Swamp Dogg, Part 1
“They’ve Come to Get Me from the Lost and Found”
Swamp Dogg: Not Just Another Motherfucker
Another noontime morning packed into the van. Hacking up, onto the back of the bench seat, all of last night’s cigarettes. Fumbling to get another one lit. Start it again. It is early fall. And early fall loves Athens. Wisps of white smoke carry the smell of slow-cooking pork, just as the trains of black carry their hopes for a victory over Bama to the stadium. Later that night, from a bar in Macon, the rest of the Dexateens will watch as their beloved Bama whips Georgia’s ass in the game that will always be laughingly referred to as “The Blackout.”
For now, we are trying to get right. Shake out the nerves, pinch the sleep out of bleary eyes. Matt Patton, riding shotgun, voice ragged and torn up from a night at the Caledonia, reaches up into the front seat, a CD stuck between his grimy fingers.
“Y’all GOT to hear this…”
And then, seconds later, BOOM. A sonic blast, not so much derived from anything as contrived as tone or volume or tempo, but of sheer human force, true soul. Not “soul,” simply in the Otis Redding sense; no, soul, as in animus, that which differentiates us from the beasts of the field – “soul” in the Thomas Aquinas sense. PURE RAW SOUL.
“TOTAL DESTRUCTION TO YOUR MIND, MIND, MIND, MIND…”
We are baptized in sound, we are set on a path of righteousness, we are gone.
Swamp Dogg has been doing that, destroying the complacent mind and nurturing the shithead soul, for so long he can do little else. Swamp Dogg, that bold motherfucker (his favorite word) who croons against THE MAN (in all his myriad, snaky forms) with the voice of a pissed-off Joe Tex, an unhinged Clyde McPhatter, is also Jerry Williams, Jr., the humble, rotund son of Portsmouth, Virginia who wrote songs for the always-sweatered pop star Gene Pitney (“Count the Days”) and the roughneck country twanger Johnny Paycheck (“[Don’t Take Her] She’s All I Got”).
Hell yeah, he knew Gary U.S. Bonds. (They were best friends from running around the Tidewater.) Hell yeah, he knew Otis Redding. (Ol’ dude left him holding the bill at a Holiday Inn once.) Hell yeah, he knew Duane Allman. (Swamp had him play on a Doris Duke session he produced.)
But, just as importantly, they knew Swamp: a songwriter’s songwriter, a musical adventurer, a shit-hot producer, an immutable force of honesty, the perpetual menace to THE MAN’s agenda who nevertheless kept a constant place at the boardroom table.
A few years later, I find myself in that same van, with that same can’t-get-right feeling, scraggling into Detroit. My new band, the Glory Fires, has been commissioned by Alive NaturalSound Records to cut a single, a cover song, with Jim Diamond. We’re struggling. We were frozen in Toronto, and hassled at the border. And then, as if it has been encased in a glass box, a tiny hammer suspended at its side, I pull out Total Destruction to Your Mind. Within moments, blood is rushing, talk is resumed, synapses fire like sparkplugs. We’re back.
Patrick, who runs Alive and talks to me like an exasperated teacher does his favorite underachieving student, had never heard of Swamp Dogg until he heard our cover. Shortly thereafter (again, moments is all it takes for most of us), Patrick had uncovered a genius. He is reissuing two of Swamp’s most innovative and inspired albums (Total Destruction to Your Mind and Rat On!), along with a handful of similarly brain-warping soul records he produced in the ‘70s (Raw Spitt, Wolfmoon, Irma Thomas).
If you’re one of the uninitiated (and let’s face it: you probably are), then unplug your earholes and listen to what Swamp has to say. You might can afford not to, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Swamp Dogg: “I saw your YouTube the first time you played [‘Total Destruction to Your Mind’] after you put it out. You did the song, and you said, I think it was you, you said, ‘Some motherfucker calls himself Swamp Dogg…’ And played the song any goddamn way! And I thought, ‘I’m going to reach through the screen and choke him!’”
Lee Bains III: Hahahah!
“Naw, I appreciate you. I appreciate you even acknowledging my song, much more cutting the motherfucker. I really do appreciate it. I thank you.”
Aw man, I appreciate you. I’m a really big fan of you and your songs, and you’ve been a real inspiration. So anything I can do to even slightly repay you is no thing.
