In 1974, middle school history teacher Johnnie Allan got a call from his old record producer, Floyd Soileau. “Johnnie, are you sitting down?” Allan recalls. “I just got wind from London. You got a hot song out there. They’re playing the hell out of it.”
That chart burner, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” was cut three years earlier at Soileau’s studio in Ville Platte and landed with a thud. Allan, a swamp pop pioneer, went back to work teaching Louisiana history at Acadian Elementary school on Moss Street, around the corner from where he now lives.
While Americans went for a version cut by Elvis in 1974, overseas hip Brits were all about Johnnie Allan and the new old sound. Ten years after The Beatles stormed America with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” swamp pop returned fire.
Allan’s second wind came by way of a British DJ, Charlie Gillett, and his release of Another Saturday Night, a compilation of tracks from the Louisiana dance scene of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s — somewhat mischaracterized as Cajun music. Gillett’s BBC radio show had a lockdown on English tastemakers, including a set of Americana-crazy artists who spearheaded a loose movement of back-to-basics rock bands known as “pub rock,” a half-sibling of the U.K. punk scene. Among the converted was producer and songwriter Nick Lowe, who is performing in Lafayette this Wednesday, kicking off the SOLO Songwriters Festival with a show at Warehouse 535.
Lowe and other London scenesters like Elvis Costello and Graham Parker listened religiously to Gillett’s show, finding immediate kinship in the blue-eyed groove, the self-effacing wit and the evident devotion to Fats Domino, Slim Harpo and Chuck Berry. The term “swamp pop” itself was coined by the British, specifically in a book about Louisiana music published in the 1970s.
“I suppose I heard it without really knowing what it was,” Lowe remembers. “What I couldn’t get was whether it was soul music or rock and roll.”
Lowe, known for penning classics like “Cruel to Be Kind” and “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” and steering the ship on Costello’s first five LPs, connected with the humor and aloofness of the imported tracks, mistakenly known to him and other Brits as a product of New Orleans.
“It’s sort of funny music. Not comedy,” he says. “But a kind of big heartedness that you didn’t hear in other genres. There’s a fine line between kind of corny and cool. And I suppose I try to do that in my own music.”
That corniness — the lounge lizard aesthetic, the shoe-polish hair — set swamp poppers apart in their native Louisiana and aged the genre out of favor in the ascent of the Cajun renaissance that began in the 1970s and crested into the ’80s and beyond. The sheer Americanization of musicians who cast aside, in most cases, singing in their native Cajun French to chase the rumble of rock and roll seemed out of place in a culture that rediscovered itself.
“People looked down on it; they thought those guys were corny and campy, which they kinda are,” says C.C. Adcock, a Lafayette native and producer who helped pull the genre out of the doldrums, celebrating it with Lil’ Band O’ Gold, an Acadiana supergroup that has featured swamp pop icons like Tommy McLain and Warren Storm. “They’re bad boys singing sweetly. It worked for Johnnie Allan. It worked for Keith Richards.”
But in the U.K., thanks to Gillett’s stewardship, swamp pop found a second life among kindred spirits. After that fateful call from Soileau, Allan was swept into a promo tour for Another Saturday Night, hopping the Atlantic during an Easter break at school. Over the next few decades, Allan would do dozens of tours in the U.K., following the spread of swamp pop fandom into continental Europe.
Costello, Lowe and others would cram into London’s pubs to hear Allan and multi-instrumentalist Harry Simoneaux, a frequent sideman — all the while seeding a cultural obsession for Louisiana’s peculiar, Francophone Americana among Brits for the next few decades. Before he married her, Lowe’s wife was obsessed with swamp pop and Cajun music. She took a pilgrimage to Eunice in the early 2000s, pounding on the door at KBON and becoming something of a town curiosity for a solid month.
For the most part, swamp pop can fly under the radar as Americana, save for the nasal Cajun drawl and the occasional accordion solo. Belton Richard, another Cajun spotlit on Another Saturday Night, threw an accordion rip on top of Allan’s “Promised Land,” as sort of a last minute addition, Allan says. The whole track, in fact, was an afterthought, album filler cooked up at the 11th hour.
“The song is strong, but the accordion ride is what sells it,” Allan chuckles. “It made the English ears perk up.”
Another Saturday Night started a musical conversation. In 1979, Allan recorded a version of “I Knew the Bride,” a Lowe tune popularized by his frequent co-conspirator Dave Edmunds. Edmunds and Lowe’s short-lived cult act Rockpile often played a searing rendition of “Promised Land,” more akin to the Chuck Berry original, a fact documented on a Rockpile live record released in 1980.
That exchange hasn’t let up. Adcock, who signed to seminal British record label Island Records as a teenager in the 1980s — long before it was Island/DefJam — was stunned to find the currency of swamp pop hits among English tastemakers. He befriended Lowe and Costello — Adcock arranged Lowe’s performance in Lafayette — in part because they spoke the same musical language, the grammar of which spun out of the early rock and roll era of the 1950s.
“It’s Chuck Berry, it’s Slim Harpo, it’s Fats Domino,” Adcock says. “That’s the secret handshake that gets you in the cool club.”
Both Lowe and Costello contributed work to a forthcoming record by McLain, shepherded by Adcock. Costello penned a gothic R&B murder ballad, delivered by email, and offered up a bittersweet chorus for another track. Lowe punched up some lyrics for another tune. McLain and Adcock are opening Lowe’s show this week. Allan plans to be there, reconnecting with an old pal in Lowe.
That relationship began with “Promised Land” almost 50 years ago. Allan spent decades chasing what ultimately was a flash-in-the-pan for him, in terms of notoriety. Swamp pop artists, despite rabid pockets of aficionados and record collectors across the world, remain relatively obscure in the annals of rock and roll, overshadowed by titans like Berry or Domino or the King himself. But the track gave Allan the ride of his life, a reason to quit teaching high school and never look back.
Allan spent years searching for another “Promised Land,” trying to find a track that would make the same waves across international waters, he says. “I never could.”
Nick Lowe performs Wednesday May 22 at Warehouse 535. Tickets are available via www.solosongwriters.com