Tail of the Weak 3.45
Updated: Jan 25, 2020
Tail of the Weak is a series of insights and musical memories from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin, singer/songwriter and founder of the Annual Gram Parsons Guitar Pull and Tribute Festival, from Waycross, Georgia.
His career was much like the songs he wrote—no flash...maybe a little understated...but deep with an abiding soul. Tony Joe White—the Master of Swamp Rock—was born on July 23, 1943, the seventh of seven children raised in a shotgun shack on a 40-acre cotton farm in Goodwill, Louisiana. He passed away unexpectedly on October 24, 2018 at the age of 75.
Growing up near the headwaters of the Okefenokee Swamp in Waycross, Georgia, in 1969 I immediately related to “Polk Salad Annie”, the soulful sound and swampy imagery oozing out the dashboard radio speaker of our old, Ford station wagon. Sounding like an old, black bluesman, White rambled, grunted, and howled about a place—where lived a girl, I swear to the world, made the alligators look tame—whose mama, a wretched, spiteful, straight razor-totin' woman, was a-workin' on the chain gang—whose daddy was lazy and no count—and whose brothers were only fit for stealin' watermelons, Lawd have mercy!
“Polk Salad Annie” was inspired after White heard Bobbie Gentry's “Ode to Billie Joe”, a song based on personal life experience, relative to her home, upbringing, and the people she grew up with. He knew a lot about growing up poor in rural Louisiana—“There were lotsa times when there weren't too much to eat, and I ain't ashamed to admit that we've often whipped up a mess of polk sallet. It tastes alright too—a bit like spinach”. Sallet is an Old English word meaning cooked greens.
The song, recorded May 16, 1968 for White's debut album, Black and White, on Monument Records with Billy Swan producing, languished in obscurity for nine months, finally charting and rising to Number 8 in the summer of '69. Elvis picked up “Polk Salad Annie”, singing it during his live performances in the Seventies and later recording a version himself.
Prior to embarking on his songwriting career, White played clubs around Louisiana and in Corpus Christi, Texas, doing a lot of Elvis and John Lee Hooker covers. After writing about 'polk sallet', he turned his attention to another song, based again on personal experience.
In the early 60s, he lived with his sister and her husband in Marietta, Georgia, where he worked as a dump truck driver for the highway department. Says Tony Joe, “When it would rain, I wouldn't have to go to work. I'd stay at home and play my guitar all day, sitting there watching that Georgia rain come down”.
“Rainy Night in Georgia” was written in 1967, based on those memories of Marietta. First released on White's second album, ...Continued, the song became Brook Benton's comeback hit in 1970, topping Billboard's Best Selling Soul Singles chart and reaching number four on the Billboard Hot 100. Besides Brook Benton, the song has been covered by Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ray Charles, Johnny Rivers, Hank Williams, Jr., Aaron Neville, Boz Scaggs, B. J. Thomas, and several reggae bands.
It's about as beautiful and melancholy a song that has ever been written. We played it in the mid-70s in Down Home Band with Eddie Middleton. I could close my eyes when Eddie sang and I swear he sounded just like the record.
In 1993, on our first visit to a Bourbon Street nightclub during Mardi Gras, Mike and Karen Woodard, Aunt Lynne, and I told the band we were from Georgia; and, they regaled us with the soulful classic, making us feel right at home in two different states.
While visiting Nashville, Tennessee in October 2006, to record the late, great Don Helms's haunting steel guitar on two tracks of The Newfanglers' Blood in the Pines: The Story of Hollis Sheppard, Jimmy Stratton, Mike and Pam Johnson, Sean Clark, Reed Bennett, and I saw Tony Joe White on stage at 3rd and Lindsley.
Upon Tony Joe White's passing, I posted a couple sentences in his memory, along with a YouTube video from 1971 of him performing “Rainy Night in Georgia”, recorded live in Europe. Several folks commented on the post; but, my dear friend and local singer, Bonnie Bickerstaff, said it best, “What a great song, wonderfully written. Not too wordy...no fancy words. But still conveys to the listener the exact feeling...”
I so agree with Bonnie. Tony Joe White knew well the life he wrote down in his songs. They were as real as the dirt he walked on in Goodwill, Louisiana—as soulful as the voices who sang them—as masterfully written as only the Master of Swamp Rock can write.
“I believe it's rainin' all over the world”
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Memories straight from the mind of Uncle Dave Griffin
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