generous helping of Sinead O'Connor, and the picture became murkier by the moment.
Except it also became clearer, because the songs I was selecting had nothing to do with any musical style — real, invented or even imagined. They were a mindset, a state of being that existed somewhere between a road map and a ghost story, between the lies that the tourist guides tell out-of-towners, and the truths that they won't even tell themselves. And, if you could then distil that mindset down to one single fragment of recognizable reality, it would probably look a lot like a swamp. Which rocks.
So, swamp rock?
But not in the way that my well-meaning friends meant.
In 1983, rocker Johnnie Allan described swamp rock, its history, mystery and convoluted development, thus. "It's the musicians who make the sound different. Those guys, Jivin' Gene, T. K. Hulin — virtually all of them speak French and some of them played in French accordion bands just like I did. Consequently, I think we all kept part of this French-Cajun music ingrained in us; you can detect it, something of a Cajun flavor in the song."
For Allan, that flavor erupted out of what is still his best-known recording, an ingenious rewiring of Chuck Berry's "Promised Land," which sounds as fresh and exciting today as it did when he cut it in 1964. Born in Rayne, Louisiana, and a steel guitarist before he started rocking, Allan has been credited with being the first to mash the mutant new genre — for that's what rock 'n' roll was back then — with anything approaching a traditional form, and he did it with such an air of insouciance that it's easy to believe he didn't even think about it. He just took the music he loved and the music he loved to play and married them together across one of Chuck's most endearing three-chord travelogues, and every great version of the song to have come along since then owes something or other to Johnnie Allan's prototype.
All except for one of them.
In 1983, journalist Bill Miller traced the birth of swamp rock ... or swamp-pop or Cajun rock or Bayou beat, as sundry other critics termed the sound, narrowing it down to the 400 miles of highway that stretch from Port Arthur, Texas, to New Orleans, and which are fringed almost every step of the way by the tiny towns and villages whose local music scene developed down such secret byways that, only when all the component parts were placed together, could anything even remotely resembling unity be discerned.
Miller wrote, "There are Lake Charles and Ville Platte, the home of Floyd Soileau's Jin and Swallow labels; Abbeville, where Bobby Charles lives in hermit-like seclusion; Crowley, where Jay Miller recorded the finest Excello blues, and such outposts of swampland as the aptly named Cut Off, Joe Barry's home."
So that's what Bill Miller said swamp rock was, and we have no reason at all to argue. He's right. In fact, if you want to dig even deeper, you can increase the banquet another hundredfold.
Early Elvis Presley and the Sun Records label clash with Joe Falcon, who made the first ever Cajun records back in the late 1920s. Fats Domino and Warren Storm. Earl King, whose "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," said Dr. John, "is a classic South Louisiana two-chord — E-flat, B-flat — slow ballad." And, back in 1969, with the swamp rock term first coming into fashionable play in the pages of the music press, record producer Jerry Wexler explained it to Billboard in a way that left it even more up in the air than before:
It is the Southern sound! R & B played by Southern whites! It is up from Corpus Christi, Thibodaux, Florence, Tupelo, Helena, Tuscaloosa, Memphis! It is the flowering of the new Southern life style! It is Duane Allman [...] It is Southern rhythm sections made up of young country cats that began with Hawkshaw Hawkins and turned left behind Ray Charles and [Bobby] "Blue" Bland. It is Joe South and his great gift of melody, and the lowest-tuned guitar this side of "Pop" Staples. It is the spirit of Willie Morris, born in the Delta, schooled in Texas, and arrived on the literary scene in New York as editor of Harper's at 32, and who, with Faulkner, calls the black people of his home his kin.
It's country funk. The Byrds put something in it, Ray Charles added a lot. It's a pound of R & B, and an ounce or three of country. The music has Cajun swamp miasma, a touch of Longhair's New Orleans blues rumba, some of Taj's recreations or Cow Cow Davenport's buck dance thing. It has been shaped by Otis Redding's horn thinking, Steve Cropper's and Reggie Young's and Chips Moman's fantastic section guitar work — part lead and part rhythm on the same tune.
It has Tommy Cogbill's structured variations of the rhapsodic Motown bass lines. It has Roger Hawkins' gut-stirring, beautiful snare hit. Jim Stewart and Rick Hall and Chips and Tom Dowd picked up where Sam Phillips left off and poured it into Sam & Dave and Clarence Carter. It's a lot of gospel changes and very, very rarely 12-bar blues. It's not rockabilly, either, but the echoes of early Sun are there. Ghosts of beginning Elvis and Cash and Vincent. Listen to 'Suspicious Minds' live, with the Sweets backing Elvis, and that's definitely it.
