Tony Joe White became known as Swamp Fox, a nom de guerre generated by Paris audiences about the time his most famous song, “Polk Salad Annie”, was gaining traction in both the USA and Europe. This may summon some images. Skulking around the tincture of London in the twilight, looking for open windows through which to attack the young, perhaps. A sexualised, feral, untameable creature, maybe. Or (getting back to music), a predatory creature that goes through the bins of other songwriters, scavenging a career out of authored debris. In fact, this seems to me to be the reverse in the case of Tony Joe White. Rather, he will be largely remembered as a musician’s musician. Courted by Elvis Presley for his aforementioned “Polk Salad Annie”, White’s original is a far rootsier affair than the jumpsuited King’s. Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Hank Williams, among others have taken his songs as vehicles for far sassier, slick and mainstream versions that White would have or did ever produce. In this essence, his deep growl, wide vibrato, southern drawl and driving guitar style was probably a bit real for success larger than he achieved. It is this vicious, base and authentic approach that marks him as a node for other performers.
These collections of rarities are prone to being mixed sacks. What this collection has in its favour is the even balance of White’s own and covers of others. He drags other performer’s music down to a sweatier place, as someone with the moniker Swamp Fox might. For me, most of this extensive collection of thirty four tracks works as a great primer, but is also valuable as a revealing document. There is a kaleidoscopic feeling to Swamp Music, a proficient whistle-stop tour. I think you still need to like this particular brand of stocky swamp rock, however, otherwise one might find it (obviously) rather wearing.
The construction of the record throws into relief the dual nature of White’s style. You can hear his influences, especially Chet Atkins and John Lee Hooker. You can hear his contemporaries, such as Booker T and The MGs and Bob Seger. And you can hear his descendants, such as the thumbing bandanna Mark Knopfler. There is a fusion element to White’s approach that is on display across these tracks, and the names mentioned are all stylistically relevant here. From country to soul to R&B to rock. Sometimes, I can almost hear the crunch of Tommy Iommi of Black Sabbath, and even as a real far-away, distant taste, the wah of Dimebag Darrell of Pantera. On that note, the most fun of this collection comes with the “whomper stomper” wah-wah work on tracks like “Baby Please Don’t Go”, which comes off as an unhinged bayou thrashing of a James Brown song rather than a delta blues standard. See “Toil and Trouble” for more of this, and probably the highlight of the collection for me.
For fans, I imagine this would be a pleasantly curated selection of knowns and lesser-knowns. As a comparative new-comer, rarities collections can be a little alienating, but this feels curated well and despite the deluge of tracks, there is enough drive, ballad, grunt and swamp-croon to keep one pretty involved and amused. This goes in that section labelled “expected to dislike but really rather taken by it”. Definitely worth diving into.