“Naw, you paid me good by doing the song, by making people aware. People always talk about how good a song it is, but nobody records it much. It’s only been recorded five times, I think. I can only name three times, and one of those is me. Now, you is four. I can’t remember what the fifth one is.”
Well, I’m a (relatively) young dude from Alabama who makes what I think of as Southern music. And part of the reason I love your music and am inspired by it is that you seem to continually honor and draw from Southern traditions, but just as much so, you subvert them, and challenge them. So, I want to ask you about how you came by those traditions. I know your folks were musicians, right?
“Yeah, my mother is a drummer, a keyboardist and a vocalist, and as a matter of fact she opens my show for me. She’s 91 years old.”
What kind of music were they doing when you were growing up?
“They were what you would call a lounge band – a cocktail band. The same thing you’d call a Top 40 now. All they did was sing all of the hits of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. It was a quartet: guitar, bass, drums and organ, usually. So that’s what they did; they worked all the time. But it was always clubs, and they didn’t make a name.”
Did you grow up exposed to music in church? Was that part of your background?
“Part of it. Because I was a Baptist for a minute, and then I became Catholic. But, you know, it’s hard to get inspired with Gregorian chants! That don’t make you want to jump up and do the do.”
Hahaha! Yeah, I grew up partly in the Episcopal church. They call it Junior Varsity Catholic. I know what you mean.
“Yeah! But I got a lot of things out of church. Because those were my first experiences standing in front of an audience and singing. That is what quelled my nervousness. You had people encouraging you. You’d be singing, and it’d be the WORST thing that everybody had heard, and they’d say, ‘Awwwwww, Jerry, you were soooo good!’ And they’d come by the house, and tell your mama, ‘Awww, he was sooo good!’ When you were off-the-scale being bad! But those were the things that gave you encouragement, that those people in church would lie like a motherfucker. But that was a time when you needed lying. Because the truth would’ve killed you! It would’ve stopped you in your tracks. And then, as you continue to grow, you look back, and say, ‘My God, was I awful.’ But you appreciate the people for doing the way they did to you. You got to keep that ego away from you. I meet some guys now, professionals, saying shit like, ‘Aw man, I killed ‘em out there. I slayed ‘em. Can’t nobody follow me.’ And I’m sitting there thinking, ‘This motherfucker is so mediocre, and he don’t even know it.’ I’ve never said no shit like that, and I never will say shit like that.”
And you dug on country music too, right?
“Most of what I got came from country. I remember the first two talent shows I was on as a kid in grammar school. The first one I sang ‘Peace in the Valley’ by Red Foley, and I came in at Number Two. And the second one, I sang ‘Hadacol Boogie’ by Bill somebody. I can’t remember. [Bill Nettles, a Louisiana rockabilly/country singer active in the ‘40s/’50s.] I came in first that show. I was raised up on country. The black music came on around nine or ten at night, and by that time I had to go to bed. I had a little radio in my room. I used to turn it on, but the whole family was hip to what I was doing. So, it wouldn’t be long before somebody came up there: ‘Turn that damn radio off!’ I’d have it on so low, you could hardly hear. That was my exposure to some black music. And then [WLAC DJ] John R. and them out of Nashville.”
You know, it’s funny you say that. My mama grew up in Birmingham, and would talk about how, growing up, she would hide under the covers and listen to the R&B station at night, and how that, along with seeing black bands play in the early and mid ‘60s, was a big factor in her realization of the deep problems with segregation and Alabama’s racial attitudes. Did you feel like being a musician allowed you to transcend racial boundaries at all during that time?
“It’s funny. For some reason, I didn’t really have a full knowledge of what was being done. I was raised like, if a white man was walking down the sidewalk, and you were going towards him, then I didn’t give a fuck if it was an Indy 500 driver coming around the corner, a black stepped off into the street and let the white man go by. And you know this is crazy – I didn’t think nothing of it. It’s hard sometimes when you’re brought up into something, and you’re told, ‘this is what you do’ by the people who you love and trust. ‘Well, okay, I don’t know. I guess I’d better step off this fucking sidewalk.’ You know, ‘You never stare a white man in the eye.’ A whole bunch of bullshit. But, as I grew older, I understood the bigotry and all that bullshit.