And listen to Elvis' "Promised Land," recorded in December 1973 at the Stax Studios in Memphis, and that's definitely "it" as well. Indeed, listen to anything Elvis sang in the mid1950s, when he was still young and hungry, the late 1960s, when he was bored with everything else, and the early 1970s, when he really did wake up for a while, and it's irrelevant what the material's like, he imbues it with that same breath regardless. So it doesn't matter how much I wanted to talk about Tony Joe White, the Oak Grove Swamp Fox, the subject kept coming back round to Elvis.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. Half the civilized world would never have heard of Tony Joe if it wasn't for Elvis recording his "Polk Salad Annie," and we might never have heard of Elvis either, if it wasn't for the Louisiana Hayride, and who cares if you needed to hitch all the way up to Shreveport to see him perform there.
A televised festival of country, pop and proto-rock, the first Hayride was staged in 1948, the last in 1960, but in between times it kicked out a wave of talent that the Opry and the Ozark Jubilee could only dream of. For while they all showcased established stars, the Hayride made room for the up'n'comers as well — Elvis was still an unknown teenager the first time he appeared, in 1954, pushing his debut single to a markedly lukewarm response. But just a year later he was back, and things were a little different by then.
Tony Joe never played the Hayride; it was way before his time. He was just a kid when Elvis made his debut, a 13-year-old glued to the TV screen in Oak Grove, Louisiana, way up in the top right corner of the state — which places it even farther away from the best of the swamps as it did from the Hayride itself. But when the Gods of Rock History looked around for someone to blame for swamp rock, Tony Joe White's name was on the tip of everyone's tongue, which makes it all the more odd that we keep coming back to Elvis. The boy barely made it out of Memphis, after all; and, by the time he got round to cutting "Promised Land," he'd rarely make it out again.
So how come it's so damned good?
Because Elvis had stopped giving a shit, that's why. He didn't care what his record label said, he didn't care what the Colonel told him. On a bad day, and there were a lot of those, he didn't even care what his fans might think. But on a good day, the days when he remembered who and what he used to be, he shrugged all the bullshit and rubbish aside, and simply let rip like he knew he could. Sequestered at the Stax Studios in Memphis in the weeks before Christmas, with James Burton on guitar and David Briggs on organ, J. D. Sumner leading the chorus and Felton Jarvis on the boards, Presley literally seethed, spitting out a road map and laying his entire reputation on the line.
And why? Because he could; and, because every journey has to set out from somewhere, ours begins where Elvis' ended, 272 miles north of where we intended to start it, in Memphis, Tennessee. Highway 61 hits there, after all, and that's the road that we want to take, but it's something more than that as well. For, wherever you stand in the city, it's more or less a straight umbilical cord to the heart of Lauderdale Courts.
We are Mr. and Mrs. Author, as the owner of a Thibodaux motel renamed us when he learned of our quest. Dave and Amy to our friends. But you won't be seeing too much of us here. I hate those books where the traveling penman stops in every town to indulge in fascinating conversation with picaresque locals, whom he paints in your mind's eye like the cast of a prime-time sitcom: old Fred with the snaggletooth and a memory the length of the Arkansas River; Mrs. Wiggins at the grocery store, who can't tell you much about the reasons you came here, but knows everything else about everyone in town; Jacques, the weather-beaten Creole whose last nerve was shattered when the government built a cell phone tower three miles from his perimeter fence.
These people exist: I know because we met them. But you probably won't, mainly because very few of them really seemed that excited about having themselves preserved in print. They weren't hostile about it — nobody leaped from their seat and flounced out of the room, uttering dire imprecations and a pox upon my laptop — but, like the apocryphal fellow we met a few pages back, there was a very definite sense that they'd told me all I needed to know, and if you need directions, maybe you don't have any business going there.
Not everyone was reluctant, of course; in fact, some were encyclopedias, not only about their own lives, but a host of others as well. People like Calvin Newborn, for example, who is the reason we stopped in Memphis in the first place, and the reason why we even cared to look up Lauderdale Courts on the atlas.
We were lucky to find it; not because of any in-built obscurity — with the obvious exception of Graceland, Lauderdale Courts is the Memphis home where Elvis Presley lived the longest, from September 1949 to January 1953 — but because it very nearly fell prey to the wrecking ball.
