That Fogerty and Creedence are so associated with swamp rock is a testament to their talents as musicians and storytellers, but if you're seeking the authentic, down-home Louisiana sounds from the last miles of the Mississippi River, you can find it in Tony Joe White, aka "The Swamp Fox."
Born in Oak Grove, Louisiana, White is a much-admired and oft-covered singer-songwriter who has been honing his craft since before the moon landing. The biggest hit to bubble up from his creative cauldron was "Polk Salad Annie," a Top-10 hit in 1969 that became a concert favorite of Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to all things Southern. A stormy little number called "Rainy Night in Georgia" became one of soul crooner Brook Benton's biggest hits in 1970. White rode a second wave of popularity when Tina Turner covered two of his songs - "Steamy Windows" and "Undercover Agent for the Blues" - in 1989.
If you listen to White's 2013 album, appropriately titled Hoodoo, you'll notice right away that very little has changed: he still creates atmospheric, backwoods songs that recall one of the more colorful regions in the US. The album's title perfectly fits the ominous vibe summoned within its songs. With "The Swamp Fox," there's always some enchantment in his music.
Tony Joe White: Well, I always kind of liked that word a lot. I was kind of raised around that word, you know, down in Louisiana, the swamps. Hoodoo always had a kind of mystery to it. It could mean a lot of different things. It could mean being in love with a too-powerful woman; she put the hoodoo on you, or it could mean a bad spell somebody dropped on you. So I called it that because some of the songs on there mean a lot of different things, but they all come back to the same thing.
Songfacts: Do you have any favorite songs on the album?
Tony Joe: "Hoodoo" happens to be one of my favorite songs on the album because I really like the guitar lick. The guitar lick came way before the words on that song. So I like that. I also like "Sweet Tooth" pretty well. There's nothing on the album I would change, so I must like 'em all. The one that's comin' to my mind now is "Gypsy Epilogue." I love that song. It's a really cool tune. My wife and I wrote it together. I'm tickled I can put the album on and just let it keep playin' and not jump up and skip anything.
Songfacts: Do you find when you write songs that it starts with a guitar lick before you write the lyrics?
Tony Joe: You know, just about 60, 70 percent, at least, start with a guitar lick and it'll stay with me a few days and then all of a sudden a word'll come by. And by then, if I'm feelin' real good with it, I'll go down to the river and build a campfire. Get my acoustic guitar and a few cold beers and sit down with it and really pay some attention to it. But usually the guitar starts it.
Songfacts: So you have a whole ritual when you write songs?
Tony Joe: In a way. The campfire, the guitar... yeah, that could be called a ritual. But then again, I've had lines come to me in some old funky hotel room, in a little town somewhere. So I never know where they're going to come from, exactly. But the fires help for some reason - probably because of my Indian blood. But I love to sit by a campfire and stare into it. I think it lets you zero in, you know?
Songfacts: Let's talk about a few of your more famous songs. "Polk Salad Annie," is that based on a real person?
Songfacts: I have to be honest. I'm from Southern California, and I didn't know what a polk salad was. Were you ever concerned that people wouldn't know what you were talking about?
Tony Joe: [laughter] No. I love it. You know, man, when I wrote it I was just trying to write something real. Something I knew about. And I knew about polk salad because I ate a bunch of it growing up on the cotton farm. It grows wild, and you pick it a certain time during the year, and you boil it and cook it like greens. My mother said it had a lot of iron in it and stuff for us kids, so it was something that tasted real good to me back then. I still eat some every spring.
Songfacts: That's one of the ones that Elvis recorded, right?
Tony Joe: Yeah, he cut it. It was so funny because in the early days on stage in Louisiana and Texas I was doing a lot of Elvis tunes. John Lee Hooker, Lightnin' Hopkins, all the blues. All of a sudden, it turns around and here Elvis is doing one of my songs. In fact, he did three.
Songfacts: Did you ever get a chance to meet Elvis?
Tony Joe: Yeah, when they got ready to record "Polk Salad" - we was living in Memphis at the time - they sent an airplane down from Las Vegas that picked me and my wife up and flew us to Las Vegas to watch him record it each night on stage. They recorded it, like, six, seven nights in a row, so every night after the show, we would sit back in the dressing room and talk and hang out. He had an old acoustic guitar back there and he would always get me to play him an old blues lick or something. And then he would try and learn it. He loved guitar but he really didn't play it a lot. He treated me really good, though, every time I was around him.
Songfacts: Tell me about "Rainy Night In Georgia." Was that inspired by a rainy night?
Tony Joe: Same way as "Polk." I knew about polk salad and I knew about rainy nights in Georgia. When I got out of high school, I went down to Marietta, Georgia to live with my sister and get a job. I got a job driving a truck for the highway. Then every time it would rain, I would get to stay home and play my guitar. So I remembered them rainy days and rainy nights down there.
