Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues

By McLeod, Ken | Canadian University Music Review, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues


McLeod, Ken, Canadian University Music Review


Shane K. Bernard. Swamp Pop: Cajun and Creole Rhythm and Blues. American Made Music Series. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1996. CD included. xiii, 264 pp. ISBN 0-87805-875-3 (hardcover).

Though it has remained almost completely unrecognized by those outside of its immediate practitioners, Louisiana swamp pop was at the heart of much of the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll. Many swamp-pop tunes such as Phil Phillip's "Sea of Love," Joe Barry's "I'm a Fool to Care," Johnny Preston's "Runnin' Bear," and Bobby Charles's "Later Alligator" made a significant impact on the rock charts in their own right and were extremely influential on the styles of many other top acts of the day including Fats Domino, "The Big Bopper," Elvis, and even the Beatles.

A distinct sister genre of the more popular Cajun and zydeco music, swamp pop arose as teenage Cajuns and Creoles discarded the violins and accordions which were central to the music of their French-Acadian heritage, and adopted electric guitars, saxophones, pianos, and modern trap drum sets, the common tools of the emerging styles of rhythm and blues and rock and roll then being disseminated from larger urban centers such as New Orleans. Drawing on more than fifty interviews with swamp-pop musicians in south Louisiana and southeast Texas, Shane K. Bernard's Swamp Pop explores the history, definition, and living tradition of this form which interweaves elements of country and western, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, with traditional elements of rural Cajun and Creole heritage. The son of the influential swamp-pop musician Rod Bernard, Shane Bernard's work represents the first book entirely devoted to this overlooked genre and is an intelligent and sensitively written ethnomusicological survey of this hybrid form.

Surprisingly enough "swamp pop" was a term coined by English pop music author Bill Millar in the late 1960s, the result of English enthusiasm for the imported sound shortly after its American inception. "Swamp pop" has since come to be regarded as Louisiana's third major indigenous genre in addition to the traditional forms of Cajun and black Creole music. Unlike Cajun and zydeco which divide along racial lines and use folk instrumentation and francophone lyrics, swamp pop is a biracial genre which employs primarily English lyrics and 1950s rhythm and blues instrumentation. It represented "a natural outcome of the colliding cultural elements-Cajun and Creole, black and white, French and English, rural and urban, folk and mainstream-that coalesced in the prairies of southwestern Louisiana" (p. 8). As Bernard explains, swamp pop "is typified by highly emotional vocals, simple, unaffected (and occasionally bilingual) lyrics, tripleting honkey-tonk pianos, bellowing sax sections, and a strong rhythm and blues backbeat" (p. 5). Faster upbeat compositions often employ a Cajun-Creole two-step rhythm while slow, usually melancholic ballads are marked by a "heavy triplety feel, undulating bass lines, climactic turnarounds, and dramatic breaks" (p. 6). Reflecting its hybrid mixture of classic rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country, and Cajun and Creole styles, the music is simple, concentrating on tonic, subdominant, and dominant progressions structured in a variety of balanced bar forms, and with catchy repetitive vocal melodies supplemented by accordion, sax, or guitar solos. Despite the simplicity of the musical materials they are used in an endless variety of ways. Perhaps above all else, it must be remembered that this is dance music.

Bernard begins his book with a brief account of the Acadian settlement in Louisiana and explains the differences between Creole (usually Catholic, francophone Louisianians of African descent) and Cajun (usually white French-speaking Acadians and various ethnic groups dominated by Acadian culture) cultures in the region. He expands this sociological history into a survey of the various musical traditions of these cultures and proceeds to delineate the existence of the distinct yet hybrid form of swamp-pop music which arouse out of the mixture of these two cultural groups. …

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