In the mid-1990s, Presley's teenage home was scheduled for demolition, doubtless to make way for something really exciting that every city needs so badly, like condos or car parks. It took the concerted efforts of Memphis Heritage (a preservation organization), the City of Memphis, a couple of developers and a whole raft of fans to hold off the demolition squad — but Lauderdale Courts today stands proudly on the National Register of Historic Places, in its shiny new guise of Uptown Square. It remains a long way from anything that the Presleys would have recognized, but still the guides can point to the spot and tell you straight. That's where Ma and Pa Presley, Grace and Vernon, were living when their boy hit 16, desperately poor, but somehow always able to find the money to buy their precious son the most expensive gifts. Elvis, it is said, was regularly stuffed with all the food that he wanted, and even provided with silver table utensils. He might have been living in one of the direst housing projects in northeast Memphis, but when Elvis sat down to eat, he could have been dining with royalty.
His address, Apartment 328 at 185 Winchester Street, Memphis, Tennessee, certainly raised eyebrows amongst the Presleys' white friends. If it wasn't quite the ghetto, it was as near as you could get to it, and Earl Greenwood, Elvis' second cousin, once remembered his mother asking why the Memphis Housing Authority "couldn't place them [the Presleys] with their own kind," and adding, "I just hope our neighbors don't find out."
Elvis himself suffered even crueler taunts, both for his address — which, of course, he couldn't do much about — and for his appearance — which he could have, if he'd cared. He had recently got a new haircut, a strange lacquer-laden helmet-shaped job that sat precariously on his head, looking for all the world as though it were something he balanced there when he left the house every morning. Of course his classmates teased him about it, and usually he'd suffer their mockery in silence.
One day, though, another boy told him that the reason he lived on Winchester Street in the first place was because "he was so weird that only the niggers will let you live near them." Then he warned everybody else not to get too close. "Who knows what we'll catch?"
Elvis lashed out, in sheer fury, he later apologized, for the first time in his life. His tormenter went flying, a geyser of blood gushing from his nose and lip, and if the other kids hadn't stopped the brawl, who knows what Elvis would have done? Parted from his victim, however, Elvis merely patted that peculiar hair down and walked casually away. No one ever said anything about his address again.
Elvis' life at this time revolved around the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, probably the only organization at Hume High that hadn't objected to his hairstyle. Even the football team refused to let him try out unless he got it cut. He laughed them off, and though he was still considered "weird," now there was a buzz of respect going around. Elvis might not have had much going for him, but what he had he made certain he kept — and that included that helmet-shaped hairstyle.
He was also dressing in a way that few people around him even pretended to understand. He seemed to be a permanent fixture around the neighborhood thrift stores, thumbing through piles of discarded old clothes looking for anything that would catch the eye, and the gaudier the better. Resplendent in his newfound outfit, he would then strut proudly down the street, a startling blur of green and pink, stripe and polka dot. And, though he was staring straight ahead, apparently oblivious to everything around him, through the corner of each eye he would be reveling in the reaction he inspired, the shocked second glances he drew from the people he passed.
A regular haunt was Lansky Brothers, on Beale Street. It was the best, and by far the hippest, clothes store in the whole of Memphis, and, for Elvis, Lansky's was heaven on earth, rack after rack of vulgar, wildly tailored clothing. He couldn't afford to buy anything, of course, but it was fun simply looking, and besides, Gladys was a genius seamstress. Always ready to indulge her baby, Elvis could have come home with rags, and she'd have turned them into a three-piece suit. The only cloud on her horizon, as she repaired the gaping holes a previous owner had left in Elvis' latest lurid jacket, came when she thought of the places he went when he wore these clothes.
The Ellis Auditorium stood five blocks south from Winchester Street, and, the moment he turned 16, Elvis would hike down there whenever he could, to take in the gospel shows that lasted from eight until midnight. The shows were as riotous as Elvis' clothes; indeed, that was probably where he first heard of Lansky's, standing painfully amongst the swaying, cheering, chanting crowds at the auditorium, vicariously aware that no matter how outlandishly he was dressed, the guy standing next to him was even wilder.
It was the music that moved him the most, though. "There's no other sound like it," Elvis once said. "It's sung from the soul, deep down, the way you're s'posed to. The best music is the kind you feel."
Excerpted from Bayou Underground by Dave Thompson, Jen Hale. Copyright © 2010 Dave Thompson. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Dave Thompson is the author of more than 100 books on rock, cinema, and pop culture, including I Hate New Music, London Burning, Never Fadeway, and Smoke on the Water. He lives in Newark, Delaware.
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