Ebony & Ivory, Lowdown & Nasty

Revisiting a dirty bluesman's polk salad days

When Tony Joe White last played New York at Joe's Pub in September, his concert poster made him out to be a slick Stevie Ray Vaughn type. Not to fear though, as his sound had only grown more fierce in the four decades since his first singles. That night, White was less a white boy playing the blues and more like a white boy plying some sort of blue-green algae: verdant, dank, and—when he'd stomp on that telltale wah pedal of his (always credited as the "Whomper Stomper")—lowdown and nasty.

Born on a bayou (unlike that Berkeley-bred purveyor of a similar sound, John Fogerty) in Louisiana, White wound up in Nashville by the mid '60s, landing on Monument Records, which didn't quite know what to do with a fellow that emulated both Lightnin' Hopkins and Elvis. White, meanwhile, didn't quite know how to bridge the black and white within himself. It took rebirth via hearing Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" for Tony Joe to glean all them details of the Dirty South in song: cornpone, water "mossacins," rainy nights in Georgia, polk salad.

His earliest albums from 1969 and 1970 (Black and White, . . . Continued, and Tony Joe) are boxed on Swamp Music along with outtakes and sundry singles, all of it documenting such conflicts of the era. His first cut, "Willie and Laura Mae Jones," hinges on an idyllic line about sharecropping, when "You don't have time to think about another man's color." In the grooves themselves, his band battles with notions of Nashville's country cheese versus Memphis's soul grits, half of these albums unfortunately opting for Bacharach and "Wichita Lineman" over White's own whetted pen. The fourth disc unearths a rare acoustic set recorded in Paris—go figure that them frogs were the first to glean that Tony Joe was indeed truly "the Swamp Fox."

 
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