Swamp pop music combines New Orleans-style rhythm and blues, country and western, and Cajun and black Creole music.
Swamp pop is a musical genre that combines New Orleans-style rhythm and blues (R&B), country and western, and Cajun and black Creole music. It hails from the Acadiana region of south Louisiana, as well as from the section of southeast Texas inhabited by many Cajuns and black Creoles. Peaking between 1958 and 1964, the swamp pop sound resulted in several national hits and many more regional favorites, including Rod Bernard’s “This Should Go on Forever,” Tommy McLain’s “Sweet Dreams,” Johnnie Allan’s “Lonely Days, Lonely Nights,” and Cookie and the Cupcakes’ swamp pop anthem, “Mathilda,” to name but a few.
Swamp pop music originated around 1955 during the rapid Americanization of south Louisiana’s historically French-speaking parishes. The Cajuns and black Creoles who pioneered the sound were generally born between 1935 and 1940 and came of age during the mid-1950s, when mainstream American culture and values were taking the place of local folk traditions, including “old-time” accordion and fiddle music. Although many swamp pop musicians played Cajun and black Creole music as children, they generally regarded the music of their parents and grandparents as outmoded by the time they became teenagers during the 1950s. Instead, they gravitated toward the new, more urban sounds of R&B and early rock ‘n’ roll. They eagerly emulated young musicians such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and particularly Fats Domino.
Unlike Domino’s New Orleans R&B, however, swamp pop drew heavily on Anglo-Protestant country and western music, introduced to the French-speaking parishes by Texas oil field workers and distant high-powered radio stations, such as WSM in Nashville or, closer to home, KWKH in Shreveport. Among the era’s country and western artists, Hank Williams Sr. exerted the most notable influence on the budding swamp pop sound.
Despite the substantial impact of Americanization on young swamp pop musicians, Cajun and black Creole music (zydeco as well as its precursors, like juré, la-la, and pic-nic music) continued to influence their developing style. As a result, swamp pop musicians not only performed and recorded the tell-tale love ballads most strongly associated with the genre, but they also pulled songs from multiple popular and regional styles. For example, they played country and western standards like “Jambalaya,” as well as Cajun and black Creole folk songs like “Hip et Taïaut” and “Allons à Lafayette”—though these songs were recorded rock ‘n’ roll-style in English, or bilingually in English and French under the Americanized titles “Hippy Ti Yo” and “Let’s Do the Cajun Twist.”
Young swamp pop musicians carried the cultural baggage of their French-speaking heritage, a fact reflected by their ethnic surnames, which they often exchanged for Anglo-sounding stage names. They did this not because of shame for their heritage (although many Cajuns and black Creoles did experience cultural prejudice), but because of a desire to sell records outside south Louisiana, where the pronunciation of their actual names would confuse fans, deejays, and promoters. John Allen Guillot, therefore, became Johnnie Allan, Robert Charles Guidry became Bobby Charles, Elwood Dugas became Bobby Page, Clinton Guillory became Clint West, and Phillip Batiste became Phil Phillips.
Prominent swamp pop venues during the 1950s and early 1960s included the Southern Club in Opelousas, Landry’s Palladium in Lafayette, The Big Oaks in Vinton, the Jungle Lounge in Ville Platte, and the Teche Club in New Iberia. Once swamp pop musicians developed their sound on the bandstand, they took it to local recording studios, cutting tracks for labels like Goldband in Lake Charles, Jin in Ville Platte, Rocko in Crowley, and La Louisianne in Lafayette. These regional record labels served as springboards for local swamp pop musicians, whose songs soon appeared under license on larger national labels, such as Mercury and Argo in Chicago, and Excello and NASCO in Nashville.
By the mid-1960s several swamp pop songs had appeared on national U.S. record charts, including Rod Bernard’s “This Should Go on Forever,” Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love,” Joe Barry’s “I’m a Fool to Care,” and Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It up to You,” among others. In the genre’s homeland, however, many other swamp pop songs became regional hits and today remain vital to the basic repertoire. These include Johnnie Allan’s “South to Louisiana,” Lil’ Bob’s “I Got Loaded,” Jay Randall’s “Cherry Pie,” Tommy McLain and Clint West’s duet “Try to Find Another Man,” Warren Storm’s “My House of Memories,” and Cookie and the Cupcakes’ “Got You on My Mind.”
Like 1950s rock ‘n’ roll in general, swamp pop suffered a dramatic decline in popularity with the British invasion of 1964. Yet swamp pop influenced many of those British rock musicians, who often looked to earlier American recordings for inspiration. For example, the Rolling Stones covered swamp pop musician Barbara Lynn’s “Oh Baby (We’ve Got a Good Thing Goin’),” while the Beatles’ 1969 “Oh! Darling” from Abbey Road exudes the swamp pop sound. In 1984, Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Page covered Phil Phillips’s “Sea of Love” on his successful Honeydrippers album, and in 2007 Plant recorded in New Orleans with swamp pop “supergroup” Lil’ Band o’ Gold, featuring Warren Storm on drums. (The term “swamp pop” itself comes from England, coined by British music writer Bill Millar around 1970. Fellow British music writer John Broven popularized the term when he introduced it to the sound’s south Louisiana homeland through the publication of his 1983 book South to Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, the first book to examine the swamp pop genre.)
Swamp pop continues to be performed today by many of its originators, who can still be found in Acadiana nightclubs and dancehalls. The sound also appears at regional folk and music festivals, such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, and at smaller events like the Smoked Meat Festival in Ville Platte, which, despite its name, is considered a swamp pop festival. Swamp pop also has overtly named festivals in places such as Gonzales, Bourg, and Robert—all located in southeast Acadiana. This geographic trend reflects the growing popularity of swamp pop between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, particularly in parishes like Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, and Lafourche, where younger generations of swamp pop musicians have found receptive audiences for a genre that is now more than a half-century old.