What Is Swamp Rock?

A look at this Southern mix of country, funk, and soul

The 45 of Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie"
The 45 of Tony Joe White's "Polk Salad Annie"

"Swamp Rock" is a genre that's often misunderstood -- confused by outsiders with the Cajun R&B stroll of "swamp pop" or, worse, merely regulated to describing songs about the swamps of the American South, from Louisiana to Florida. In fact, "swamp rock" is a fairly narrow field of music: the result of the integration of rockabilly artists with the soul explosion of the mid-60s, aided by a heavy infusion of the gritty sub-genre known as "swamp blues," and also with a heavily rhythmic backbone that, at its loosest, could almost be described as funk.

It's a style whose primary yardstick is earthiness.

As the country-rock musicians of the "New South" got turned on to the country-soul emanating from places like Memphis and Muscle Shoals, they incorporated it into their music: the typical "swamp rock" song combines deep soul with raw country, gritty blues, and a danceable beat. (The "swamp blues" in question was created by Nashville's Excello label in the late Fifties by musicians like Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin' Slim, and Roscoe Shelton.) It led to the principal defining guitar line of swamp rock: low, dirty, and full of reverb (and sometimes, for an extra funky touch, wah-wah). Horns are often present due to the soul influence, although guitar solos are more likely than sax solos. And although the subject matter is often as dark and menacing as the music itself, tales of the swampland aren't necessary in swamp music; that trend only began when, helped along by ' own fascination with the genre, it hit the AM airwaves in the early Seventies.

Like most soul-based or "roots" musics, Swamp Rock seemed to bite the dust when disco arrived, yet rose from the grave in the '90s, as jam bands and Americana acts began discovering it and incorporating it into their own funky style. But remember: it's not swamp pop!

Also Known As: Swamp Pop, Swamp Blues

Examples of swamp rock:

"Polk Salad Annie," Tony Joe White (purchase/download)

So perfect in its evocation of Tony Joe's own childhood in the Delta South that McDonald's later used it to try and bring some soul-food legitimacy to the McRib. (Not that anything could.)

"Born On The Bayou," Creedence Clearwater Revival (purchase/download)

CCR leader John Fogerty was so perfect in applying psychedelic textures to swamp rock that you can almost feel the mosquitoes biting you in the intro.

"Amos Moses," Jerry Reed (purchase/download)

A classic tale that is indeed about the Louisiana swamp, featuring one missing arm and, more troubling, a disappearing Sheriff.

"Suzie Q," Dale Hawkins (purchase/download)

The possible birth of swamp rock, an inverted and extremely bluesy rockabilly that inspired legions of guitarists and Americana enthusiasts.

"Hush," Joe South (purchase/download)

He later gravitated over to country-tinged gospel pop, but the songs which made Joe a name in the first place were full of swampy goodness.

"Niki Hoeky," Redbone (purchase/download)

Like Creedence, this quintet was a California outfit that was nevertheless obsessed with Deep South culture. Their mixed-race Mexican/Native American Heritage probably didn't hurt, either.

"Big Boss Man," Elvis Presley (purchase/download)

A Jimmy Reed classic from Vee-Jay, it was reworked into a showier, flashier version by the King, a major swamp rock booster.

"I Walk On Gilded Splinters," Dr. John (purchase/download)

Also linking psych and swamp was the Night Tripper himself, who specialized in mixing glam attitude with voodoo funk. 

"Spiders And Snakes," Jim Stafford (purchase/download)

Stafford specialized in novelties, but he actually had that country funk thing down.

"Struttin' My Stuff," Elvin Bishop (purchase/download)

Rednecks with a thirst of blues guitar tend to make the best swampers, and Bishop was practically a one-man jam band.