The swamp pop revival is receiving a big assist from The Revelers, whose members helped found the Pine Leaf Boys and Red Stick Ramblers, two of Cajun music’s most prominent combos.
By Noah Schaffer
For decades, the Cajun and zydeco sounds of South Louisiana have been mainstays at New England festivals and dances.
Conspicuously missing has been a musical genre that, arguably, has been even more popular among Louisianans as well as in neighboring southeast Texas: swamp pop. Famously described as “Fats Domino meets the fai-do-do,” swamp pop was the result of Cajun musicians trying to play New Orleans R&B. Piano triplets, saxophones, and soulful Cajun country vocals contribute to the distinctive swamp pop ‘magic’ — hits such as Phil Phillips’ “Sea of Love” and Dale and Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You” sold in the millions.
Swamp pop greats like Tommy McClain, Warren Storm, and Charles Mann didn’t appear in commercials, movies, and compilations that brought South Louisiana culture to the world’s attention, but they still pack dancehalls nearly every weekend at home.
Now, though, swamp pop may finally getting its due. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which has generally ignored the genre for years, featured a number of bands this year. The music has been featured at the Ponderosa Stomp festival; the all-star Lil’ Band o’ Gold did several worldwide tours and opened for Robert Plant before a series of deaths and departures led to its demise.
The swamp pop revival is getting a big assist from The Revelers, whose members helped found the Pine Leaf Boys and Red Stick Ramblers, two of Cajun music’s most prominent combos. The band’s deft infusion of swamp pop and roots rock into their Cajun sound appeals to a broad swath of listeners and dancers. The Revelers’ 2015 all-original LP Get Ready was nominated for a Grammy. Besides two full-length albums, the band has also released a covers EP The Revelers Play the Swamp Pop Classics Volume 1.
Recently, The Arts Fuse spoke with guitarist and singer Chas Justus as the band got ready to embark on a multi-week New England tour that includes shows on August 26 at Cambridge’s Lizard Lounge and all three days of the storied Rhythm and Roots Festival in Charlestown, RI over Labor Day weekend, where the Revelers will appear on both the main stage and in the dance tent. (Other R&R headliners this year include Lucinda Williams, the David Grisman Quintet, and Orchestre Royal, another all-star Louisiana aggregation which will likely feature some swamp pop as well.) Justus reported that band members were not directly afflicted by the devastating flooding which has hit Louisiana this month.
The Arts Fuse: You grew up in Memphis — when did you end up in Louisiana and how did you discover swamp pop?
Chas Justus: My mother lived in Louisiana when I was growing up so I spent a lot of time there and I ended up going to LSU when I was 18. My first introduction to swamp pop was probably in Baton Rouge around that time, hearing stuff that you don’t really hear outside of Louisiana.
AF: So why do you think swamp pop was so little known outside of Louisiana, at least compared to Cajun and zydeco? For instance, it took years before JazzFest featured the music.
Justus: I think it wasn’t really regarded as an aspect of traditional music. So, in the past, a lot of folk festivals didn’t have as much interest in it because in some ways they didn’t think it was “real” Louisiana music. Perhaps it wasn’t seen as being “authentic” enough. But [for decades] it has been really popular in Louisiana among normal people who’d go out dancing. Jazzfest largely caters to an out-of-state audience as well.
AF: Do you think the Cajun revival, which was dedicating to preserving as well as acknowledging, past discrimination faced by French Louisiana culture, made swamp pop — with its English lyrics and Anglicized artist names — a bit politically incorrect?
Justus: I think that’s taking it a bit too far. I’ve never known anyone who said anything disparaging about swamp pop. It did get overlooked in the French revival, which was all about looking for the Nova Scotia/Cajun connection. And it’s there — there are swamp pop songs in French. It’s just evolved in a different way.
AF: On your first album and the covers EP you were doing songs made famous by the swamp pop pioneers, but on your last album the band wrote a lot of swamp pop originals. What’s the secret to writing a good swamp pop song?
Justus: Probably simplicity. It’s like writing a good rock ‘n roll song. Most swamp pop songs aren’t particularly labored over. It’s from the gut and from the heart. There aren’t a lot of swamp pop songs about politics or existential exploration.
AF: You had previously been in the Red Stick Ramblers,. The band played a mix of Western swing and early blues, but it was still identified with the Cajun revival. Did adding swamp pop to the mix mean you had to educate your audiences about a kind of music they might not have heard live before?
Justus: That comes just from the band being out there and showing people that we play all sorts of music that are all from same region. If you were in Louisiana you might go see a band that would play swamp pop and Cajun and zydeco, so it’s not like we’re in uncharted territory. We’re just doing what comes natural to us, and we were not necessarily conscious that we should be exploring these different genres, it’s just stuff that we like and we’re just trying to bring in a number of different influences. All the music we’re drawing from can be found within a 60 mile region.
AF: The band seems really committed to preserving the bilingual music tradition by singing in both English and French.
Justus: There are a ton of people who speak French around Lafayette, so we try to keep up with it. It’s not deliberate – we live in this place where people who go out and dance in a very functional way just about every night of the week, so what catches our ears when we’re at a dance or listening to the radio may be in English or it may be in French.
AF: What’s next for the band?
Justus: We’re actually working on Play the Swamp Pop Classics Volume 2. We’re gonna put the EP on vinyl, and keep those explorations of the past coming in between our records, which will have more originals. Even the EP’s artwork will be a throwback to the classic ’60s look.
Over the past 15 years Noah Schaffer has written about otherwise unheralded musicians from the worlds of gospel, jazz, blues, Latin, African, reggae, Middle Eastern music, klezmer, polka and far beyond. He has won over ten awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association.