Listen to this track, a prime cut of classic swamp rock from one of the pioneers of the form, Tony Joe White. It’s ‘Polk Salad Annie’, a favourite set staple of Elvis Presley during his early Vegas period, and a crowning achievement for American R&B in general. The song is taken from White’s 1969 Black and White album. If there was ever any doubt about the dubious division between country music and soul, then surely this song, and White’s output in general are certainly exhibits A and B.
Where Credence Clearwater Revival certainly helped to establish a mythical American southland in their music, particularly in the Bayous of Louisiana, then Tony Joe White was singing from experience. He was born in Louisiana, and absorbed music traditions there directly. And even if he is able to inject just as much visceral punch into this song as John Fogarty did with Credence, fewer music fans know White’s music. That’s showbiz!
Still, his most famous song in ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’ made famous by country-soul singer Brook Benton, established him as a gifted songwriter by any measure. And it showed that he was able to capture slices of life as set in the American south better than most. His material would be covered by a great many artists besides Presley and Benton, including Dusty Springfield, Tina Turner, and Tom Jones.
Still, despite his gift for storytelling in song, “Polk Salad Annie” would be White’s sole top ten radio hit as a solo act, a story of a Southern girl left to fend for her family by getting by anyway she could – by being a mean, vicious, straight razor-toting woman who lived on what she could gather. This song has tons going for it, not the least of which is White’s low growl of a baritone voice that is attractively framed by his lazy drawl, and by his almost sexual grunts that punctuate his vocals. And there’s the predatory guitar stabs that suggest the funkiness of soul, while evoking the deftness of country playing too.
This song was recorded in an American music mecca, Muscle Shoals Alabama, where many soul sides on the Atlantic and Fame labels were cut. Tony Joe White was on the Monument label, who didn’t initially back the single, until demand in local markets made it undeniable. It in fact has been classified as representative of a subgenere of its own, mixing country, R&B, and Cajun folk music – swamp rock, a sound for which White would come to be known. And because White grew up in the very area that he describes in the song, it’s easy to believe that this song is at least partially autobiographical, if not wholly.
Tony Joe White would craft material for many over the years, although he would not become a household name himself. Still, his list of admirers included some prominent musicians, some of whom he would duet with on his 2004 The Heroines album, on which White sings with luminary performers such as Shelby Lynne, Lucinda Williams, and Emmylou Harris, among others.
To learn more about Tony Joe White, take a stroll on down to the official Tony Joe White site.