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swamp blues

Swamp Blues

Sandwiched in between Mississippi to the east and Texas to the west, one does not necessarily associate the state of Louisiana with a blues tradition. In terms of music, most observers would point to New Orleans and its jazz history. However, that would eliminate other areas (and cities) of the swampy state which do have a blues tradition. Of course, it would be more natural to associate the southwestern area of Louisiana with the sport of college football as Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge won the national championship in the 2019 season. The music that evolved from that area in the immediate post-WWII era was dubbed the “Swamp Blues.”

Swamp blues, sometimes called the “Excello” style (after the Nashville-based recording studio), is a type of Louisiana blues that developed around Baton Rouge in the 1950s and 1960s. It incorporates influences from other genres, particularly zydeco and Cajun. However, it should not be confused with “swamp rock” which resulted from the integration of rockabilly and the soul music boom of the 1960s.

Unlike the national Chitlin’ Circuit, the “Crawfish Circuit” of Louisiana nightclubs heightened musical exchanges across the region. Influenced as much by New Orleans’ piano-driven R&B as Texas guitar blues, the swamp blues represents a cultural third-space beyond the more popular Zydeco and swamp pop local arenas. Swamp blues’ most successful proponents included Slim Harpo and Lightnin’ Slim, both of whom enjoyed national rhythm and blues hits.

James Moore (1924-70), later known as “Slim Harpo,” was the most famous Louisiana harp player in the swamp blues tradition. Born in Lobdell in West Baton Rouge Parish in 1924, he taught himself guitar and harmonica, which he played in a neck rack, as a child. When he was in tenth grade his mother and father both died, and he had to leave school to support his family. Although he was working as a dock hand, Harpo already was a good harp (harmonica) player.

His 1957 single “King Bee” was a hit for Excello. In 1961, his “Raining in my Heart” was even bigger, scoring not only on the R&B charts but reaching number 34 on the pop charts also. “Scratch My Back,” released in 1966, reached the R&B number one slot. “After the Rolling Stones recorded ‘King Bee’ on their 1964 debut album, Harpo began to play for white rock audiences. He started to record with psychedelic overtones in the mix, and was playing the Electric Circus and the Fillmore East by 1969. A European tour was planned, and commercial success was perhaps around the corner, when he died of a heart attack in early 1970,” states Celticguitarmusic.com. Some of the lyrics to his most famous song go like this:  

“Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive

Well, I’m a king bee
Buzzing around your hive
Well, I can make honey baby
Let me come inside

I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
I’m young and able
To buzz all night long
Well, when you hear me buzzin’ baby
Some stinging is going on.”

The draft card of “Lightnin’ Slim” (real name Otis Hicks, 1913-74) shows that he was born in Good Pine, Louisiana, but moved to Baton Rouge at the age of thirteen. Taught guitar by his older brother Layfield, Slim was playing in bars in Baton Rouge by the late 1940s. “His first recording was ‘Bad Luck Blues (If it wasn’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all), released by J.D. ‘Jay’ Miller’s Feature Records in 1954. It was Miller, who had a penchant for picking colorful artists’ names, who christened him ‘Lightnin’ Slim.’ Slim then recorded for Excello Records for twelve years, starting in the mid-1950s, often collaborating with his brother-in-law Slim Harpo and with the harmonica player Lazy Lester,” states Wikipedia. In the 1970s, Slim performed on tours in Europe, in the United Kingdom and at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. In July 1974, Slim died of stomach cancer in Detroit, Michigan, aged 61.

In her 2016 dissertation entitled Swamp Blues: Race and Vinyl from Southwest Louisiana at the University of Pennsylvania, Evelyn Levingston Malone argues that “the unconventional ‘regional’ swamp blues beg a revaluation of both blackness in Civil Rights-era Southwest Louisiana, and the accepted racial and ethnic segregations of sound found there that exclude the swamp blues from standard narratives of local music history.”

That may or may not be overstating the importance of this blues music sub-genre, but I would argue that not paying any attention to this particular music would be paying it a great disservice.

As Frank Zappa once said of Lightnin’ Slim’s music, “That’s good stuff because it’s real direct, it’s not a matter of pretense there. It’s right to the point.”

Slim Harpo sings “King Bee”