Tony Joe White's Steamy 'Hoodoo' Rock

Even if you haven't heard of Tony Joe White, you've probably heard his music. His songs have been performed by Elvis, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. He's even been sampled by Kanye West. Host Scott Simon talks with White about his distinctive swamp rock sound, and his new album, Hoodoo.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Tony Joe White is an original. Known for popularizing swamp music, he's written songs that were performed by Elvis, Ray Charles and Tina Turner. Kanye West has borrowed from him, too. His swamp rock sound is a mix of Delta blues, Cajun, country, and, of course, rock 'n' roll. Now, nearly 40 years after he started recording, Tony Joe White's latest album is out. It's called "Hoodoo." He joins us from Nashville. Thanks so much for being with us.

TONY JOE WHITE: Yeah, thank you. I'm glad to get down here.

SIMON: You know, before we get to this new CD, I wonder if we could start with your first real big U.S. hit, "Polk Salad Annie." Let's hear a bit if we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLK SALAD ANNIE")

WHITE: (Singing) I'm down in Louisiana with the alligators grow so mean, there lived a girl that I swear to the world made the alligators look tame. Polk salad Annie...

SIMON: Mr. White, what's polk salad?

WHITE: Polk salad is - I was raised on a little cotton farm down in Goodwill, Louisiana. And around that farm are the rivers and most (unintelligible) in that country. It grew wild, looked something like a turnip green leaf. My mother was boil it up and said it had a lot of vitamins in it, little cornbread and pepper sauce. It tastes good. The thing about polk, according to mama and all of them was when it's just fresh and young like that, you can eat it and then if you wait until you get those purple berries on it, it's poison. So, after you get that, no telling what it would do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POLK SALAD ANNIE")

WHITE: (Singing) Polk salad...

SIMON: How did Elvis wind up recording this?

WHITE: Well, Felton Jarvis, Elvis' producer, called me and he said we want to send an airplane down to Memphis to fly you and your wife out to Las Vegas and watch us record "Polk Salad Annie" live every night. He was really great to me. He really liked guitar players, and we would get in the dressing room each night and he had an acoustic guitar there. And he'd always want to hear a few blues licks, which the next night, he'd say, let me see those licks, and they never would come back out. So, I don't think they were sticking.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: Let's get into this new album of yours if you can. In fact, let's listen to a snippet of the first track. And this is a song called "Gift."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIFT")

WHITE: (Singing) Sitting in a graveyard late one night. I didn't know why. Had an old guitar, had a bottle of wine, digging, that moon hangin' in the sky...

SIMON: So, what makes you put a song in a graveyard?

WHITE: You know, I've always really believed in the spirits, you know, the spirit world. My mom's half-Cherokee and she taught us a lot of things like that. And I didn't mean for the song to go the way it did at the end, but as it turns out these people appear out of the fog and they start singing these words. And all of the sudden, the release comes on their faces because it was the very thing they was needing to quit being earthbound. So, they moved on.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GIFT")

WHITE: (Singing) They left this, the cold graveyard.

SIMON: How do you write most of your songs?

WHITE: I never know where they're going to come from. And I never know what they're going to be about, or nothing. It just kind of comes, maybe a guitar lick or a word. And then I'll usually go down by the river and build a little campfire and carry an acoustic guitar maybe and a few cold beers and just sit down and play that lick a few times and just, and just got to wait. You know, and then something come along, a line or two and maybe a week or two later another line. It's like something you don't' really push or think about. It's like a way of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: Let's listen to a bit of another one. This is "Nine Foot Sack."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NINE FOOT SACK")

WHITE: (Singing) Every nine-foot sack stretched on. Stay out in the field till the day is gone.

SIMON: This is a great song.

WHITE: Yeah, "Nine Foot Sack" is pretty well about - I was around 7 or 8 years old and (unintelligible) those periods picking a lot of cotton. Of seven kids, I was the youngest. And mom and dad and everybody got out and did it, you know. And then in the evening, sit on the porch and they'd play their guitars or little piano or something. I heard music all my life.

SIMON: And a nine-foot sack is what you were filling?

WHITE: Yeah. And I never did hear from anybody to tell me why it was nine foot. I mean...

SIMON: There goes my next question.

WHITE: I do know that when you filled it up, you had about 130 pounds in it. So, it was hard work but we had, you know, plenty to eat and horses to ride, things like that. So, we was probably poor - real poor- but nobody know or even think about it.

SIMON: Does a childhood spent filling cotton sacks - happy as it was, as you point out in many ways - make you determined to, if you got the talent, to be a musician or something else that's, you know, a little more indoor work, not so much heavy lifting?

WHITE: It really wasn't that heavy. And I would trade it over indoor work a million times. Because it was always raise up and feel a little breeze coming off the river and take your shirt off and get sunburned. And It was a real cool, laid back, kind of, like, molasses pouring out of a jar at times. Times moved real slow.

SIMON: All the artists that have covered you over the years, do you have a favorite?

WHITE: I would have to go back to my very first song that I had recorded by another artist, was Brook Benton doing "Rainy Night in Georgia."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA")

BROOK BENTON: (Singing) Heavy rain's a-falling, seems I hear your voice calling, it's all right. A rainy night in Georgia...

SIMON: It's a great song.

WHITE: And at that time, I never heard of nobody doing somebody else's song, you know. Until I heard him sing it, I didn't really learn how to sing it and I heard that. And I played it about 50 times in a row.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA")

WHITE: (Singing) Neon signs are flashing, taxicabs and busses passing through the night. The distant moaning of a train, seems to play a sad refrain to the night.

SIMON: So, when you look back at your "Polk Salad Annie" days, are you where you thought you might wind up?

WHITE: I'd never really given thought to where I'd be. I just always, once I started writing, getting all into the songs, I was where I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA")

WHITE: (Singing) You just got to do your own thing...

SIMON: Tony Joe White, speaking with us from the Spotland Studios in Nashville. His new album is "Hoodoo." Mr. White, thanks so much. It's been wonderful talking to you.

WHITE: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RAINY NIGHT IN GEORGIA")

WHITE: (Singing) Late at night when it's hard to rest, I hold your picture to my chest and I'm all right. A rainy night in Georgia, it's such a rainy night down in Georgia...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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