What Is Swamp Pop Music?

The history and songs of this Louisiana rock n' roll style of music

Cookie and his Cupcakes' 1959 smash
Cookie and his Cupcakes' 1959 smash "Mathilda". rateyourmusic.com

 

What Is Swamp Pop?

Not to be confused with "swamp rock," an entirely different genre, the South Louisiana phenomenon known as "swamp pop" originated in the late 1950s as a melding of two very distinct styles: traditional Cajun folk balladry, particularly the Cajun waltz, and the slow, triplet-heavy ballad style of New Orleans R&B. (Fats Domino's own heavily C&W-inflected vocals were a major impetus in swamp-pop's development.) The first major song in this vein was Warren Storm's "Prisoner's Song" in 1958, which made it to the national Billboard charts; the next year, however, a band from Lake Charles known as Cookie and his Cupcakes recorded what is considered the definitive swamp pop anthem, "Mathilda." The genre took off from there, and remained popular in the region (while scoring an occasional national hit) until about 1965.

The typical swamp-pop song is a midtempo ballad, in 6/8 waltz time, with piano triplets and possibly a bluesy guitar line. The main watermark of swamp-pop is its melody, however, which draws strongly from (and was sometimes lifted directly off of) traditional Cajun ballads. Saxophone is occasionally present, but the instrumentation is always that of early rock and roll or heavy R&B. Most of the genre's original heyday took place in the studios and clubs west of New Orleans in "Cajun Country," primarily Lake Charles, though it could be heard as far west as Texas and as far north as Shreveport.

Though the genre died off along with the rest of rock's original styles in the mid-60s, swamp-pop had already by then influenced a number of musicians, most notably Elvis Presley. In the mid-Seventies, the Fifties revival also led to a brief national revival of swamp-pop; however, the style has never lost its core of popularity in Southern Louisiana, becoming as much a part of the local folk music as its pre-rock ancestors.

Also Known As Swamp Rock, New Orleans Soul

Examples of "Swamp Pop"

"I'm Leaving It All Up To You," Dale and Grace (purchase/download)

​The biggest of the swamp-pop hits, making it all the way to "American Bandstand," though no one realized it was a new genre at the time.

"Wasted Days And Wasted Nights," Freddy Fender (purchase/download)

​Originally a regional hit for Fender in 1960 and recorded at swamp-pop producer Huey Meaux's studios in Houston, this was remade and became a hit all over again in 1975 after Fender finally broke through with the hit "Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

"I Can Help," Billy Swan (purchase/download)

Written specifically for Elvis but not recorded by him until years later, this one-hit wonder's one hit is a prime example of swamp pop (with a seemingly endless series of endings).

"This Should Go On Forever," Rod Bernard (purchase/download)

​Bernard is the greatest living practitioner of swamp pop, and this ballad is his signature song.

"Mathilda," Cookie and his Cupcakes (purchase/download)

The national anthem of swamp pop, as meaningful to Louisianians of a certain age as "Waltzing Matilda" is to an Australian. Note the rare swampy guitar solos.

"I'm A Fool To Care," Joe Barry (purchase/download)

Barry was a white Fats Domino soundalike who gave this Les Paul / Mary Ford hit a certain stroll.

"Big Blue Diamonds," Earl Connelly King (purchase/download)

One of the genre's saddest and most beautiful songs, transformed with saxophone and vibraphone into a real slow-dance spotlight. Often misattributed to Earl King of "Trick Bag" fame.

"Sea Of Love," Phil Phillips (purchase/download)

Phillips' odd, flat, and strident vocals couldn't keep a song this good off the charts. Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant had his own hit with it, a string-soaked '80s cover by the Honeydrippers.

"Prisoner's Song," Warren Storm (listen)

Like so many swamp-pop songs, this one has an oral tradition worthy of a folk music; first recorded in the 20's, Storm gained Cajun Country's undying love for putting a little sock-hop juice on it.

"Just A Dream," Jimmy Clanton (purchase/download)

The teen idol of swamp pop, Clanton made some noise regionally with this Frankie Ford soundalike, then got sidetracked by strings-and-backing-vocal arrangements in the Pat Boone mold.