I moved on to Texas about eight months later and I heard a song on the radio called "Ode To Billie Joe" by Bobbie Gentry. And I thought, 'How real!' And if I ever decided to write a song, I'd write something real and something that I knew about. And all of a sudden I knew about polk and knew about rainy nights, and within about two weeks those songs were laid down. So I was real lucky that when I first started to write I came up with something like that that lasted through the years.
Songfacts: Do you think that writing songs is something that comes naturally to you?
Tony Joe: Yeah, I think it must be because they come to me and I can't just sit down and try to write one. If I was to get a piece of paper and a guitar and just sit down and say I was gonna write something, I would be blank. But all of a sudden I'll be walking along or I'll be playing a little lick on the guitar and a line or a word will come to me. So when it does that to me, that's when I start paying attention to 'em.
Songfacts: We've talked about some of your hits. What are some of the songs you're most proud of that you've written?
Tony Joe: Well, it would be kind of hard to name. I've written a bunch of songs through the years, maybe over 400. I wrote some that never got heard that I'm real proud of. But of course, I'm proud of "Polk," "Steamy Windows," Tina Turner, Elvis, Joe Cocker's "Across From Midnight." You gotta be proud of the ones that were a hit for me or for someone else. That matters because all of a sudden it's out there. So the ones that are still in the background, maybe they'll jump out sooner or later.
Songfacts: You toured with J.J. Cale, right?
Tony Joe: Yeah, we did some shows together.
Songfacts: And he just recently passed away. I wonder if you have any memories that stand out in your mind from the time that you spent with him.
Tony Joe: Well J.J. was another hero, man. He was right in there with Elvis and Tina Turner to me. People like that. I was getting ready to do an album a few years back, and Jody, my son, we were producing it together and hanging out. Jody said, "Have you ever thought of doing a duet?" And I said, "Well, not really." "Well, name some of your favorite players, guitar players." And I started with Knopfler, J.J. Cale, Clapton and I went on to Michael McDonald – he's not a guitar player, but he's one of my favorite heroes.
So Jody's idea was to get all these people. We had talked about it through the years, touring or hanging out together, that we would one day cut an album together, but I didn't think it would ever happen because it'd be hard to get everybody's timing right. So Jody started out, and all of a sudden he had Knopler, J.J. and he had Waylon Jennings - it was almost there. And I said, "If there's one you'll have trouble with, well, it's J.J." Because he's almost like a hermit. He lives in a little trailer and he stays by his self. He don't really play out that much.
So we sent him the two songs, anyway. One called "Louvelda," and another one, and we didn't hear anything from him for a month. And then a CD came in the mail it was J.J. He'd written a letter with it that said: "Dear Tony Joe. I hope you don't mind. I got so into the song that I not only recorded it, laid it down, but I wrote another verse to the end of it. So he had it all recorded, ready to go. He had put, like, five guitars on it. It was really cool. But I've got that letter framed in my studio, "I hope you don't mind I wrote another verse." It was kind of a rap verse that he wrote on the end of it. He didn't sing; he rapped.
Songfacts: No kidding! Wow!
Tony Joe: So it was a real big loss to the whole universe when J.J. went, but it was time, I guess.
Songfacts: I wanted to wind things up by talking about Tina Turner, because I think you shared a manager with her at one point, right?
Tony Joe: Oh yeah. Roger Davies was managing me and Tina and Sade and Joe Cocker. He had everybody. But it was when Tina was doing those songs, that's how we met up. She did "Undercover Agent For The Blues," "Steamy Windows," "Foreign Affair." She did four songs on one album off a little cassette I had made for her. That's how we hooked up and that's also how Roger and I hooked up.
Songfacts: When she records a song, she kind of makes it her own. When you do songs that she's recorded do you almost sing them like she does?
Tony Joe: No, because I had recorded the songs pretty swampy, just my own style, and it stayed that way all through her sessions. She kept the same chord changes and everything. Nobody would be foolish enough to try to sing like Tina Turner. I was not only getting to hear her sing my song, but I was playing guitar in the sessions with her so it was a double barrel shotgun.
Songfacts: What an honor to have somebody like her record your songs.
Tony Joe: Oh man. It was as big as when Elvis did those songs. Anybody, like Cocker or anyone, when they do one of my tunes it's always just a real happenin' with me.
Songfacts: I've really enjoyed your music over the years, and when I heard this new album I thought, 'He hasn't changed. He knows what he does well and he just keeps on doing it.' So just don't ever change.
Tony Joe: I can't. I wouldn't know how.
October 31, 2013.
Get more at tonyjoewhite.com
More Songwriter Interviews