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Offbeat Genres: Swamp Pop posted on June 17th, 2008

Pop, rock, country, classical, R&B and more: familiar genres, all with a defined set of characteristics and an undefined number of individual styles. Each of the forty songs on the Top 40 list might have been inspired from one of hundreds of different siblings in the same family, some original to the artist. With a veritable Baskin Robbins of musical genres to choose from, we thought you might like to try a few sample spoons. The first “offbeat genre” we’d like to bring you the history of Swamp Pop.

Swamp pop, created by young Cajuns and Creoles in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, is indigenous to the Acadiana region of southern Louisiana and part of nearby southeast Texas. It’s birth was influenced by New Orleans style R&B, country and western and traditional French Louisiana musical styles. The teens behind the style had grown up listening to and performing Cajun music and Creole (zydeco) as well as enjoying popular country and western hillbilly songs such as those by Hank Williams Sr. However, after discovering rock and roll and R&B artists like Elvis Presley and Fats Domino, the teens began to alter the traditional style. Rather than playing traditional folk instruments and singing in French, they began to sing in English (while later taking on Anglo-American stage names) and learned to play instruments such as the electric guitar and bass, saxophone and drum set. While many others in South Louisiana had emulated the New Orleans sound of Fats Domino and Earl King, the swampers were unique in integrating their own Cajun style into the music.

As the style grew, swamp pop artists gained a following by performing in local clubs and recording on local labels. Some swamp pop tunes also made it to larger national labels, including Nashville’s Excello. The music was then known as the Southern Louisiana Sound; the term swamp pop originated in the early ‘70’s, first used by British songwriters John Broven and Bill Millar after it’s gritty sound and the swamps surrounding Southern Louisiana. To this day, swamp pop has maintained an audience in southern Louisiana and southeast Texas, as well as a cult-like following in the UK, Northern Europe and Japan.

The swamp pop sound features a strong R&B backbeat, honky-tonk piano lines doubled by guitar and bluesy-bass progressions, and long-held whole notes on the horns. Many of the songs, with their emotional “scorned by love” lyrics are slow ballads, such as Cookie and the Cupcakes ‘Mathilda’ (1958), a song that is considered to be the anthem of swamp pop. Other songs are more upbeat, such Bobby Charles’ ‘See You Later Alligator’ (1955), which was covered by Bill Haley& His Comets. Despite the regionalized fan-base, some swamp pop songs did see the light of the U.S. national record charts, including Jimmy Clanton’s ‘Just A Dream’ (1958), Ron Bernard’s ‘This Should Go On Forever’ (1959), Joe Barry’s ‘I’m A Fool To Care’ (1960), and Dale and Grace’s ‘I’m Leaving It Up To You’ (1963). In fact, to date over 20 swap pop songs have appeared in the Billboard Hot 100, several of them reaching number 1, including Johnny Preston’s ‘Running Bear,’ (1959), Phil Phillips ‘Sea of Love, ’(1959).

Meanwhile, swamp pop’s influence can be heard in many other popular songs, including the Rolling Stones’ cover of Barbara Lynn’s ‘You’ll Lose A Good Thing,’ Elvis Presley’s remake of Johnny Ace’s ‘Pledging My Love’ the Beatles ‘Oh! Darling’ as well as the music of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Moreover, swamp pop influenced the musical styles of swamp blues and Tex-Mex, particularly the music of Freddy Fender, who is considered by those in southern Louisiana and Texas to be in the swamp pop fraternity.

Though swamp pop has declined since the British Invasion, the style has persisted in the hands of musicians such as Don Rich, Kenny Fife, Grace Broussard (formerly of Dale and Grace), and the “Ambassador to Swamp Pop,” Johnnie Allan. Recordings are available on both vintage albums and new compact discs, many of which can be found here, and the swamp pop festival is still a big to-do in parts of Southern Louisiana, particularly when put on in conjunction with a car show and the annual Swap Pop Beauty Queen pageant!

Cookie and The Cupcakes – ‘Matilda/Mathilda’

Bobby Charles – ‘See You Later Alligator’